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Who knew we could all bake so much?

My social media feed has gone from various memes of silly behaviour and random family updates with the odd video of dishes that have melted cheese and bacon… to a stream of cinnamon buns, cookies, sourdough, cakes, doughnuts… well, and then about 4 pm it’s virtual happy hour but that’s another story altogether. Who knew so many people liked to bake things from scratch?

baking montage (2)

I know many of us are getting tired of being cooped up at home, not able to go out for coffee or go to the gym. The routines for most people of being at school or work most days have evaporated. It was a fun holiday for the first few days, but now that our bottoms are numb from days of binge-watching all of Netflix and Disney+, we feel like we need to accomplish something. Anything.

I wistfully pondered the concept of buying a Masterclass membership to follow Gordon Ramsay on his journey to teach me sauces, pasta making and all other manners of cooking a beautiful meal. But then the reality of keeping the money to pay the bills that will come while I’m still not using those skills to make any more money came crashing down around me. Besides, I don’t need the added pressure of him yelling at me.Gordon Ramsay yelling

However, this is no time to wallow, we need to keep our spirits up. So, here’s a few fun baking friends I found out there who can help us stay positive. Perhaps I ought to have tempered these links with home workouts, so we don’t all end up looking like couch potatoes? Nah; for now I’ll stick with walking the dog more often.

Borough Market Bread Ahead Bakery in London rose to the occasion quickly (pun intended). They started hosting live cooking demos on Instagram, featuring many of the classic recipes from their Baking School cookbook. Very educational if you’re into bread products. The videos only stay up in IG Stories for 24 hours but they are replaying them through April, and you can get the ingredients on their website. You can also buy a copy of their full book, or the e-book they created for these recipes.

If you have kids, you might want to look up the hashtag #KitchenBuddies . Jamie Oliver’s Buddy_Oliver Kitchen Buddiesson Buddy started doing IG videos as well, and together he and his dad are encouraging families to cook. Jamie has also done some posts offering recipes with what you have on hand, like pasta made in just a few minutes with only flour and water. I offer a link to his recipes online which is quite extensive.

If you want something more formal, I stumbled upon a resource through a site I’ve mentioned before that is rich with foodie info. The Kitchn’s Cooking School offers 20 lessons, starting with knife skills. They include links to recipes that help you practice what each lesson teaches, and different skill levels for you to choose. It dates back to 2014 but all the information is timeless.

Millionaires-shortbread

Want something more decadent? How about something called Millionaire’s Shortbread ! I first had this in Scotland, and being a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander tales, I was overjoyed when it was included in the Outlander Kitchen batch of recipes (and what a good batch it is, too – I can vouch for many of them personally). This one takes a bit of time as one layer has to set, but we’ve got plenty of that these days, don’t we?

David Lebovitz cocktail

In case you’re put off by the pressure of having to cook more, already cooking all meals and not being able to eat out at the moment, well then how about a cocktail? David Lebovitz, our foodie friend in Paris, has just launched a cocktail book and to celebrate he;s been offering recipes as part of his virtual happy hour, live on Instagram. There is also information on his website.

However you are managing, I do hope you’re taking time to enjoy meals at home. Pull out those dishes and table linens that you never have time to find. Make hot chocolate from scratch for the kids. Have a nightcap if there is a bottle of something suitable in your liquor cupboard. When we get back to the crazy pace of what we called normal, we can look back on this and say, “Wasn’t it great when we had all that time to share?”

 

 

 

 

 

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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