Sunday, April 18, 2010

Good Enough to Eat

The East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest, Europe, and now the Caribbean. By making my home in a number of locales, I've inadvertently developed effective approaches to familiarizing myself with a new place, both in a cultural and a geographical sense. Specifically, I keep three acclimatization traditions:
1. Eating and cooking local cuisine
2. Visiting and joining the local library, and
3. Taking very long walks (locally).
Let us begin with the most edible of these methods: food! Glorious food!

When I visited my folks in St. Thomas last fall, I asked them if we could try some of the traditional cuisine of the island. They seemed a little unsure about what that meant having barely sampled it themselves, other than the pates my Dad would buy from a food truck on his lunch breaks. So pate it was, which was fine by me, especially once I learned that Caribbean pate is not to be confused with French pâté, a substance I've had a hard time stomaching ever since gorging myself on the fatty meat paste during a week-long stay in the foie gras capital of France (where I swear to God they eat that crap for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, afternoon and midnight snacks). Here, pate is something quite different (and more attractive): a pastry stuffed with ground beef, pork, chicken, fish or vegetables and then deep fried. In essence, a super awesome homemade hot pocket. Behold:

The truck my Dad usually buys his pate from had run out of them by the time we got there, so we resigned ourselves to the not-as-good-and-more-expensive pate joint to find some. And my Dad was right: I could tell these pate were not as good even without ever had pate before, simply because they could've been much better. I mean, how on Earth do you screw up a DEEP FRIED MEAT POCKET? Anything containing that much grease should be delicious every time guaranteed, no excuses. But alas, it was nothing to write home about, and my very first experience with Caribbean cuisine was a flop. 
Six months passed, I made the move down here, and I'm currently (and happily) already I'm up to my neck in traditional grub. This time around, I dove right into learning about the local chow. And what better place to begin a quest for knowledge than at my most favorite of all social institutions, the public library!

The Enid M. Baa Public Library, 20 Dronningens Gade, St. Thomas

Ah, yes, the llibrary, my home away from home. This is currently the only library on St. Thomas, though a new one is in the works. It's named for this super groovy lady, Enid M. Baa, who basically did tons of work to improve the libraries on all three Virgin Islands, beginning in the mid-Thirties all the way up to the Seventies. Upon viewing the condition of the books at this branch, I quickly concluded the other librarians kinda dropped the ball since her retirement. With great sadness and profound disappointment, I must report that the books there are old, out of date, falling apart, and in short supply. There is no trace of an AV section in any form. This library needs money and someone who gives a damn. It quickly became clear that our library patronage was vastly underappreciated when the grouchy librarian served us major McTude with fries when we applied for our cards.
Of the five books I checked out during that first visit (it would've been more but five is the limit, mind you), none were the Caribbean cookbooks I had gone there to find. Why not? Because they didn't have any. That's right, a library in the Caribbean can't even rustle up one stinking volume about Caribbean cuisine. Sure, they had used David Baldacci bestsellers out the ass but not a single local cookbook. I told you it was bad. But more on that later.
When we got home, my mother consoled me by offering the two Caribbean cookbooks from her collection, "The Book of Caribbean Cooking" and my personal favorite, "Morgan Freeman & Friends: Caribbean Cooking for a Cause" (a steal on Amazon for just 9 cents). The former of the two is very straight forward and also contains pretty good photographs, which any cookbook must have to make it even worth picking up. I quickly bookmarked a dozen recipes and jotted down my shopping list.
"Morgan Freeman & Friends" was not as easy to get into. First, I had to get past the initial embarrassment of reading a cookbook involving Morgan Freeman. When I finally was able to muster the courage to take a gander at it (and had made sure no one else was around to point and laugh at me), I nearly ended up slamming the book shut after 2 minutes. You see, the people presented as being Morgan Freeman's so-called "friends" are just a bunch of super rich a-hole celebrities who like to spend their bazillions of dollars at crazy fancy restaurants in the Caribbean where they dine on food that costs more than your life.
"Disgusting!" I thought to myself, as I furiously turned the pages. "Stupid Morgan Freeman and his stupid friends! I hate them! What, with them and all their moneybags and me with my none. It makes me sick!"
*Pages still furiously being turned*
"And to think I would put myself in the vulnerable position of possibly having someone see me looking at a Morgan Freeman bookHELLLLLL-OOOOOO there............................."

Orlando Bloom, Put me in a vulnerable position.

I had turned the page once more and there he was. Orlando Bloom, the hunkiest of all hunks, a god among men, pensively staring at his perfect feet on a beach in Dominica. By harnessing my powers of imagination and desire, the word "Dominica" vanished and the letters spelling out "St. Thomas" appeared.
And so, loyal readers, this is how I came to submit to learning about Caribbean Cuisine from Morgan Freeman. And his stupid celebrity friends.

Exhibit A: Ben Affleck
Who looks rather pissed about vacationing in Turks and Caicos. According to the text, Ben Affleck first became interested in Caribbean culture due to his love of Bob Marley, which he developed during his high school years. It goes on to quote him as saying "At one time, I truly wanted to develop a television series like Flipper so that I could spend months at a time there." Can you imagine? The fact that Ben Affleck's dolphin sitcom dreams never came to fruition is proof that there is a God, Orlando be Thy name.
The book had all the obligatory celebrity appearances:

Tim Robbins, who looks like hell I might add, complete with "Shawshank Redemption" references, having some phony conversation with Morgan Freeman and the chef of The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Since when did Randy Quaid become head chef at The Four Seasons, I want to know.

Tom Hanks, looking uber-creepy with that slicked back hairdo and his handicapped Dick Cheney smile

And, of course, the ultimate obligatory celebrity...

Kevin "I'm such a rock star that I'll stick my chair right in the middle of the surf and No! I don't give a damn if my jeans get soaked, in fact I want them to get soaked because I am that Rock-n-Roll" Bacon

Don't even get me started on the Raven Symone photos, which look so much like a Walmart Juniors department clothing ad it makes me ashamed that her sad career ever existed. Or the New Age crystal Terence Howard is pictured as wearing around his neck. Or, and I can barely type this without dry heaving, the Kenny Chesney Key Lime Pie Recipe. Okay, okay, I've made my point: rich people are stupid jerks because they're rich and stupid. Enough is enough.
Back to the recipes.
I must admit there are some good ones in there. Here is the first one I tackled, with some tweaking due to personal preferences or lack of exact ingredients.

Caribbean Red Snapper and Shrimp with Honey-Roasted Plantain & Pumpkin And Spicy Papaya Relish

2 Filets Freshly Caught Red Snapper (preferably purchased off the back of a pick-up truck)
A Dozen pre-cooked frozen shrimp, thawed
4 Tablespoons Garlic and Herb-Infused Olive Oil (Recipe Follows)
3 Tablespoons Caribbean Dry Spice Rub (Recipe Follows)
Sea Salt
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Juice of 2 limes

Garlic and Herb-Infused Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
4 Cloves Garlic, chopped
1 Sprig Fresh Rosemary, chopped
1 Tablespoon Thyme leaves, chopped

Caribbean Dry Spice Rub
2 Tablespoons Ground Allspice
1 Tablespoon Ground Cumin
1 Tablespoon Paprika (Smoked Spanish if you got it)
1 Tablespoon Chili Powder

Roasted Plantains & Pumpkin
1 Large Plantain, peeled and cut into 1" pieces
1 Large Pumpkin Wedge, chopped into 1" cubes
2 Tablespoons Honey thinned with 2 Tablespoons Fruit Juice of your choosing
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
Sea salt

Spicy Papaya Relish
3 cups Papaya, peeled and diced
1/4 cup Fresh Cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup Red Onion, chopped
3 Seasoning or Jalapeño Peppers, chopped
2 Tablespoons Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Juice of 2 Limes
Sea Salt
Ground Black Pepper

To Make the Snapper:
Preheat a charcoal or gas grill until very hot for 15 minutes. Wash the filets and pat dry. Lightly brush both sides with the oil, then rub both sides with the spice rub. Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Do the same with the shrimp. Place the filets on the grill rack (or in a fish-grilling basket as I did, to prevent sticking) and cover the grill. Cook for 7 minutes on both sides, adding the shrimp for the last few minutes of cook time. Remove from heat and serve on a bed of Roasted Plantains & Pumpkin and Spicy Papaya Relish, drizzling with the remaining lime juice and oil.

To Make the Olive Oil:
In a small saucepan, combine the oil, garlic, rosemary, and thyme, and heat on the lowest possible stovetop setting for 5 minutes, or until warm (do not boil). Remove from heat and set aside to cool until ready to use.
To Make the Rub:
In a small bowl, combine the allspice, cumin, paprika, chili powder, and mix well. Store any leftover rub in a tightly covered container for up to 2 months.
To Make the Plantains & Pumpkin:
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a medium bowl, toss the plantains and pumpkin with the honey mixture and olive oil, and lightly season with the sea salt. Place in a shallow baking dish, cover with foil, and roast for 30-40 minutes or until very tender. Keep covered until ready to serve.
To Make the Papaya Relish: (my favorite part of the meal)
In a large bowl, combine the papaya, cilantro, onion, peppers, and lime juice and toss gently. Season to taste with the sea salt and black pepper, then cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Et voila!
Dig In.

And now for some gratuitious photographs of Orlando Bloom.

Yes...                                                                                                                                       YES....

NO!                                                                                                                                              NO!

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