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It’s Not Your Mother’s Tapioca

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Planted in a shady area, cassava gives the garden a lush, tropical look.
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Cassava, manioc, mandioca, yuca, gari, tapioca,
farine — all are synonyms that in parts of the world refer to
Manihot esculenta. This remarkable plant ranks fourth in the
world’s agriculture, behind rice, sugar and corn, and grows
throughout the tropical world, thus accounting for its many names.
The most popular common name for Manihot esculenta is cassava, and
the plant likely had its origins in South America, according to the
early history of Brazil. When the Portuguese arrived in the 15th
century, they found the starchy tubers a vital part of the
culture.

This root food isn’t one that can go directly from the garden to
the mouth. The tuber’s juice contains hydrocyanic acid (HCN),
commonly called cyanide or prussic acid. If this acid is not
removed or neutralized, it can cause death by cyanide poisoning.
Recipes refer to bitter cassava (M. esculenta) and a related
species, called sweet cassava (M. dulcis), with smaller roots, but
research at the University of Florida shows that there is some
hydrocyanic acid in all cassava plants.

According to folklore, the Brazilian Indians worked out a simple
system to remove the cyanide-laden acid: the women chewed the
tubers! The mastication released the acid in the juice, which the
women then spit out. The soft, well-chewed tubers were spread out
to dry, then grated to a meal-like consistency. Happily, safer and
more sanitary methods are now used to process cassava for food
products.

In addition to providing a small amount of protein, the tubers
have been an important source of nutritious carbohydrates for
hundreds of years. They remain an important part of the diet of
many cultures in the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and Central and
South America.

AS A TREE OR SHRUB

Cassava grows to 7 or 8 feet tall as a small tree or shrub in
Zone 8. The showy, dark green leaves are deeply parted into three
to 10 lobes, all on the same plant. The flowers are nondescript but
produce six angled, winged seeds. Cassava freezes to the ground
here in Central Texas, but rebounds in spring. The roots and tubers
are both “walkers and creepers” that can, after a few years, fill
in an area, particularly if there is good drainage. Cassava makes a
fine container plant but will need winter protection if
temperatures drop much below freezing. Planted in a shady area,
cassava gives the garden a lush, tropical look.

M. e. ‘Variegata’ is a golden-hued plant with leaves shaped like
the workhorse green-leaved cassava. The leaf colorings are
chartreuse, light green and yellow, and white lobes sometimes
appear. This plant is a ray of light that brightens the patio, a
sheltered spot in the garden, a large sunny window in winter or in
the greenhouse. Here in Round Top, we rely on its bright, colorful
leaves during the dark and dreary days of winter. Our M. e.
‘Variegata’ is growing in an 18-inch container where it maintains
its growth at about 5 feet. We keep it in the greenhouse in winter
so we can enjoy its beauty year-round. The tubers of this cultivar
are not generally harvested.

GROWING YOUR OWN

Cassava is easy to propagate from a 6- to 8-inch cutting taken
from a branch of a plant. Strip leaves from the lower part of the
stem so at least two leaf nodes can be inserted into the soil. It
is not necessary to use a rooting hormone. Place several cuttings
in a 6- or 8-inch container filled with moist potting soil, and set
the pot where it is protected from harsh sunlight. When the
cuttings have rooted they should be transplanted into separate
containers with good potting soil. The rooted cuttings should be
transplanted in the spring to normal garden soil. If growing in a
container, transplant to larger sizes as needed; fertilize with a
balanced formula, as for most potted herbs.

Little maintenance is required to keep cassava looking well.
Windy days may break the brittle leaves or branches, making them
look ragged, but they easily can be removed. New growth quickly
makes the tree a nice tropical specimen again.

COOKING WITH THE TUBERS

Although we have grown cassava for many years, we don’t normally
dig the tubers because we are fortunate to have the fresh and dried
forms (usually labeled “yuca”) available in our local markets when
needed. The simplest method for rendering cassava safe to consume
is by cooking the tubers thoroughly; any usual method — boiling,
frying or baking — will remove the troublesome acid. The fibrous
peeling, which also contains HCN, must be removed, but the tubers
may be left whole or cut into chunks or sliced to cook. A tough,
fibrous core — similar to that sometimes found in large carrots —
may be present and should be removed before cooking to ensure
tenderness. Contrary to most information we found, 1-inch pieces
only took about 15 minutes to cook on the stove. Most recipes say
cassava must be cooked for hours, but the recipe we found refers to
huge tubers, which are not seen in our produce markets. The flavor
of cooked cassava is quite intriguing: similar to white potato and
slightly sweet but not overpowering in savory dishes.

Another traditional method to render the cassava safe to eat is
to grate the peeled raw tubers and squeeze the juice from the
flesh, thus releasing the HCN. This technique is much safer than
that practiced by early Indian women in South America and the
Caribbean! The grated raw flesh is primarily cooked for a variety
of flat breads or might be dried, creating the meal form, which is
toasted and used for many delicious dishes in Latin cuisines. Note:
Do not consume — or even taste — any cassava tuber in its raw
state.

The dried meal may be ground into smooth flour, allowing cassava
to be used in other baked goods. Rarely do any traditional breads
or baked desserts with cassava use leavening of any type, including
eggs. Cassava contains no gluten and might be appealing for people
on gluten-free diets.

No matter the method used to process cassava for the table, the
juice is not considered a waste product. It is the primary
ingredient of the popular Caribbean condiment called cassareep,
which is available in some ethnic markets or by mail order.
Cassareep is one of the oldest seasonings in Caribbean cuisines,
lending a flavor that is difficult to describe — extremely sweet,
yet bitter. The juice is combined with brown sugar, cinnamon,
cloves and other secret ingredients. Cooked down to a thick liquid,
cassareep is highly valued as a seasoning in classic pepper pot
soup, as well as other soups, stews and vegetables dishes. Some
recipes for pepper pot call for plain, cooked-down cassava juice,
with brown sugar and spices added. Pepper pot soup and other thick
stews are a traditional part of the cuisine throughout the
Caribbean and certain areas of South America, and many feature
cassava shreds or chunks. In most countries, after the meat is
served, it is a tradition to save some of the cooking liquid to
start the next pepper pot. There are tales of pots of soup cooking
continuously on the back of the stove for more than 100 years.

OTHER USES AROUND THE WORLD

While cassava is grown for both human and animal consumption, it
is also a major source of commercial starch. Cassava starch is used
in prepared foods, soft drinks, high-fructose syrup, alcohol,
textiles, adhesives, paper manufacturing and in the pharmaceutical
industry. While folklore likely exists for uses of cassava to
alleviate pain and foster human comfort, valid medicinal uses for
cassava are not well-documented.

For a plant so widely known in most of the world, it is
interesting that in the United States, except for immigrants from
the Caribbean and some parts of Africa and South America, we
generally know only about tapioca, and little at that. Tapioca is
gelatinized cassava starch prepared from moist cassava flour heated
in shallow pans, causing the wet starch to bind together into
beads; it is also forced through a sieve, much like making
spaetzle. The beads are dried and packaged as tapioca, to be cooked
with sugar, milk or fruit juice. Egg is sometimes added to enrich
the bland flavor, along with various spices, fruits and nuts.
Tapioca makes a delicious old-fashioned pudding, one long
associated with childhood comfort food.

Grated fresh, dried as a meal or ground into a fine flour,
cassava is primarily used for making flat breads in much of the
tropical world. The meal is called farine in Dominica and used in a
thin batter, which is cooked on a griddle like pancakes. The grated
fresh tuber is sometimes mixed with salt, pepper and a bit of lime
juice, then made into a patty and fried in butter until crusty. In
Haiti, the flat bread is called pain de kassav.

In Jamaica, bammies are a popular street food. They are a thick
pancake made by compressing grated fresh cassava into a round,
metal bammie mold. Cooked on a griddle until crispy on the outside
and moist inside, bammies are excellent hot, but most often are
eaten cold as a street food. Some young and trendy Jamaican chefs
cut their bammies into shapes of stars and batons. Fried and served
as an accompaniment to more modern dishes, bammies for the new
millennium are being introduced with great pride.

All these simple breads are usually patted into a thin cake and,
whether made from fresh or dried cassava, most are cooked the
old-fashioned way on an open-air griddle or skillet. In some parts
of Africa, a bread called gari is made from raw, grated cassava
meal that is fermented, giving the bread a sour taste, not unlike
sourdough bread. Gari foto is the toasted meal cooked with onions,
tomatoes and scrambled eggs, producing an excellent brunch or lunch
dish.

Another traditional use of toasted cassava meal is the national
dish of Brazil, called feijoada completa. Pronounced “fejwada,”
this hearty dish is not unlike the cassoulet of France, in that it
always has several kinds of meat, such as fresh or dried beef,
pork, lamb, sausage, bacon, chorizo and smoked sausage. Beef tongue
and pig’s feet or ears are often added to the pot, plus dried black
beans. The meats are cooked separately, then arranged on a large
serving platter. The beans are usually prepared with part of the
meats and accompany the feijoada, along with shredded kale or
collard greens, rice steamed with tomatoes and onions, and sliced
tomatoes and oranges, all served in separate bowls. The crowning
finale for feijoada is the generous topping of farinha de mandioca,
or toasted manioc meal. The last garnish to this stupendous dish is
olives and hard-cooked eggs, for another layer of flavor, texture
and color.

Young, tender cassava leaves are utilized as a potherb in many
cultures. They are prepared in a manner similar to spinach leaves,
resulting in tasty and nutritious dishes and adding valuable
protein to many cultures’ diets. Care must be taken to eliminate
toxic compounds during cooking by draining water and adding fresh
water several times. We must confess that we have not ventured
there yet.

Cassava is probably a foreign word to most readers, but we hope
that you are sufficiently intrigued to seek out the plants and
fresh tubers, as well as meal and flour of this most basic and
ancient food of the New World. Experience them in your garden and
kitchen and move beyond tapioca!

Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are a mother/daughter team who
cook and garden at the Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas.
Madalene is the curator of the gardens and Gwen is the director of
food service.

Recipes

ROSEMARY TAPIOCA CREAM WITH DATES AND WALNUTS

Makes 6 to 8 generous servings

This adaptation for herb lovers is the ultimate comfort food.
Serve it as a dessert.

1 egg white
6 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 tablespoons dry tapioca
2 cups milk
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten.
2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest, colored portion only
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup coarsely chopped or broken walnuts
1/2 pint whipped cream

In a medium bowl, beat egg white with electric mixture until
frothy. Gradually add 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating
until soft peaks form; set aside.

Mix tapioca, remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, egg yolk and
rosemary in a medium saucepan. Let stand for 5 minutes for tapioca
to soften. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until
mixture comes to a full rolling boil. Remove pan from heat; quickly
stir in egg white mixture until well blended. Stir in orange zest
and vanilla extract. Mixture will thicken as it cools.

In a 2-quart bowl, preferably of clear glass, spread about a
third of tapioca mixture, and top with almost half of dates and
walnuts. Add another third of tapioca, top with most of remaining
dates and walnuts. Add final layer of tapioca and remaining dates
and walnuts. Serve warm or chilled, topped with a dollop of whipped
cream.

Variations: Substitute apple, mango, orange or pineapple juice
for milk. Compliment with different herbs and spices, such as
cinnamon, sweet or lemon basil, lemon verbena, orange mint,
spearmint and lemon thyme. Add mild herbs, such as basil, after
tapioca has cooled slightly to retain its flavor. Assemble tapioca
mixture in bowl with fresh or canned fruit and chopped nuts.

CARIBBEAN CHICKEN STEW

Serves 6 to 8

This stew is inspired by the many versions of pepper pot soup
found on all the islands. The exact quantity of vegetables is not
critical, as long as they are as plentiful as the chicken and the
broth is very rich.

1 whole fryer chicken (3 to 31/2 pounds), cut into 8 serving
pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, mashed
1 large green or red bell pepper, cored, seeded and coarsely
chopped
2 cups diced ripe, fresh tomatoes or 1 (24-ounce) can diced
tomatoes
3 to 4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
4 sprigs (4- to 6-inches long) each oregano* and thyme
1 pound each butternut squash, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes and
cassava tubers, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2
cups each)
2 to 3 small dried hot red chiles or fresh hot chiles, to
taste
11/2 to 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 firmly packed cup slivered kale, spinach, green chard or
collards (tough center stems removed)
3/4 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lime
Cassava meal if available, toasted in butter until golden
Chopped fresh parsley and/or cilantro for garnish

Rinse chicken pieces well and place in a large pot (a Dutch oven
works well and can be used at the table), along with onions,
garlic, bell pepper, tomatoes and seasonings — except hot chiles.
Cover with cold water, to a depth of about 2 inches above chicken
and vegetables. Bring ingredients to a boil, reduce heat and cover;
cook for 30 to 45 minutes, or until chicken is tender. Add more
water as required to keep it about 2 inches above ingredients. Lift
out chicken pieces at this point; set aside and keep warm. The meat
may be removed from bones if desired.

Add butternut squash, sweet and white potatoes, and cassava to
broth; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Cover pan and
cook until vegetables are tender, stirring carefully. Add chiles,
corn and coconut milk, bringing liquid to a boil. Add slivered
greens of choice, along with salt and pepper to taste; cook just
until greens are wilted. Return chicken to pan, cooking briefly to
heat throughout. Add lime juice and top with toasted cassava meal
and chopped fresh herbs.

* We prefer cooking with a mild oregano such as Origanum
majoricum, but a very robust Greek type, O. vulgare or O. onites,
or Spanish thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus) with the same flavor,
would be more traditional in the Caribbean.

CASSAVA FRIES WITH DIPPING SAUCES

Serves 4 to 6

Serve these yummy fries with your choice of tangy, savory
dipping sauces.

2 pounds small cassava tubers
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt

Peel cassava and cut into 1/2- by 3-inch pieces. Rinse under
cold water, pat dry with paper towels.

In a heavy cast-iron pot or a deep fryer, heat 2 inches of oil
for frying to 350 to 375 degrees. Add a few cassava slices at a
time into the bubbling oil, turning carefully to brown evenly on
all sides. Remove the pieces with a slotted spoon and drain on
paper towels. Lightly salt the cassava and keep warm. Continue
frying remaining cassava. Note: Extra-large tubers may require
parboiling in order to ensure tenderness.

CITRUS SAUCE

Makes about 11/2 cups

Great for dipping cassava fries into, you also may want to try
using this as a marinade for poultry and meats, or as a dressing on
salad greens and vegetable salads. It makes a delicious dipping
sauce for raw and fried vegetables, as well as fried and grilled
chicken and shrimp.

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 to 2 teaspoons chopped, fresh hot chiles, such as habañero or
serrano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in food processor, mixing until finely
chopped. Check seasoning and add more chile, salt or pepper as
needed.

CAPER-LEMON THYME RÉMOULADE SAUCE

Makes about 2 cups

This recipe is a variation of our favorite rémoulade sauces of
the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast and can be used with the Cassava
Fries or served with seafood.

2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed with 1/2 teaspoon salt
11/2 tablespoons Creole or Dijon mustard
11/2 cups mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
11/2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh lemon thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon small capers (chop if using large capers)

Combine all ingredients in a medium non-reactive bowl, mixing
lightly. Taste for salt and hotness; adjust seasonings as needed.
Sauce is best if prepared at least 4 hours before serving but can
be made several days ahead; store in the refrigerator. Allow sauce
to come to room temperature to serve with Cassava Fries or hot
dishes. Sauce may be warmed in a bowl set over hot water, stirring
several times. Sauce is delicious as a topping or dressing with
seafood, served both chilled and warm.

Published on Jun 1, 2005

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