Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wait for it ...

Warning: No recipe, no photographs. Not for the weak of mind. Carry forth brave one.

Okay, so I don't have a post this week. I know. I know

In lieu of my predicament, I have decided to fess up and beg for your forgiveness (insert me here begging please). It was certainly not for lack of trying mind you. I really tried. Really really hard. Really (one too many?). And ... fell flat on my hard trying behind. But, dear reader, I tell you, I had no comprehension of the monumental force that I was up against. I have spent the last three weeks, yes, count them, three, weeks, searching. 

For what exactly was I searching, you ask? How does that concern you in any way, shape or form when all you want is the story this week, you ask? Well, in the holiday (choose yours) spirit it is always kind to exercise that patience muscle (I have to use anything I can get here) and moreover, what I have finally found (miraculously and after some serious stunts) is truly worth waiting for. I promise.

Wait for it ...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bottoms up ...


Could not retrieve most pictures from camera despite best efforts (arghh!) so gear up your vivid imaginations ... ready? Here we go ...


I did not know how I was going to swing this one. Frankly, I do not know if I did swing this one (you will let me know, yes?)... In my attempts (five) to put this story together, I found myself entangled in such abundant, colorful tales, experiences and characters that at one point during the process, I stared (a little intimidated) at my laptop and realized I was in imminent danger of spawning a novel. Page, after page, after page of people and food and people and food. It was dizzying.

I mean really, here is a taste of just a few:

Selwyn, the across the street cook who was perpetually happy, perpetually late (to the very vocal dismay of his very old lady boss), was a little (well, perhaps little … is a touch … understated) pickled at all times (perhaps this explains his perpetual happiness), free flowing with waves, hugs, Frankie Paul and who incidentally, made the best hamburger in the world. Really.

Jean-Marc Davis, the jovial, heavily accented, suspiciously white, pure Bajan (family here since the 1400’s he swears! after narrow eyed interrogation on how with such a name and big blue eyes he could make a claim like that) who served the greatest sticky, spicy, fatty, meaty, fall off the bone ribs (I am working on recipe extraction as we speak dear readers).

Jon, the smiling (yet stingy!) chef extraordinaire who was at the fish market every morning for the latest catch (which we tried to bargain away from him without success hence stinginess) which he then proceeded to choose, gut, fillet on the spot and take to his restaurant for the evening meal (to the great appreciation of his customers - aka, us).

The evening's featured star ...

He could have given us one, or half, a quarter maybe ...

The monkeys, on the tennis courts chomping voraciously on fruit and running towards me mid game in apparent friendliness while I fled for my life… yes…

I have at least ten more. Ten. Modestly. Each one with at least a page of affiliated escapades.

I had to regroup. A choice had to be made. And it was. The choice was, well, to choose. So I did. Please allow me to share with you what was to me, the very best story of all.

It all started one hot, sweltering, humid, muggy (you get the point) reggae filled Friday evening at Oistins fish fry. Friday night at Oistins is one of Barbados’ most infamous “limes” (local speak for good times). Legendary for its culinary delights, reggae, free flowing rum and lively locals we gravitated towards it like, well, like me to pork. I had one mission that evening dear readers and one mission alone: barbecued pig tails. I had been waiting a whole week and my pork penchant was at an all time high. As I scouted, glanced, examined, questioned and compared numerous tail offerings, Axel (glorious, lovely husband) was on the hunt for a table.

You can imagine said task was a considerable one. It was shaping up to be on the verge of impossible when I spotted a man (isn’t this how it always starts).
This man was sitting alone at the only empty table in the place (we are talking hundreds of them or at least one hundred) ... Picture it ... Immediately the rush hit me, you know the one, your heart starts beating faster, you scan the crowds searching the eyes of others you will possibly have to tackle should they have spotted your prize … Nearly running (while trying to appear calm as to not alert anyone to my goal of table procurement) pig tails in hand, I made a beeline straight for him. Out of breath and hungry I say my first words to him: Excuse me sir, is it alright if we sit here? (epic yes?) Yes, of course, please do, he says. Score!

So as I sat there savoring my pigs tails and waiting for very patient husband (I get cranky when hot and hungry) to come back with a southern and diet coke, another man comes to join the first one. Smiling, with a beautiful accent, he sat down and they proceed into conversation. Of course, one cannot help eavesdropping (you know you do it!) when one is sitting right beside someone who’s conversation seems lively and interesting. I deduced from said eavesdropping, that they were locals and that they were witty and … well, fun. And then, it happened. I was sure I had been busted, and was ready with mortified apologies and red face to boot. However, the second gentleman turns to me and smiling (good sign) says: That looks marvelous, what are you eating? Dear readers, when someone starts a conversation complimenting and curious about food, they have my heart (never mind that when it was disclosed that pig tails was the delicacy of choice it was greeted by laughing grimaces, they still have my heart). An instant friendship was born. By the time Axel was back, we were planning the next day’s activities and (to my great delight) were starting on a newly purchased bottle of fine Bajan rum.

About three quarters of the way through the bottle of rum and many laughs later (I loved these men), we thought it might be appropriate to introduce ourselves. Hence we arrived at the usual. After Axel and I introduced ourselves: 

Gentleman number one
Name: Gene
Status: In a relationship 
Occupation: U.S. Consul General to the Eastern Caribbean States, Eugene Paul Sweeney (ummm ...pardon?). 

Gentleman number two 
Name: Alessandro Maffei
Status: In a relationship (with Gene) 
Occupation: Tuscan Architect and present professional spouse (sorry ...what?)

After the initial gasps and numerous proclamations of really’s and are you serious’es (such wonderful, down to earth, sweet and genuinely kind people are a rare find in such serious titles), it was time to get down to business. It was time for questions. I may as well confess now as I will inevitably be outed... I (pause here please for dramatic effect) am a lover of learning. I am interested in everything. I want to know. To understand. To appreciate. Hence, I ask questions. Lots of them. So, I proceeded in asking my myriad of questions, rapturously listening to tales of travels, a multitude of culinary adventures, Bajan gossip and planning the next adventure. It was heaven. A little while (and a lot of rum) later, heaven came to a temporary end when I suspiciously started seeing 2 bottles of rum on the table but was pretty sure there was only one there…yes … At this point, very happy and hot, we went home and yours truly spent the rest of the night thinking about the next days agenda …a journey to an ancient coral beach called Bottom Bay.

I could barely contain myself.

Gratuitous fish pic ...

Middle, almost:

The next morning, I was up bright and early, dragged myself into the ocean (body felt like a sack of potatoes after night of pig tails and rum) and then proceeded to pester husband into consciousness. We met Ale and Gene at the local grocery where they picked us up and after the initial greetings (and relief that they were just as awesome if not more so the next day, you know how that can go) our adventure began. The drive was long, green, bumpy (we thought this was bumpy but we had not seen bumpy yet), filled with Ale’s inspired architectural commentary and simply beautiful. The air smelled of sweet flowers, rain, salt and the occasional cow.

Our arrival brought us onto a “parking lot” in a “field”. I took a look around me and for the life of me could not understand how in the world we were going to get to the ocean way below. We were quite high up and I saw no signs of a humanly possible, on the ground decent. At this point, for an instant, I started having thoughts of: What have I gotten myself into? These people are strangers. They can say anything, be anybody! Maybe they have climbing gear in the trunk and expect me to climb down? Maybe they are adrenalin junkies and expect me to cliff dive! Maybe … At this point, angel Ale mercifully interrupts my thoughts and magically steers us towards a bulky bunch of tropical plants that, yes, magically concealed natural coral steps, leading all the way down to the beach. Thank goodness!

The path ... thank goodness ...

The opening ... thank goodness ...

As we made our way down this ancient path, tucked into the tropical forest, giant trees and their winding roots enveloped us, lizards were scuttling past, frogs were unseen but chirping, Ale was pointing out the magnificent natural fossils in the corals, Gene was ever so graciously urging us along, Axel and I were transported into a wild paradise. After a while everything opened up and we were greeted by an enchanting Robinson Caruso’esque beach with immense coral cliffs and big rolling waves. Big ones. Really big ones. In fact, being the semi obsessive that I am, I glanced at Ale and right after the ooohhh’s and aaahhh’s, the spectacular look around (a lot of it at the big waves) and the discarding of our possessions, I asked him if we could swim in there because the waves were, well, so huge! My answer came from all three of them and being the men that they are, they looked at me in that “awww isn’t she so cute and scared” way and immediately proclaimed it safe.

“Come on in! All you have to do is get past the crashing point!” they said. Phhftt! No way my friends. I laughed, waved, and stood safely on the beaches edge watching my peeps get thrown around, toppled, laughing, smiling and waiving me in as I shook my head mmmm mmmmm and took in the massive waves and rolling water. It was terrifying and wonderful at the same time. In the end, I finally went in (only for a bit and screaming) due to peer pressure and the fact that I was roasting. It was wonderful. 
Terrifying and wonderful, at the same time.
If you will allow me a mini “you see?!” moment here, when arriving back home (Montreal) I immediately checked out Bottom Bay and the “swimming conditions” and what do I see? This. This, dear reader, is the warning on the “swimming conditions”: “Bathing here is not recommended, as the waves are very strong, and great care should be shown by those who choose to do so”.  Hah! …

Anyhow, back to paradise. After getting knocked around, ahem, excuse me, swimming in the ocean, we ran for our lives, sorry, excuse me, walked out of the water and onto the beach we sat down and as all beach dwellers in my world naturally do, broke out homemade rum punch (Ale and Gene’s dynamite recipe) and proceeded to discuss food. We spoke of crepes made in earthenware, of lemon trees, of Gene’s memorable trip to Italy with Ale where he had ribs that he has not forgotten to this day. Ribs from a pig that they chose themselves. A pig that fed on plump acorns and wild grass. Of plantain lasagna. Of cooking classes in an ancient water mill. Of the local unpasteurized goats milk for making cheese. Ale had made some and was aging it for shaving on pasta (I of course attempted it the next day and failed miserably but it was glorious and I am going to give it a second attempt here at home).

This was it friends. Here it was. I had achieved my dream on earth. My perfection. Sitting here, in this prehistoric paradise, with my love smiling contentedly at me, Ale smoking a cigar, Gene dusting himself off of sand, jade ocean, sunshine, wild coral beach, salty breezy air, rum punch, discussing food. Glorious food. This was it.

Then, all of a sudden out of my blissed out stupor comes a contented sigh from Ale and a casual “one day, I would love to have a bonfire here and grill some food under the stars…”. Well, his wish was my command. I hoped. Enter Sam.

Junior Sam Gittens ...

Junior Sam Gittens to be exact. The easy smiling, ya man talking, smooth singing, Bottom Bay guardian Rasta. Sam was the man here along with second Rasta in command, Esra. He greeted you upon arrival, took care of anything you needed. Most beaches you go to these days have some evidence of urban interference and you can be fairly certain that food and drink are not far away. Not here. Sam sent the local people to get what you needed. Do not ask me where because there was nothing in sight for miles.

I spot him and walk towards him, tap him on the shoulder and (practically jumping) ask: Sam, we want to have a bonfire here one evening. Do you think you can arrange something? Of course man! he says smiling. When you want to do it man! he asks smiling. I then tapped Ale on the shoulder and (practically jumping) said: Ale! He can do it! He can do it! Can you do it?! When can we do it?! Gene, when can we do it?! Tomorrow? The next day?! At this point, I think I actually was jumping and to my great delight, after some discussion of times, dates, best possible weather, what food and drink we were each to bring, it was set. The four of us were scheduled for a private bonfire in the coral cave, in two days! I could (can you guess?) hardly contain myself.

Almost end:

It was decided that Ale and Gene would bring fish to grill, the rum punch, of course, and a local delicacy called Ground Provisions Salad. We were going to bring Grandfathers Salt Fish Cakes (see previous post for recipe) and lots of rum. We were limited in what we could carry as we insisted on taking the bus, you know, for the local experience. Who was it that said to us that whenever we travel we move in …?

Just one more ...

I will take you two days forward, to the fish market bus stop, where the bus is picking us up and ask you to imagine this scene: Us on the bus. One hundred degree heat. Axel with a beer and three bags in hand, me with my rum and coke (the bus arrived faster than we anticipated!) and my fritter dish in hand, squashed cheek to cheek, sweat bead to sweat bead with everyone on the bumpiest bus on this planet. The locals took one look at us and had mercy on our souls. The old ladies took my fritter plate so I could finish my rum and coke (bless their souls) and made space for Axel to put the bags down so he could finish his beer (I love these people).

The time passed and bus started to empty out (I tell you, this was the never ending bus ride) and eventually, after an indeterminable amount of time and several how much further is it (answer was always “far”), we were the last ones left. As we were being shaken like little pebbles in a gold sifter, much worse now that the bus was empty, Axel looking particularly green, I could not help wondering who thought this was a good idea again. Why didn’t we just impose and take the car ride offered? But, as always, as things were looking their worst and I was contemplating emptying a plastic bag for Axel just case, at last we arrived and every bump (so many) and all the time (it was long) it took was worth it when the bus stopped and dropped us off at the top of a road.

Smiling, a bit wobbly and green, we thanked the driver picked up our considerable belongings and bid him good day.

Ahead of us was a small, narrow, country road with fat little goats happily munching on the long, bountiful (and apparently quite tasty) grasses. As we started the long walk down, I took a deep breath of the salt air and thought to myself, how wonderful. How wonderful is it to be walking down a small country road, goats around, sun shining, ocean waves crashing in the background, with my beloved, carrying a plate of just made salt fish fritters, about to embark down coral steps to a secluded paradise for an evening beach bonfire. Life was beautiful.

We reached the beach and Sam was there to greet us with his big, easy smile and “How ya doin’ man!” Put all your stuff here man and go enjoy the beach man. But first come and let me show you what we did for you man” We follow him into the coral cave and see that they had carved out a pit in the sand for us and placed some driftwood on either side to hold the makeshift grill. It was gorgeous. It was awesome. There was also a “table” for us to store our things. The dream was off with a bang…

The bang ...

Men work ...

As we waited for Ale and Gene to arrive the men began their men work. I swear! One minute I am basking in the sunshine and thoughts of things to come and the next I am watching Axel and Sam carrying an entire palm tree log to the cave for the fire and collecting other beach wood for anything we might need in terms of fuel. I was sure I was on Gilligan’s Island for a moment. Then, as if it was a beautiful sonata winding its way up to a glorious crescendo, the evening sky took hold and Ale and Gene arrived with native friend in tow. Smiling, with lots of goodies in hand we greeted one another and then got down to the beautiful business of food. We examined each others bounty, thanked Sam repeatedly, strategized on the best timing for each dish, marveled at the glory that was this place and the fortune that was ours in meeting one another and poured large, stiff drinks.

We even experienced a slight pre-dusk storm where we all had to hide in the cave and watch the storm come in and rain pass us by. I mean come on. Once the storm passed, amid the stories, laughter and natural kinship, night had fallen. The sky was clear. The ocean, black. The moon and stars were lighting up the sky. The ocean gracefully offered a soft breeze that was moist with sea water. At this point Ale decided it was time for the fire to really burn and the men went to work. It was not long before we had two beautiful fires. One bonfire for our visual pleasure and one grill fire for our soon to come culinary delights.

The fire ...

The storm ...

The cave ...

Those two magnificent fires, combined with sensorial overload from the natural beauty around us and the good friends laughing hysterically and strolling the evening beach were enough of a whollop to send me into another “I cannot believe the camera stopped working and I can’t take pictures of any of this and how can this happen and I have to fix it etc etc ” rant. Because I was quite vocal and quite obviously dismayed (well, as dismayed as you can be in paradise after several (many) rum punches, of course) at the inability to take pictures so I could forever capture the moment, the men went into action.

All of a sudden I see huddling, lights are moving and then …there they all are, I kid you not, shining beams (yes, someone actually brought a shining beam), cell phones and camera lights in my face all in an attempt to light me up enough so they could take a picture! It was so touching and wonderfully odd.… Here is the result …

The result ... bless their hearts ...

This being the eventful evening that it was thus far, we were all famished and it was time to grill. First were the Bajan fritters (which were soggy after the long, foil enclosed bus ride but nevertheless got recipe requests from the Rastas!). Then there were the swordfish skewers grilling on the fire which were absolutely gorgeous. Finally, there was Ale’s Ground Provision Salad which was, creamy, savory, spicy, sweet and absolutely delicious. We were literally scraping the container. Just imagine it ...

Blatant attempt to distract you from the no provision salad photo predicament ...

This story closes with stomachs full, hypnotized by the fire (and endless bottles of rum) Sam and his friends singing songs of long ago, beauty in our hearts and rum glasses (of course) in hand … dear readers, Ale, Gene, dear friends, these are the days of our lives (sorry, sorry I got carried away a little) until the next time cheers and bottom’s up.

End. Really. I swear.

Time to dish:

Ale’s Spectacular Ground Provision Salad

What you need:

  • 3 large sweet potato (purple skin) chopped into hunks
  • 3 large plantain (semi-ripened) sliced into pieces
  • 1 large taro root, chopped in large chunks
  • 2 medium sweet green pepper, chopped
  • 1 medium sweet red pepper, chopped
  • 3 large Celery stalks, finely sliced
  • 2 medium Onion, finely diced
  • 1 cup Spring Onion, finely diced
  • 3 cups Pumpkin cubed
  • 3 small garlic cloves, very finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon green seasoning (Caribbean herb mix ground in blender, recipe below)

Peanut oil for frying
A bowl of ice water for blanching the sweet potato and taro
Salt and hot sauce, of course, to taste

What to do:

  1. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil. Start boiling the sweet potato until soft. Retrieve cooked potato with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl with enough ice water to cover it. Using the same boiling water cook the taro and once it’s softened, transfer it to bowl of ice water.
  2. Next, fry the plantain slices in a skillet until the sugars contained have browned, but not blackened, flipping over once.  Transfer onto a paper towel to absorb excess oil. Repeat for the cubed pumpkin. Once the two batches are fried, drain almost all the frying oil, leaving enough of it to brown the onion. Once browned, remove the cooked onion and set aside.
  3. Once the  sweet potato and the taro have reached room temperature, drain and transfer to a bowl and gently mix them together. Add the remaining ingredients (browned onion, raw spring onion, green & red pepper, celery, pumpkin, minced garlic and fried plantain), very lightly mashing them up. Add salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Serve lightly chilled.

Carribean green dressing

1 bunch of Cilantro
1 stalk of celery, include leaves if you have it
1 small head or garlic
4 green onions
1 bunch of fresh thyme
1/4 cup of water
pinch of salt
2-3 shallots
2 pimento peppers, 1 banana pepper and 1 Cubanelle

Roughly chop and blend all ingredients in a blender and you will have a gorgeous, emerald, herby, spicy warming dressing that you can use for the ground provision salad as well as a marinade for lamb, chicken and fish. Freeze for up to 3 months. Enjoy with loved ones.