Caribbean cuisine

Fri. March 18, 2016 12:00 AM
by Ross Forman

I had never made ceviche. In fact, I wasn't 100 percent certain exactly what ingredients I'd need to make this popular Latin American seafood dish that traditionally involves fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as limes, along with spices and more.

Oh yeah, ceviche also needs onion slices, a pinch of garlic and a splash or two of salt, and more.

As I stood in the kitchen of The Social Table (819 W. Armitage) in Chicago, I watched two professional, full-time chefs from Aruba prepare ceviche. They explained everything that they were including and about how much was needed, give or take. Of course they made it look so easy.

Then it was my turn – and I didn't have a lifeline to call or text chef friends, such as Tad Markley or Arnold Myint, and I'm sure either would have thought I was drunk with such a cooking question.

Ceviche is ...fish, salt, lime juice and slices of onions to get it going. A few more spices, some cut, flavored pieces of sweet potatoes and even some cooked nuts completed the dish. At least that's the dish, cooked Aruban style.

Romeo Penacino, the executive sous chef from the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino's, made his way over to my bowl of ceviche, made with love. He tried one spoonful, then another. Penacino shook his head in approval, and commented, "You like it spicy."

That I do.

And so started my dinner adventure on behalf of the Aruba Marriott, as representatives were in town on March 1. There was a chill in the air, snow on the ground that Tuesday night, though the temperature back in Aruba was in the 80s, without a cloud in the sky, naturally.

The evening started with a cocktail from the island country in the Caribbean before sampling a variety of traditional Aruban appetizers, highlighted by a mango and seafood mix that, well, I wanted second, thirds and fourths. It was that good.

It was first time for an Aruba Arriba, which was a first for me. In fact, I had never heard of it, nor did I have any idea what it featured. I figured it'd be something sweet and flavorful, and that it was. The Aruba Arriba features one ounce of rum, one ounce of vodka, half an ounce of banana liquor, along with orange juice and pineapple juice. Instructions state, do not shake, just stir lightly. Of course it should be garnished with a cherry and orange, and topped with Grand Marnier and a creative toothpick.

I was given an Aruba Arriba to sample and asked, "How is it?" Mind you, the "bartender" for my drink admitted that she had never made one herself either. Clearly, I was the guinea pig.

One taste and I knew it needed something: ice.

An Aruba Arriba needed to be chilled, I said – and they confirmed it. So ice was quickly brought over.

That worked, and I quickly, and properly, was enjoying the sweet drink.

Appetizers were plentiful and tasty, particularly the breaded mozzarella square. (Not sure the Aruban tie to that, but it was yummy.)

Dinner for me and this crew of invited guests for family-style, with a variety of Aruban delights, such as, keshi yena, cabrito stoba (goat stew) with funchi (polenta), and sweet & spicy lobster, among other dishes.

"Aruban food is a mix of cultures – from Europe and Latin America," said Teddy Bouroncle, the executive chef at the Aruba Marriott, who was visiting Chicago for the first time ever. He arrived a few days earlier, bringing with him 10 years of culinary experience. He is a Peru native who has cooked all over the world, from Columbia to Spain, Singapore to the U.S.

"One thing you definitely will enjoy (eating) in Aruba is, fresh fish. Restaurants around Aruba get fish out of the (local) water and then just prepare it."

Bouroncle and Penacino both bragged about the sweet & spicy lobster and I'll admit, it was good ...I just wish it was easier to score the meat from the shell, as I didn't want to use my hands at the table, though it was very tempting.

Dinner also included coconut rice, which was good, and red snapper with coconut milk, another tasty treat. There were two salads which, well, seemed to be quite American, not quite Aruban – but the large chunks of fresh avocado and tomatoes and more were excellent.

Bouroncle said Chicago "has really nice restaurants," which we all know – and everyone here has, oh, 10 favorites, or more. For steaks, Chicagoans love this place, for seafood it's that place, pasta, sushi, etc., etc., etc.

Bouroncle said his favorite Chicago restaurant that he visited was the popular Girl & The Goat, located at 809 W. Randolph St. Girl & The Goat opened in 2010 and offers a family-style menu with a wide range of wine, plus great craft beers, and more. "The food there was amazing," Bouroncle said.

He also visited Eately, the marketplace-style restaurant for all things Italian, located at 43 E. Ohio St.

My Aruban dinner was followed by dessert, naturally – and the tatalia de pinda was amazing. It's meatball-sized peanut butter balls, topped with homemade whipped cream and mixed berries. I wanted seconds!

"The food is amazing in Chicago, and the city too," Bouroncle said.

But he didn't try any Chicago pizza. Not even one slice of Lou Malnati's deep-dish pizza. That's not right.

So, I guess I'll have to challenge Bouroncle and Penacino to a ceviche-style cook-off when I visit Aruba this spring for an On The Go column. Yep, we'll cook on their home turf, in their kitchen. And we're making Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza. Better yet, they cook and I'll be the judge. Time to bring out my inner Tom Colicchio.