Guacho de Mariscos
I first came across guacho (pronounced, WAH-cho) at the fish market in Panama City, where there is a restaurant on a sort of mezzanine sitting above the vendors. Guacho is a rice porridge, almost like a risotto, but made from regular, extra-long grain white rice. The rice is soaked in water for a couple of hours before being simmered in a seafood stock for a few hours, until the grains give up almost all their starch, and expand by about three times. The base flavors come from a sofrito, and the porridge is studded with bite-sized pieces of seafood, mostly shellfish. Guacho is a classic Panamanian dish, usually cooked for holidays (especially lent) and other festive occasions, but some families will chow down on this during once-a-week get togethers. This is a dish from the coastal regions of Panama, where fishermen’s families could stretch a little of bit of their catch into a meal for a large extended family. There are only a few recipes available online, so I took what little information there was, and grafted it to a base of asopao de mariscos recipes I was able to find. Asopao is a rice-based seafood soup found mostly in the Latin Caribbean, and is something I was somewhat familiar with from growing up in NYC. The key here is slowly simmering the rice in the seafood-flavor liquid to coax the starches out of the rice and marry all the flavors. The seafood itself is almost a garnish, put in at the end for just enough time for it to cook through. This is a meal in and of itself, and the only additions I recommend are fresh lime juice and some hot sauce.
As usual, I went about creating the guacho with a mix of recipes, use of classic technique and memories of the eating the dish. I went to the local fish market and picked up a three pound octopus and a pound of shrimp (shells on), half of each which were used for a ceviche. I also got a small amount of bay scallops (the small guys), some squid (calamar), a handful each of small clams and mussels and a whole, farmed-raised sea bass, filleted (I asked for the bones for my stock). Everything else I had in the pantry or fridge.
It is possible that guacho is related to paella, as the both are seafood based rice dishes, with a marked yellow/orange color to the dish. The color in guacho comes from a native source, much less costly and rare than the Spanish saffron used in paella. The annatto seed (or achiote) is used as a natural food dye in most of the Caribbean, and found its way to Panama, which is in many ways is a Caribbean nation. To extract the color from the seed, I heated up enough canola oil to cover the bottom of my dutch oven, and added a palmful of seeds.
Shake them around a little, and in a few minutes the oil takes on a reddish tone. You will also notice a nutty, earthy aroma as the seeds start to darken.
At this point, scoop the seeds out and discard. You now have achiote oil.
The next step is to build some flavor into the base in which the rice will simmer so we don’t end up with red gruel. Here we use a standard Panamanian sofrito. I chopped up some red bell and cubanelle peppers, celery and onion, and passed a handful of garlic cloves through my press.
These go into the hot achiote oil, along with a handful of chopped culantro.
The heat breaks down some of the cell walls of the vegetables and releases the moisture trapped within, making it look like the vegetables are sweating - this takes about five minutes. The vegetables should not start to brown.
Next, I tossed in the mussels and clams.
My thought here was to get as much flavor out of them as possible and into the flavor base. I think if I added them into the rice, the flavor would get lost and not be intensified. I put a little bit of the stock into the pot to give the bivalves something to steam in. Cover the pot, and check every 30 seconds, or so. As they open, make sure they lose their raw appearance, and pop them out into a bowl. You can knock them and shake them around a bit to coax them open.
At this point, the apartment was smelling really good, and I had barely begun to start cooking. Notice to liquid in the pot now – that came from the shellfish and tastes real good.
The last element of the flavor base is a small can of regular tomato sauce. This adds some more color, a bit of richness and a hint of vegetal flavor to the finished dish. The bay leaf adds some earthiness and a slight bitter undertone. We are building flavor here, which is what cooking stews and soups is really about.
Next we pitch in the yucca. This was an interesting touch I read in the one recipe I was able to find. The recipe suggested using cooked yucca or green plantains at the end of cooking to thicken up the guacho. I thought it made more sense to put the yucca in raw, and let the starches breakdown along with the rice. In the end, I didn’t need the extra thickener, but I like the chew that the yucca gave to the almost creamy end product. Also, it gave an echo to the potatoes in a clam chowder, which connection I liked.
Next went in the rice, and a small bottle of clam juice to fortify the steamed shellfish and fish stock.
At this point, I added enough fish stock to cover by about an inch and brought to a low simmer. Here is where I started to make the risotto connection, as I had to stir the pot fairly often to prevent the rice from scorching on the bottom of the pot and add ladlefuls of stock to the rice, as it absorbed the liquid.
Once almost all the rice has expanded to above three times its original size, and the guacho has a fairly creamy consistency, stir in all the seafood, and continue to simmer for about 10 minutes, until the seafood is cooked.
Hit with a couple of limes and some fresh culantro, and you are ready to go.
This pot yielded about 12 healthy serving, most of which are sitting in freezer bags in my freezer.