Friday, November 27, 2009

Give us a biscuit then!

I'm not much of a chocolate lover. I mean, I like kit kat and twix, but I'm not one of those people who crave chocolate - have to have it. In fact, I can't really think of any foods that I am absolutely attached to (although the world would be unbearable without roast pork with crackling or crispy-skin pork from Kam Wah!) except of course for biscuits. I don't know why. I LOVE biscuits - would eat a whole pack of them without batting an eyelid (which is why I NEVER buy them at the supermarket!)

So when I walked into master control in the Media Centre at CHOGM (where I spent a hellish 12-hour shift from 8pm to 8am this morning, and where I am now) and got shown to the crew food table, I quickly scopsed out the variety of biscuits on offer: oreos, raisin shortbread, chips ahoy chocolate chip cookies, and a couple other kinds - I knew there would be trouble! Boredom + biscuits = trouble! I managed to resist (except for munching on a couple chocolate chip cookies last night. But then, who can blame me? Somehow, chocolate chip cookies always seem the most enticing; the most worthy of breaking the no-biscuit rule for.)

But I was caught off-guard tonight. I just happened to wander over to the couch (which is right next to the crew food table) with my book, Eat, Pray and Love. (Incidentally, I don't know why I'm stickin' with it - all this simi-dimi transcendental-search-for-God-and-love-in-an-Ashram rubbish is really starting to get to me!) I sat down to read, but got distracted (surprise surprise!) by the view just beyond the pages of my book: the chocolate burbon biscuits (another favourite of mine). I munched on one of those. It was okay. And for the heck of it, I grabbed the ginger snap biscuits and bit into one of them. It was a transcendental moment!!

I was immediately transported to my Granny's kitchen - the smell of it; the familiarity of it; the two tins of biscuits in the cupboard on the left above the glasses and soup bowls. My Grandmother's house was one place in England where I knew I was always welcome. It felt like home to me: I knew where everything was (including the biscuits); I knew what would be in the fridge; which chest-of-drawers the blue serviettes were in; which place mats to use to set the table; where Granny 'hid' the twiglets and bacon-flavoured crisps. Many months after my Grandmother died, when the things my Mum and I had inherited arrived in Trinidad and were unpacked, the most unsettling thing was that Mum's house smelt like Granny's house - like warmth and welcoming and ginger snaps with tea in the afternoon on Granny's ugly gold couch that I'd known all my life.

As I get older, I realise that the list of places that I know with certainty are mine is diminishing. My Granny's home in Godalming; my Dad's house high up in Stony Hill; Auntie Gay's crooked house in West Haddon. These certainties no longer exist, and I know the remaining ones will disappear in time. The day will come when my home, and my sister's home are all that are mine. I suppose that's the way it is meant to be - I'll be a full grown-up then. But those homes are with me always, and getting to them is as easy as biting into a ginger-snap, or hearing the sound of typing on a keyboard.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Simple pleasures, at home and away

The snowcone. A combination of shaved ice, sickly sweet syrup and sweetened condensed milk. It's been part of my food landscape all my life. It was always my Dad who used to take my sister and I round the savannah for a snowcone. Guava syrup, pine syrup, milk, and if we were lucky, the vendor would put two little ears on either side of our snowcone globe. It was pure happiness: the first few sucks on the straw brought the sweetest, most concentrated mouthfulls of syrup. Then, as the ice melted, we would dig our straws down into our cups, trying to force the syrup into the ice to make the sweetness last longer. Saffrey, I think, was gifted at making the syrup last right to the very end - just like she was the only one at the table who would save her meat for last! Of course, me, with my inability to delay gratification, would always end up with a half-cup of bland and flavourless ice having sucked all the sweetness out of it. (For the first time in my life, I actually managed to keep a lot of my syrup for last, when I had a tamarind snowcone round the savannah last week. That's when I discovered that I preferred my way of doing it - sucking the ice dry of syrup. Because for me, the triumph of the syrup in the bottom of the cup was kind of ruined by the fact that I felt a little sick and there was no ice chaser left to balance off the sugar! Go figure, the grass is always greener...)

When I went to Costa Rica in June, my friend Rachel and I were amazed (although why we were, I'm not sure) to come across a snowcone vendor at one of the pretty green squares in San Jose. He didn't have a machine for shaving the ice. He used a little metal scraper attached to a box to catch the shaved ice. It was a pretty labour intensive activity for him. But the end result was much the same. A beautiful, sweet pleasure that makes you smile and never fails to remind you of simpler times, when a styrofoam cup of shaved ice with syrup and a trip to the savannah were such a source of happiness.

Here's Rachel just before she tucked into hers...

My favourite snowcone spot (and I'm sure it's predictable) Is Lil Prince on the western side of the savannah. And tamarind is my syrup of choice!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tikka Masala: so-so

I'm fairly sure that people are going to pelt me with stones (or tomatoes) for this one, because everyone's been raving about how fantastic the food at Tikka Masala (a stand in the food hall of Long Circular Mall) is. My boyfriend gets food from there a couple of times a week, and there was a good buzz about it on facebook. I'm a lover of Indian food - my mum makes really good curry and I lived in England for several years where 'an Indian' long ago overtook fish and chips as the most popular take-out food. So I made my way over to the mall a couple of weeks ago to check out this 'fantastic food'.

On first glimpse I was optimistic: really nice looking stand, great photographs of the food, good prices (everything seemed to be in the $30 range) and friendly service. On closer inspection, the menu combinations were a bit disappointing: no vegetable curries - this is a big problem for me as I get in a twitch if I eat a meal sans veggies. Only one real vegetarian option - very disappointing when you consider that Indian food is the one sure-fire cuisine for vegetarians. And then there are too many meat meat starch combos.

Anyways, I was there, and I love trying new places to eat, so I ordered tandoori chicken with aloo sag and naan bread. The food appeared quickly enough, was sealed with foil and I was given a small container of freshly sliced onions and coriander. All of this HAS to be good, I thought to myself as I wandered off to find a table at which I could eat.

And then... bitter disappointment. Overcooked, mushy potatoes, tasteless and non-descript chicken. They looked right. They just didn't taste right. Tandoori chicken has always been one of my favourite things, especially when it's cooked in a proper tandoor (a specially prepared clay oven). The combination of yogurt and citrus and then a million spices and the chargrilled meat makes for an exciting taste experience. In fact, to me, that's what makes all Indian curries good - the play of flavours exploding or melting into ones mouth at different points of the taste experience. But what I had at Tikka Masala that day was just kind of homogonised and (perish the thought!) bland.

The high point of that meal was the naan bread, which was delicious. And the little slices of onion mixed with fresh coriander was a nice touch in an altogether forgettable meal.

But hang on... because I needed to know if I was just unlucky that day, I went back yesterday. This time I ordered chicken korma and lamb rogan josh with naan. Again, delicious naan and slices of onion. This time the curries were a little better. But not substantially. In both cases there simply wasn't the intensity of flavour one expects from a good curry. I wondered if the cooks were chinxing on the spices to make them go further. Or maybe they were just adding too much liquid and not letting the food cook for long enough. Whatever the reason, both meals were disappointing, and although it's more expensive, I would sooner spend my money at that place in Shoppes of Maraval (is it called Tandoori Hut?) than Tikka Masala.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A little lime zest

Until I moved into my new apartment (where I have no cable and no rabbit ears for my tv) I was an unabashed Food Network peong! I could sit and watch Ace of Cakes and Barefoot Contessa, not to mention Next Food Network Star (swearing all the time that that coulda be me!) and Secrets of a Restaurant Chef for hours at a time. Whole sundays would be given over to watching Guy Fieri drive from one diner to another eating the most fabulous and no doubt heartburn inducing things! There's something both sexy and comforting (an odd combination, I suppose) about watching other people cook.

In addition to watching the famous people, I've also been a food adventurer all my life. This has led to some unmitigated disasters (in which the only rational response would have been to throw the food in the bin) and some quite special and memorable concoctions. What I've learned about cooking food (from my own explorations, and from my hours of watching Food Network) is that good food starts with good ingredients and a knowledge of how those ingredients work. I think learning to cook is really about learning an ingredient - what it works with; what it's a disaster with; what makes it shine; whether it can stand alone or whether it provides good support to something else. It's the latter that I'm going to dwell on today - those special ingredients that move food from ordinary and okay, to special and interesting and exciting. They're things that all of us know about, yet few of us remember to buy, and use when we're cooking. Fresh herbs; ginger; different varieties of pepper (fresh peppers like seasoning peppers and scotch bonnet, jalapeño and chilli); nuts (pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds, pecans and sunflower seeds); peppercorns - green ones, red ones, black ones; different kinds of salt (taste salt - and you'll understand that there are different varieties) lemon and lime zests (or even grapefruit and orange).

Today I was making pancakes out of the box. I'm sorry, but I've never been able to make a pancake from scratch that's as good as a pancake made from Aunt Jemima's or bisquik pancake mix. And while I've always been quite content with following the instructions on the packet to the letter, today I decided to add some lime zest to the mixture. Not too much, just about a half teaspoon. And when I tell you, those little curls of zest elevated the packet pancake to something special and elegant. It wasn't overpowering. It just teased my taste buds: here a bit, there a bit - light citrus with good butter and runny maple syrup. Yum! (I'm threatening to have pancakes for dinner too!)

I've also taken to adding a little lime juice and zest to soups and salad dressings and those things are more special and interesting for the addition.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Not a happy Ritual

Okay folks, so it's one of my biggest sources of frustration living in Trinidad: poor or non-existent customer service. I don't really suffer with road rage, but boy does an arrogant waitress drive me crazy! (I can even visualise my hand zinging towards the head of whomever has wronged me and slapping them on the forehead with a loud pax!) Or a server who will look you straight in the eye and tell you that full cream milk is cream, and then point the word 'cream' out to you on the label. (I kid you not - buy a bananaberry frost from that concession stand in the Movietowne food hall and although the sign clearly says bananas, strawberries and CREAM, what you'll get is bananas, strawberries and milk, and a really bad attitude when you ask, once you've watched the drink being prepared, "Where's the cream?"

To me, the worst example of shite customer service - I mean the kind that can have me seething with rage or reduced to tears (depending on my mood prior to entering the establishment) is the coffee chain Rituals. Here's the thing - I love a lil' cappucino or cafe latte and those fried apple fritter things. So there are times when I'll got to a Rituals once a day - especially if I've run out of my house in the morning sans coffee. I reckon I've been to maybe five or six different outlets of Rituals, and although the coffee is okay, the experience of being served there can ruin even the freshest apple fritter. I don't know - at times I try to be patient and find excuses for the junk and often belligerent service I get: these people just don't receive enough training; poor management; crappy salaries. But then I think this is just complete crap that there are no excuses for... because it's always the same, no matter what outlet of Rituals I go into. Perhaps the bosses and them just don't care to ensure their customers have a pleasurable experience.

Suggestion: train the staff to understand that their job is to SERVE customers, not steups at customers, ignore customers, roll their eyes when customers order, stroll to the coffee machine, stroll back to the customer, quarrel with other staffers when there are customers around, talk on their cellphones while customers are waiting to order, respond to customers with their backs turned. I mean!! Make it a happy Ritual nuh!

Oh - and on another note: why can't they serve some local coffee in Rituals? In Jamaica it's a source of pride (and too a higher price) that they can say at coffee shops, "Blue Mountain Coffee". I'd like to be able to buy some local coffee at Rituals. And some regular cakes that are made in Trinidad: sponge cake, for example, would be lovely. Really good coconut drops - hey, why not? A little rum cake. It doesn't ALL have to be foreign, does it?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Beetroot and ginger salad

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting my friend Ashley in Jamaica, and she introduced me to a roasted beet (marinated in ginger and balsamic vinegar) salad. The beets (which, by the way, have become one of my favourite things to eat) had a sweet, caramelised flavour, which worked really well with the zingy ginger. So I deided to give that recipe a try tonight. But here's the problem: I haven't been able to figure out how to light the oven of my new cooker (mentioned in earlier blog). It's a lame excuse, and a growing source of frustration because I love baking things in the oven. So I decided to do a raw version of the salad. And it was delicious and super easy to make.

So here's what you'll need:
1 large fresh beetroot (the size of a big clenched fist) - I use a mandolin to finely julienne the beet
2 inches of fresh ginger finely grated
2 tablespoons each balsamic vinegar and olive oil
a healthy pinch of salt

Make sure you thoroughly wash the beet. Thinly slice or julienne the beetroot (I leave the skin on, but if you'd prefer to peel it go ahead). In a bowl mix all the dressing ingredients together including the grated ginger, and toss the beetroot in the dressing. Serve it chilled.

Another thing to remember is to serve the beetroot salad in a separate bowl. I can't bear it when the pink juice of beets bleeds into other vegetables, so I always serve the salad separately.

I hope you like it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hey presto pesto

Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow here in Trinidad. And there are lots of places where you can find little basil plants - Agriflora in El Socorro, the plant shop on the highway, the plant shop by Chaconia Inn in Maraval. It can handle a lot of sun, but you mustn't let it go to seed. Anytime you see it start flowering, cut the flowers (gosh, that sounds brutal!). It also likes to be pruned often. I never pick individual leaves, but cut the stem just above new leaf growth, that way the plant continues to sprout. (I'm not sure that I'm using the correct horticultural terms her, but, you know what I mean!)

I love having fresh basil in the kitchen. I put it in salads, pasta sauces and in Thai food. I like the combination of basil, shaddo beni and fresh mint in a salad. And I especially love fresh pesto. So here's my latest successful version. (If you can find it, it's best to use parmesan cheese off the wedge rather than the pre-grated/ shredded kind. Hi-lo has Sargento parmesan wedges, and that works just fine in the pesto.)

So you'll need the following things (and a blender):

half a cup of olive oil (or you can mix olive oil and regular vegetable oil)
about 1 and a half ounces of parmesan cheese
a handful of nuts (either pine nuts, walnuts or pecans. I tried almonds once but they aren't flavourful enough to compete with the basil.)
4 fat cloves of garlic
half a teaspoon of sea salt
more basil than you can imagine - I reckon about 40 or 50 leaves

Put the olive oil in the blender first - followed by cheese, garlic, nuts and salt. Once those are nice and smooth (or a little chunky if you like) start adding the basil slowly, say ten leaves at a time until all the basil is in there. Keep blending until you've got a pesto.

You can use your pesto on pasta (I would reckon about one heaping tablespoon of pesto per person) or in salad dressings or sauces.

To store it in the fridge, put the pesto in a clean jar, and pour enough olive oil over it to cover it completely. And there you go!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The strange solace of my fridge

I moved into a new apartment a couple of months ago. I HATE moving. Perhaps my loathing can be attributed to my childhood - I've moved house no fewer than 17 times in my life (sometimes this also involved moving country), and while my sister and mother seem to take to it like ducks to water, I go into an immediate decline now at the thought of having to pack anything. I can't stand the confusion and inconvenience of packing. It's a major frustration that for weeks both before and after one moves, one invariably can't find the thing one wants when one needs it. And, to add to the problems, I was moving into a smaller apartment and therefore needed to downsize!

My new apartment needed appliances, and that was another irritation. No fridge and no stove. So I went off to Courts to buy these necessities on hire purchase (Just as an aside, NEVER buy something at Courts on hire purchase unless you absolutely must! And if you do, pay off the loan in the shortest amount of time possible. I was stunned to learn that if I had chosen to pay off my appliances in 3 years, they would have ended up costing me nearly 3 times the original price!) and planned my moving day to coincide (roughly) with the arrival of said appliances.

Moving day arrives and it's hell. Whereas I'd been fooling myself into believing that I was organised and prepared, the movers arrived and it quickly became clear how not ready I was. Bits and pieces all over the place, not in boxes or bags. Chests of drawers not emptied; clothes everywhere! My boyfriend and I (with the help of the movers) loaded most of my possessions onto the truck (along with my brand-spanking new fridge and stove - well, at that point they really still belonged to Courts) and made several trips up and down to the new apartment, offloading and filling up, offloading and filling up, until the new place was a ram-packed shambles, and the old place a less ram-packed shambles.

The first things I unpacked were my fridge magnets and postcards. And with mountains of stuff everywhere I turned, I set about quietly arranging my magnets, pictures and postcards on my fridge. With everything else that needed to be done, I'm sure my boyfriend thought this a ridiculous indulgence. And he was probably right. But I needed to do it because it was the most direct and easy route to claiming the new apartment as my home that I could take. It would take me months to hang up the paintings, organise my books and move all my clothes in. I didn't actually cook anything in my kitchen for days. But every time I passed the fridge, with my collection of friends and memories, I smiled and knew that regardless of the shambles around me I was home.

So let me give you a tour of my fridge door.

There's the brilliant bottle opener shaped like a hippie flower my Mum gave me a few years ago. There's the invitation my boyfriend designed to an exhibition called "Rockstone and Bootheel" which opens in Connecticut in mid-November (contemporary Caribbean art - shameless plug!); there's a funny magnet my Mum got me in Paris - a bag of saucisson and baguette and a bottle of wine - a bit tacky, but there you go. I have pictures of my closest friends and family; Nicola just before she embarked on her life-changing trip to South America. There's a magnet of a Holland house (including tiny tulips) that I bought in Amsterdam when I went with my sister and her friend Susie and thanked the Gods that I never fell off the bike even though there were many times I could have and one time when Alan did! I also have on the fridge a little replica of a decorated wheelbarrow from Costa Rica, where I convinced myself to whizz down three kms of zip lines with my friend Rachel trying something I never imagined I would. There's an invitation to one of those seminal events that happened here in Trinidad: the series of contemporary art exhibitions and installations that comprised the very ambitious "Galvanise". And sundry shoe magnets that I was given during my reign as the Imelda Marcos of my family. (My sister recently usurped this position with her 20 pairs of flip-flops stored in order of colour!)

I moved into my new apartment in September. Within days I had released a film which won an award; within weeks my father died of lung cancer. In such dizzying and overwhelming times, my fridge was a strange source of solace to me - a collage of memories and loved-ones, and a promise of new experiences.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The best Gizzada ever!

When a Jamaican says you must try a gizzada you experience first mild panic! (Some kind of chicken gizzard something??!!) You become even more suspicious when you are reassured: "Oh don't worry, it's delicious!" Yeah right! While the Jamaicans have the gift of naming some things beautifully: Orocabessa; Halfway Tree. There are some disasters: Bogwalk; Balaclava; Magotty!! I mean - talk about terrible names. And I just added Gizzada to the list and braced myself for some kind of culinary aberration!

So imagine my surprise when a little coconut tart was presented to me. Phew! No chicken gizzard pie! But here's the problem - Gizzadas are like jaw breakers only sharper. The pastry is hard, the coconut centre is hard and likely to bruise up the inside of your mouth when you bite into it. EXCEPT, and it is a wondrous exception, for the Gizzadas that are sold at Cafe Blue at Sovereign Mall in Kingston.

My friend Shivaun and I met at Cafe Blue to have lunch and catch up. It had been three years since last we'd seen each other, and our lives had changed quite profoundly in the interim. We'd both lost a parent and got involved with men we loved. Yes, so like I said, it was a LOT to catch up on. And whatever we ate for lunch seemed completely inconsequential and quite forgettable. Then she said, "We must share a Gizzada!" "Really?" says I. "I'm not too sure about that." "No," says she. "This is the best Gizzada ever!"

And you know... it was. What a thing of beauty! It required that Shivaun and I stop our talking and eat small pieces of the tart in a reverential silence. It was a delicate, crunchy tart that nearly melted in my mouth. And then the gorgeous macaroon-like centre of the finely shredded coconut, baked to a light golden-brown. It was slightly sticky, sweet, chewy and crunchy. And yes, you HAVE to try one!

Pelican Bar, Treasure Beach, Jamaica

Earlier this year, I was in Jamaica for a protracted period of time. I had been working hard and was tired and quite worn down. My sister, who lives in Jamaica and is a lover of all things from the land of wood and water (Usain Bolt especially) invited me to spend a weekend in Treasure Beach with her with a couple of her friends. Saffrey had been doing a job in Treasure Beach and had come to know it quite well. So I borrowed my Dad's car, and set off from Kingston through the shockigly unsigned wilds of Clarendon and Mandeville.

Saffrey was staying in a cottage on the beach, and after some hesitation on my part, she managed to convince me to take a pirogue out to Pelican Bar with her and her friends. We were to have lunch there, and really, I just HAD to see it.

Treasure Beach is a strange sort of place. There's the gorgeous hotel, Jake's, run by the Henzell Family, and from what I could tell, not a whole lot more. It's at the bottom of a very steep and precipitous hill. In places it drops sharply into the sea over craggy rocks, and in other spots there's sandy beaches that slope gently into that archetypal blue Caribbean Sea.

It was a gorgeous day - the sea so blue, the sky so blue. Saffrey in a good mood, me - kind of waiting to be impressed; Kimmy and her boys in a state of excitement. And soon I understood why. It seemed that it was impossible to go to Pelican Bar without coming upon a school of dolphins. Now, to me, dolphins are like fireworks and steelpan - I never tire of experiencing that giggly grinning and skinning thrill of being in the midst of squeaking, speeding school of dolphins! They stayed with us for several miles, I think. And then there, off in the distance, in the middle of the sea (as far as I could tell) appeared some sort of shack - the kind of thing you would have seen on "The Blue Lagoon", or some Hollywood movie about castaways or shipwrecked sailors.

As we got closer, I realised the structure wasn't quite in the middle of the sea - it was in a sort of shallow area that extended like a sea peninsula out from the mainland behind a reef. But that notwithstanding, it was still magical. Very Robinson Crusoe.

Truth be told, though, the food was kind of junky. Regular Jamaican by-the-sea fare. Brown stews, steamed or eshoveitched fish and lobster with rice. Red stripes and tings and pepsis. I wouldn't bother to go there for the food. It was more expensive than I would want if you factor in the cost of the boat ride (nearly an hour each way). But you know, you just can't beat the novelty of the whole experience - the blue sea, the sky, the dolphins, the Robinson Crusoe shack in the middle of the sea. Make a day of it and pretend you're a castaway living in a rickety driftwood shack lapped by the waters of the Caribbean Sea!

Day one in this new world!

I know this business of blogging has been going on for years now, and I find myself arriving very late to the party. But over the weekend, I decided I'd like to start writing about something I love dearly, and know a couple of things about - food!

Over the past several years, I've been the producer and host of a popular cooking television show here in Trinidad, and I've met some wonderful cooks, eaten amazingly well and had plenty laughs. I've also learnt a lot about food.

I live in Trinidad and Tobago, and there's no where that you can find an honest restaurant review, fast food review, discussion of favourite street foods, or even best recipes. So I thought I'd start my own foodie blog, for anyone, who, like me, is a lover of things that make you lick your lips and salivate! (And I'll also be honest about the things you should just avoid completely!)