Thursday, June 27, 2013

Island Thyme

I know I haven't been writing at all lately. The beginning of summer is such a busy time--adjusting to fluctuating schedules, adapting to suffocating heat, wrapping my head around no obligations...which is harder than you may think. 

Because of the chaos that accompanies the end of the school year, I also wasn't doing much cooking, which accounts for the blog slump. I'm really hoping to pick back up where I left off with some adventurous recipes and projects. 

Now I'm here in the Virgin Islands at my grandmother's house for two weeks. You'll need a little background info before we get to the cooking part. 

My grandmother has lived in this house for the last 40 years and many of its original appliances are still in place. Two in particular have stood the test of time. They should have a saying that a Kitchen Aid stand mixer never dies. Or at least that's my experience. It's smaller than the monoliths that are marketed to unsuspecting amateur cooks these days. Instead of being painted a bright mustard or some such "modern and chic" color, it's a respectable chrome (only chipping in a few spots). The bowls are much smaller, but every attachment is sturdy and well-manufactured as was the custom. The second piece of equipment that is noteworthy is the source of my greatest reoccurring adventures in life: the gas stove, which must be lit with a lighter. Each time I stand before it shakily,  hoping against hope that it won't blow the house off the mountain in a cinnamon-scented fireball. (Ants are supposedly repelled by the smell of cinnamon, so all of Grammi's cupboards containing food have a thick layer on the floor.)

It's not the easiest place in the world to cook, but, to me, it's the most enjoyable. I have so many memories here. Pizzas in convection ovens, baked pat├ęs (a local specialty usually deep fried and stuffed with fish or meat), purple cabbage and ham hash made to look like pulled pork, first-time masa tortillas in distinctly un-circular shapes. 

The pantry is well-stocked with preserved artichoke hearts and asparagus stalks bought from the States. Cans of chicken noodle soup and tomato paste line its cozy shelves. An Igloo cooler packed to the gills with crackers and dry pasta. An upside-down cake carrier containing Walkers shortbread cookies (a rare treat) and trail mix granola bars. Everything is wrapped up tight in reused plastic bags or cartons to keep out hungry tropical critters. Two editions of the Joy of Cooking perch on the bookcase, making it known that she's reigning queen. And she is. How many times have I sat on the floor as Grammi flipped through hundreds of pages in that worn book? It's her dictionary and encyclopedia, all the reference she needs in the kitchen to tackle an unknown ingredient or underperforming preparation. 

Though I've learned many life skills in this house (don't lean on a railing in the tropics, toe-pinching hermit crabs mostly come out at night, bat guano is toxic, etc), one stands out above all and comes directly from the kitchen. Don't be afraid to try things your own way. Even if you make a mistake, most things are recoverable. 


Super Spiced Free-hand Pear Crisp
A healthier interpretation of the classic dessert.
Serves 3-4, depending on whether you have ice cream and how large/hungry the eaters are. 

  • Filling
    • 1 large pear, we used a firm variety
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves, really just a sprinkle
    • 1/4 teaspoon dried lemon peel, I'm sure zest would work
    • 2 tablespoons agave nectar
  • Topping
    • 1/4 cup + 2 heaping tablespoons old fashioned oats
    • 1/4 cup whole wheat flour 
    • 1 tablespoon butter, cut into small chunks
    • 2 tablespoons agave nectar
    • 2 tablespoons buttermilk, or liquid of some kind 
  • 3 tablespoons juice of choice, we didn't do this but plan to next time because the pears didn't cook all the way probably because of a lack of liquid 
For the filling:
Wash, core and slice the pear into 1/4-inch-thick lengths. Place them in a bowl with the spices, lemon peel and agave. Set aside and allow to marinate while preparing the topping. 

For the topping:
Mix together the flour and oats in a small bowl. Cut in butter, agave and buttermilk, mixing until crumb-like. 

Assemble & bake:
Spread the spiced pears in the bottom of a small baking pan (we used a small rectangular Pyrex). Sprinkle the topping evenly across the pan. Pour juice over. Cover tightly with foil (again, something we didn't do but plan to next time). Bake in preheated oven at 375 degrees. We used a convection oven and it took about 15 minutes to cook, though the pears were still a bit crunchy. Generally these types of dishes call for a 30-45 minute baking time, but because there are no eggs involved, it's purely a matter of taste. If you like it this way, go for a shorter baking time and don't cover with foil. If you're using foil, remove it before the last 5 minutes or so of baking so that it can "crisp up". 

Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. 


~~~~~~

I feel there is a certain type of food that we eat while here at Grammi's house. It's wholesome, mostly organic and generally healthy while also being vaguely reminiscent of Depression-era or wartime cookery. I hope I don't offend anyone by saying this because, of course, we are not going through anything remotely as challenging as those disastrous periods in our history. What I mean is this. My grandmother has spent her life making ends meet. She has immense experience stretching ingredients in times of actual hardship combined with the know-how of someone who has had to buy food at island prices (i.e. high) for the past 40 years. We eat every part of everything while we're here, whether that's 1 meal of cabbage or 6, having fresh fish or canned. It's all about conservation, and that doesn't just apply to food. Many of my grandmother's practices are derived from a concern for the Earth and its wellbeing that is as much a part of her character as her generosity is. As my uncle (her son) proudly says, she was part of the green movement before it was popular.


We save water by taking navy-style showers and reusing the water in a large pan to wash the dirty dishes (a mechanical dishwasher is too wasteful), which is occasionally dumped over the edge of the porch to water the plants in my grandmother's expansive garden. We can actually see how much water we have left by lifting the trap door on one side of the dining room and looking down at the cistern housing the rain water that we use for everything but drinking. We cut down on our consumption of plastic goods by reusing bags over and over. You may be thinking about Ziplocks and similar resealable bags, but I'm talking about the supposedly one-time-use packaging that nuts or pasta comes in. Once empty, all of them are carefully cleaned (to protect against bugs and rot) and then placed in the freezer. (For those of you who continually ask why my partially-used tin foil is always in the freezer, you finally have your answer.)


So, if you're me, that leads us to why I chose to make gingerbread. But since you're not me, I've left you a little in the dark. I'll just say this. Our food is usually created with alternative ingredients jazzed up by butter and spices. And Grammi loves ginger.


Whole Wheat Gingerbread 
adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking
So, so good. Moist and earthy, the sometimes bitter whole wheat doesn't do anything to the intense flavor and only adds to the deep, rich color. This is one of my new favorite quick/tea breads, which is saying a lot given my history with banana, zucchini and cranberry cornmeal breads. 
Ingredients:
  • 2 1/4 cups whole wheat flour 
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup Greek yogurt 
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 cup molasses, black strap is best (and has the strongest flavor)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped 
Instructions: 
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2) Combine flour, baking soda, salt and spices in a small bowl, mixing thoroughly. 

3) Mix butter, yogurt, sugar, egg, molasses and buttermilk in a large bowl. 

4) Add dry ingredients to wet. Mix lightly before adding the crystallized ginger. Finish stirring, but don't overbeat as it will become tough. 

5) Place in the preheated oven and bake 40-45 minutes, until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Allow to sit out of the oven for 10 minutes before turning it out onto a rack to cool completely. 



~~~~~~

When I'm on vacation (not necessarily out of my house), I like to make prepared lunches. They don't necessarily have to be hot, but generally I don't like going with something that could be made on a normal day. Often I'll turn to eggs as a protein that's quick to cook but very satisfying. 

I chose to make a quiche, one of my favorite specialties, for lunch one day here on the island. Mainly this is because quiches take a ridiculously long time to bake (in my mind), and we're generally snorkeling right before dinner, so that leaves a 40+ minute cooking time out of the question. Plus we have a lot of eggs in the house right now, and, up until the time that I made this, scallions that were on the edge of decomposition. 

The inclination that put me right over the edge, though, was how I was drawn to the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book. I had no sooner shoved the gingerbread in the oven when I was already snatching ingredients out of the cupboard for the quiche. Without having to make the crust, the whole process appeared to be quite streamlined (I'm not advocating for crustless quiches all the time as the crust is by far the best part, however, if you're crunched for time, simply omit it and spray the baking pan instead). Too bad nothing can work out the way that I plan it. Nothing tremendously bad happened, but it just took a bit longer than I anticipated (which worked out pretty well in the end because the gingerbread had vacated the primary oven in Grammi's kitchen by the time the quiche was ready to go in).

Perhaps it was the underlying pressure I always feel while working in Grammi's kitchen that slowed me down. I always have to look around and check that I haven't left any ingredients sitting out on the counter while I'm using something else. This sounds silly, but until you've worked in an un-airconditioned environment within 20 degrees of the equator, you may not fathom how quickly food goes bad. You know that time you forgot the milk out on the counter for an hour while you went out to the grocery store? It was fine when you got back, right? It still had condensate on the outside and was cool to the touch. Literally 10 minutes after I set the milk on the counter the condensate has evaporated and the container feels room temperature. It's still okay to drink as long as you get it back in the fridge, but it's still a little nerve-wracking to have that constant worry that I'll ruin perfectly good food by leaving it out too long. And not just ruin it, but make people sick from it. 


Crustless Spinach and Asparagus Quiche
Adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking
Fairly traditional besides its lack of crust. Surprisingly creamy, especially given the small number of eggs involved.
Ingredients:
  • For Vegetables:
    • 1 bunch scallions
    • 1 bunch asparagus 
    • 2 large handfuls frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
    • 1 teaspoon olive oil 
    • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) goat cheese, plain or herbed
  • For Custard:
    • 2 large eggs
    • 6 tablespoons (3 ounces) cream cheese
    • 1/4 cup half-and-half
    • 1 cup milk, I used skim and almond 
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt 
    • Several grinds of black pepper
Instructions:
1) Clean the scallions of their roots and browning leaves. Chop into medium-large pieces. Snap the asparagus. (It's really important to let them break where they may because nature has designed them in such a way that they will always come apart at the transition from woody base to tender stalk.) Cut the asparagus into inch-long pieces. Heat the olive oil in a small frying pan. Cook scallions for 30 seconds. Add the asparagus and let fry for a minute more. Then add a splash of water and cover, allowing to steam until crisp-tender, depending on your preference, about 5-7 minutes. 

2) Arrange the asparagus, scallions and thawed spinach in the bottom of a greased 9-inch cake pan. Crumble the goat cheese over the vegetables and set it all aside. 


3) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. (I was using a convection oven again.) 

4) Whisk together the eggs, cream cheese, half-and-half, eggs, salt and pepper. It's okay if there are still small lumps of cream cheese left in the mixture. Gently pour the custard over the veggies and cheese. 

5) Place in the preheated oven and bake for 40 minutes until mostly solid when lightly shaken. 
~~~~~~

My dad has long been a fan of Simon & Garfunkle. My mom sung Scarborough Fair to us as a lullaby. All of this has little to do with St. John. Really what it's about is having leftover pork in the fridge, a hankering for dumplings and no limitations on what spices I could include in the soup. I was not confined by food allergies or absolutist pickiness. Marcus's single demand for all of time is no mushrooms and Dad, at every juncture, says "I'll eat what I'm served and I'll like it" (we've only encountered problems when beets were set before him for the first time in 25 years after an incident in his childhood). So, I started soup the way Grammi does with plenty of celery (I wouldn't choose celery to eat by itself, but it does add flavor to soups). I progressed to garlic, which, as you might be able to guess, is one of my family's favorites, and the aforementioned pork. Broth glugged into the pot to follow. And then I had to pause for a second.


I have a notoriously bad reputation (maybe just amongst the three closest members of my family, myself included) of under-seasoning things. Usually soups, if I have to put my finger on it. I mean, what am I afraid of? Savory things really cannot be too flavorful, as far as I can tell. (Spices traditionally in sweet preparations on the other hand....*cough* cinnamon *cough*.) 


I decided then and there that I would not let my family down. Perusing (rapidly) through the alphabetically-organized jars in the fridge door, I immediately spotted thyme. The post contains its name, so I figured I should fit it in there somewhere. Then rosemary, which would only add to its kin in the crust of the herbed pork. Then, in my head*, I started singing Scarborough Fair. How could I not? I had 2 members of the quartet already in the pot. Just go for it, I told myself. Parsley (my blood enemy) and sage followed, in equal proportion to the first two. 


That's it. Now you know how this soup was born. Except for the dumplings. Those were Marcus's doing. I pulled out the newer of the two Joy of Cooking volumes, looked up dumplings and opened to the page that the index indicated. I advised that he substitute one cup of whole wheat flour for one of all-purpose to give them some body and then he was off to the races. They were the best dumplings I've ever had. (I'm talking about little doughball dumplings, here, not the folded, filled and fluted masterpieces common in Eastern cooking. These are more in the neighborhood of pseudo-noodles and gnocchi than anything else. Think of chicken and dumplings, not won ton soup.)


{*Note: For pretty much this entire trip I've had laryngitis. At the stage of my illness while I was making this soup, my voice was disappearing every other word and especially when my tone was elevated. Basically, I couldn't orate or sing to save my life. This was a source of great amusement and frustration amongst the other two members of my family with whom I am vacationing.}



Scarborough Fair Soup with Dumplings 
Soup from my head, dumplings from Joy of Cooking courtesy of Marcus 
I discovered that this is a very thin, broth-y soup. For some reason, I had assumed that the dumplings' starch would thicken it, but it did not. I ended up liking it because it wasn't too heavy yet the dumplings were filling, so perfect for a summer meal. Also, there was very little soup, not really enough to cover the dumplings, so it might be advisable to add another quart of stock with the one in the recipe.

Serves 3 to use up all of the soup (the way I made it). We had extra dumplings at the end, which are delicious the next morning for breakfast. 

  • Soup:
    • 3 stalks celery with leaves, cleaned
    • 3 large carrots, cleaned
    • 1 head + 3 cloves garlic 
    • 1 1/2 teaspoon olive oil 
    • 1 1/2 - 2 cups pork, cooked and chopped into 1-inch chunks
    • 1 quart chicken broth, preferably low-sodium
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary 
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
    • 2 tablespoons dried, crushed tomatoes
  • Dumplings:
    • 1 cup all purpose flour
    • 1 cup while wheat flour
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup milk, we used almond
    • 3 tablespoons butter
Instructions:


1) Finely chop the celery. Cut off ends of carrots. If you're using organic variety, don't bother peeling, otherwise do. Thinly slice into rounds, cutting in half if too large for your taste. Smash and peel all of the garlic. Mince 3 of the cloves and leave the rest whole (my family loves garlic and so prefers this preparation, but the hole head could be removed if the prospective eaters are wary of its odor).


2) Heat oil in a medium soup pot. When hot, toss in the vegetables you've just chopped. Cook until the celery is somewhat translucent and the carrots are slightly soft. Toss in the pork pieces. Saute lightly for 30 seconds. Deglaze the pan with half a cup of stock, making sure to scrape the pan of all that flavorful goodness that gets burned on. Add the rest of the stock. Sprinkle in the spices and tomato flakes. Cover and bring to a boil. 


3) Make dumpling dough: Bring milk and butter to a simmer on low heat. Stir together flours, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Once the milk is hot and the butter is melted into it, pour the liquid into the dry ingredients. Combine gently with a fork or your hands (if you aren't sensitive to heat). Don't work it too much as it will become tough very quickly. Divide into 18-20 portions. Loosely roll them into balls. Set aside.


4) Once the soup has been boiling for approximately 5 minutes, arrange the dumplings across the surface of the soup. Cover and boil for 10 minutes without peeking. Serve immediately garnished with a slice of cheese on top of each bowl.




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This is not the end of our time here in St. John. I need to get this post out onto the InterWebs so that everyone [hopefully] doesn't lose faith in me completely. Plus, I'm not sure how much time I'll have in the coming week. Ha. You're used to it by now.