Category Archives: entertaining

Armchair Travelling in the Kitchen

 

I know I won’t have much sympathy when I finish this post by telling you I’m leaving on holidays in 2 days, but bear with me… I was thinking of friends we have made in past years on trips to Jamaica, and missing the trip we usually take there at this time of year. I decided to make something tonight in hommage to our love of the place,  its wonderful food and people, and our distant friends.

I don’t know if you have ever done this – revisit tastes from a great experience? You can’t expect to recreate magic that comes from being in a place, but it’s fun to remember and toast to a time when you lived life to the fullest. I love to share tastes with friends and family, too; it helps to round out tales you want to tell of your visit and put them in context even for those who weren’t there.

Tonight’s little appetizer was easy. FRIED PLANTAINS: take a few plantains and peel them like bananas. Slice them diagonally and toss in a mixture of thyme, allspice, salt and marjoram (oregano will sub in if you don’t have any). Pan fry in a cast iron pan with a generous amount of coconut oil till golden brown. Serve with Jamaican condiments such as tamarind chutney, jerk sauce or other spicy chutneys. This time it was just for the two of us, but I’ve done it for larger crowds and we’ve had just as much fun. Light beer or rum punch are perfect accompaniments, but a lighter white wine will work in a pinch.

 

If you have a chance to be a guest at such an occasion, perhaps it will inspire you to take a voyage. Or it will give you a real taste of the place, a chance to be an armchair traveller. There is no safer way to travel, yet the excitement can still be worthy of wanting to send a postcard or two.

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Taken on Seven Mile Beach in Negril, Jamaica

 

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Inspiration strikes!

Do you ever end up on an adventure because of some small moment? Often life gets in the way of us being able to take advantage of serendipity, but with food and drink it can happen more easily. Today is a day we got to enjoy such an adventure.

I like to window shop at food stores. If you’re not a foodie you probably think I’m crazy but I believe it’s a skill I have developed as a Gourmande. I can ferret out an obscure condiment or spice from a shelf full of otherwise mundane choices, and I can imagine an entire dinner party with the inspiration of a single ingredient. Those things tend to happen on more random occasions, especially when you live in a smaller city with not much in the way of specialty food shops. I always have my eyes peeled for opportunities…

Over the holidays, I was at the liquor store (as happens on more of a regular basis than the rest of the year). I was buying rum for holiday egg nog and Christmas pudding hard sauce but being a wine geek I did wander through the wine section. We live in wine country, so we tend to drink more local wine but I love wines from all over.  Imagine my delight when I saw a bottle of Chianti wrapped in straw! You know, the ones our parents had with a candle stuck in them, like they were channeling that romantic scene from “Lady and the Tramp”?


How could I resist? I would be able to dress up a lazy night when we ordered pizza, or I could turn my husband’s favourite meal – spaghetti and meatballs – into a romantic evening. And all for under $20! I bought s bottle and tucked it away in our pantry (a.k.a. Back-up supply of goods, and my special storage for “good things”).

So this morning when my beloved said, “what would you like for dinner? I have some meatballs in the freezer we could have…”, I saw my serendipitous moment. It’s slow season for us, so being a “school night” doesn’t matter; we can put regular routines aside for the evening and none of the balls will fall out of the air.   I picked up spaghetti to make sure he didn’t use just any old pasta, and pulled the  wine from its hiding place. I dug out the checkered napkins for added effect. The candles are ready, and the table is set. I might even put on a bit of Billy Joel

And so now I have to go, and as they say, “slip into something more comfortable.” We are having a romantic dinner. See you tomorrow!

(Watch for my new candle holder in a future post!)

Blogger confession – time for a few Hail Marys and a new post

I have been a bad blogger. It’s been 7 months since my last post. I did keep writing my weekly Castanet column and I have put up more recipes, but I haven’t been present and for that I apologize. With a new year starting, I am resolved to post regularly again. So, here is the new beginning.

My new approach is this: How about a “Foodie Thought of the Day” ? Maybe it will be short and sweet – an image of something I found or a recipe I’m trying. Sometimes I’ll aim for more of a pondering post, with commentary on a topic. But every day I do think of food, so all I have to do is share that here, with you.

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I’m hoping you’ll help me out… tell me if I’m crazy, or lucked out and found something you like. Complain if you think I ramble too much! Complain if you don’t think I’m sharing enough.

So, here it goes: 2017, the year of foodie tidbits!

And just so you don’t think I’m jamming out on the first 2 days of the year here are the ideas already in my calendar:

  • I read a great little article in Saveur Magazine by a father who taught his daughters to cook at an early age. They both embraced the kitchen as a fun place; one of things they came up with was “Fakesgiving”, a celebration dinner like Thanksgiving that is held once a month, so everyone can enjoy those fancy or exotic dishes or try something new more often than just once a year. I’m going to have Fakesgiving dinners this year!
  • I had a persimmon for the first time this morning, inspired by an insistent vendor at one of my fave foodie haunts, the Granville Island Market. I highly recommend them – they are tangy, sweet, with a smooth texture and a beautiful exotic flavour. In case you’re skeptical, check out these benefits!

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See you tomorrow! Eat, drink and be merry 🙂

To Mumsy

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Today is my mom’s 70th birthday. This is the lady who first got me cooking in the kitchen and digging in the garden. I am proud to say that she is now enjoying her own adventures, having raised a family and made a career and created beautiful artistic environments in her many homes and gardens. She has travelled through much of Europe now, and the west coast of  America and Mexico. I’d like to go back to particular culinary memory though, that may have started it all.

Many years ago, my brother and I created a dessert for her birthday dinner. We wanted something that represented how elegant and classy we thought she was. It took more than a few magazines and cookbooks to find the right recipe (this is well before the internet, you see). Finally we decided on a Decadent Chocolate Mousse. My dad whisked her away for the day so that we could prepare. It took us many hours and almost every bowl and utensil she had, but we did it. The special glasses were filled with this wonderful concoction and we awaited the time to present dessert to the birthday girl.

My dad had made a lovely dinner, and after the dishes were cleared it was time. With as much pomp and ceremony as we could muster, we carried the glasses to the table and presented the mousse. I think there may have even been a sparkler. She oohed and aahed – we were pleased. So far, so good. Then came the tasting…. she took a bite and tasted, and I could see her thinking. She smiled at us and said it was delicious. Then she took another bite and began to chew. Chewing? Yes… “What are the crunchy bits in it?,” she said. “They’re really good,” she added (the sign of a great mom). I answered with utter confidence: “Oh, those are the coffee grounds. I’m glad you like it!” My dad chuckled. coffee and beans

It wasn’t until much later that it dawned on me – the recipe called for “2 tbsp strong coffee” but they meant brewed coffee, not coffee grounds. Well, I was only 12 years old, I didn’t drink coffee. My dad wasn’t home so my brother and I figured that “strong” meant heaping tablespoons. (Remember, there was no such thing as a Google search back then.) My mother, bless her heart, was not discouraging but rather adventurous even then. She appreciated our efforts and soldiered on to enjoy the dessert. She has said in later years that she really did enjoy it, and in fact has never had a mousse that she remembers as being as good. I love you, Mom.

The recipe we used has long since been lost in the many moves and purges of cooking magazines, but I have found a chocolate moussesuitable replacement which does still include the coffee: Decadent Chocolate Mousse. Both Julia Child and David Lebovitz have apparently used this recipe. Feel free to think outside the box and add something crunchy if you like! I’m going to make it for my mom the next time she comes to visit, as a belated birthday present.

 

Jamaican Foodie Paradise

Whenever my husband Martin and I go on holidays, we are excited to try new food experiences. The last few years in Jamaica we have been lazy and relegated our enthusiasm to within the walls of the resort. We did enjoy trying local fruits, and traditional dishes like curried goat, jerk chicken and gizzadas (coconut tarts), but this year I wanted to kick things up a notch and rub elbows with some local foodies. I did an online search and found Zimbali Retreat, iPhone download Feb 22 2016 430a small property in the hills above Negril that offered a demo cooking class and tour of their organic farm garden. It seemed right up our alley! I was excited and invited a couple we know who are also foodies. They had shared our Vegas experiences so I figured they would like this taste of Jamaica. We had no idea just how much fun we were going to have…

We arrived at the gate after a bumpy ride up a narrow road that bordered sugar cane plantations and an old stone church.   iPhone download Feb 22 2016 427Martin was afraid we were going to have to carry the car or abandon it if the potholes got any bigger or the road got any narrower. The sugar cane stalks knocked along the side of the car as we drove through plantation land, and as we mounted the hill a local dog lying at the edge of the road didn’t even look up. It was only a half hour drive, but I felt as though I’d been transported to another place.  A short walk down a palm-covered pathway revealed mahogany beams that covered a cozy kitchen and airy sitting room, all overlooking the farm below. I felt a bit like I was visiting the Swiss Family Robinson on their deserted island! We were served a refreshing sorrel ginger drink while we cooled off. Just as we finished our last sip our tour guide arrived.

Clifford, who has been at Zimbali since the beginning (9 years ago), led us over much of the 6 acre terrain, stopping every hundred steps or so to show us another plant, most of which provided some benefit for the kitchen. We saw banana and coconut trees, pineapple plants, Caribbean oranges and grapefruits, June plums, star fruit, lemongrass, annatto, turmeric and ginger roots, breadfruit, all kinds of pumpkins and zucchini squash, beans, and then the crowning glory – noni fruit. This fruit is highly regarded as having great healing powers; the juice is said to be a cure-all. The bees on the farm love it too, said Clifford. Noni bloosom honey is his favourite.

Clifford showed us the right way to crack open a coconut (hit the 3 corners of the outer shell), and he told us about using cinnamon leaves in cooking. We learned that the bark of the mahogany trees was used to make the rich reddish-brown dye still common in Caribbean textiles. He showed us the massive African tulip trees taking over wild sections of the jungle, and how the rain brings on mango season (in May), when the fruit is so plentiful it sits in piles by side of the roads! The gardener in me was trying valiantly to remember everything he said as I tasted and smelled and strained my neck to see in every direction, absorbing every detail.

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a June plum tree, with the blossoms that will turn into the refreshing tangy fruit often used for juice

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here Clifford showed us the mahogany tree. One of the staff is returning to the kitchen with oranges.

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work on the terraced section of the garden, where squash and bananas are being planted

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annatto seeds from an achiote bush, used in cooking to impart colour and a slightly nutty & peppery taste.

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fresh turmeric root – from that brown patch. They grow ginger too, in the same way.

the noni tree, a source of great nutrients. Sometimes called uglifruit.

Martin smelling fresh lemon grass

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did you know banana trees only grow one stem of bananas? Then another tree starts beside it for the next batch of fruit.

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pineapple plants take 10 months to grow a mature fruit

 

 

 

On our return from the tour we met the owners of the resort, Alecia & Mark. Alecia grew up in these hills, and learned much from her grandfather about the land and its secrets. She is a Rastafarian and has been all her life. Mark grew up in a military family and his travels as a youth gave him a desire for understanding cultures and experiencing life on a more simple scale. Both of them are “living the dream”, existing almost off the grid with solar power and the harnessing of rain water, not to mention that the farm provides about 70% of their food. This is not just an agritourism resort, it is a lifestyle, and their passion and sense of inner peace is evident when you talk with them.

We returned to the lodge dripping in sweat from the humidity. It didn’t matter. A quick splash of water on my face and a few sips of water and I was ready to get to the kitchen. Zimbali’s two chefs, Raymond and Rudolph,  were already hard at work of course, and their counter was almost overflowing with the bounty from the farm. We were truly spoiled as it was only us and our friends there that day. We saddled up to the bar to watch, learn and eat.

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the bounty awaits! fresh farm veggies on the kitchen counter

The first course was a breaded fritter that was juicy and delicate, green in colour. It was served with an escovitch, a Jamaican pickle made with onions & peppers in a chili vinegar brine.  Raymond asked us to guess what kind of vegetable he had used on the fritter and we thought we had it – zucchini! Nope, he said, guess again. It was the person in the group who is least a foodie who nailed it – green tomatoes. Not as firm as our green tomatoes and not as tangy, rather velvety soft and slightly sweet in contrast to the pickle. The sorrel reduction that garnished the plate was the crowning glory, refreshing and tart.

fried green tomatoes, Jamaican style

fried green tomatoes, Zimbali style

The next course was a sort of cake, like a crab cake but made with vegetables again, said Rudolph. Again we were stumped – cassava? No. Yam? (They had real yams as well as sweet potato on the counter, two very different things, and both used often in a Jamaican kitchen. Sweet potatoes are orange, yams are white – more fibery, not as sweet.) No. They gave us a few hints and we finally figured out it was cauliflower. It tasted much richer than I imagined cauliflower ever could, and was served with a banana purée and a sort of tropical succotash of corn, peppers and tropical fruit. It was delectable.

cauliflower cake with tropical succotash

cauliflower cake with tropical succotash

We were able to choose our main course, and I picked jerk shrimp, while Martin chose escovitch fish. Our friends had curried shrimp. They were all intensely flavoured and beautifully tender, and were served with a quick coleslaw, veggies in a seasoned coconut milk and a green plantain and banana rosti (shredded and pan-fried in a patty). Everything was prepared as we watched, even the coconut milk – we saw the coconut opened, the meat cut out and then shredded in the food processor, and the milk squeezed through a strainer.

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my Jerk shrimp, with banana & plantain rosti, coleslaw and veggies in coconut curry

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Rudolph & Raymond plate the main course

But wait, there was dessert too! I groaned under the weight of lunch, but my enthusiasm kicked in. How could I miss out on a slice of Raymond’s banana rum cake with caramelized melons & papaya? The cake had no eggs but was not heavy, rather silky with a hint of Jamaican spices (allspice, ginger, nutmeg). Raymond explained that he had long ago mastered baking without eggs, as he doesn’t eat them himself. His skill was evident in the finesse of the final product. It was the perfect end to a real gourmand afternoon.

Raymond's rum cake

Raymond’s rum cake

We hugged the chefs to show our appreciation and thanked our hosts profusely for their hospitality, all wishing we could return to stay and soak up the relaxing vibe. (I think on my next visit I might like to stay and experience a massage, yoga class, and a Rasta Tour!)

We hardly noticed the bumps in the road on the way back, being lulled into a sense of total relaxation after our retreat visit. Rain drummed on the car windows as the scenery went by in a blur. By the time we returned to our resort I had my second wind and was happy to tell anyone who would listen (and a few who didn’t seem to care) about what fun we had. I felt I had sampled a true taste of the tropics along with a healthy dose of Jamaican hospitality and respect, and having enjoyed it I was proudly displaying my enthusiasm like it was a diploma of achievement.

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