The Bountiful Summertime

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Mangoes in my kitchen

Ah, Summertime on St. Croix…the time of year when the pace slows down, the temperature rises a teeny tiny bit, and we all look occasionally to the East for the possibility of a storm, while relaxing on the beach, drink in hand.

The official start to Summer is actually June 21, the Summer Solstice, but on St. Croix we know that it’s actually a different day – and that day is the day you get to eat your first delicious, juicy, sweet, floral scented and tropical flavored MANGO of the season.  For me, it is a day I look forward to all year!  And that first mango is also a sign of more delicious bounty to come in the form of avocado, carambola (starfruit), soursop, and more wonderful tropical fruit treats, ready and ripe to enjoy in a recipe, on a dish, or simply out of hand.

And while the bounties of summer flourish, the pace of life also slows.  Our beautiful little island becomes a bit quieter and softer, as the hustle and bustle of the tourist season comes to an end and we enjoy our summertime visitors and the start of wedding season.  We watch the flamboyant trees slowly unfurl their summertime coats of red splendor and relish the scents of the greenery and flowers in the air.  The kids are out of school, the community gathers for picnics and family barbeques, and the beaches are the days of rum and long, summer languid moments of nothing but – peace.

Oh, and mangoes.  Have I mentioned mangoes yet?

This week I’ll be visiting Aberra Bulbulla and wandering through the variety of tropical fruit trees in his orchard, trees that are now laden with fruit and beauty.  I’ll have photos to share and hopefully some inspiration to try something new and local on St. Croix that perhaps you haven’t tasted before!  Our local bounty of fruits is tremendous, and today only marks the beginning of the season.  I hope you’ll stick with me over the next few months as I cover more of our lovely summertime, and continue to Go Local St. Croix!

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Saturday Shopping Day April 27

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Shopping Day 4/29

A great local shopping day this morning – we’re set for the next few days!  Malabar spinach, pumpkin, green beans, bok choy, carrots, cucumber, malay apples, sapote, bananas, papaya, grapefruit, and – LOCAL JALAPENOS.   I am grinning from ear to ear!

Thinking Outside the (Recipe) Box

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A Local Dinner

Before I moved to St. Croix, I was an adherent recipe fanatic.  For me, cooking a nice meal involved three steps:

  1. Find a good recipe
  2. Go to the grocery store or market and shop
  3. Cook.

There was often also a fourth step, which was – what do I do with the leftover ingredients I didn’t use?  For example, if a recipe called for a half of a head of cabbage, what did I do with the other half?  Generally it just languished in my fridge in the back of the crisper drawer, like some lonely forgotten thing, until in a week or so it was no longer recognizable and – out it went into the compost pile.

This was not only a very wasteful way to cook (do you know how much food is wasted in the United States?), but it was also very sad!  Food should be a joy, cooking should be love, and a home cook should be in harmony with her ingredients.  And once I moved to St. Croix and was faced with the daily task of – what to cook?  A lot of my recipe fanaticism went out the window.

Recipes for me now are guidelines.  I find a recipe I like and examine it, and then I pull it apart – I first ask, “hm, what can I replace in the recipe with a local ingredient?”  This is generally pretty simple.  Most tender vegetables substitute pretty easily for each other.  Don’t have asparagus?  Use local squash or zucchini.  Don’t have cabbage?  Use local bok choy.  Don’t have spinach?  Use local greens like kale or mustard greens.   You can also substitute honey for agave nectar, and coconut oil for most other oils (be aware it does add coconut flavor).  Jalapenos can be replaced with local hot peppers.  Peaches can be replaced with mangoes.  Apples can be replaced with sopadilla.  Local honey vinegar goes well in salad dressings instead of wine vinegar.  The possibilities are endless!

Meats can be a bit more of a challenge (and this year part of my advocacy goals is to increase local meat awareness), but you can buy local beef at Annaly farm, or local chickens, lamb, and rabbit at Sejah farm.  A local chicken comes whole, so learning basic butchering skills if you want to cut it up into parts is simple and fresh, and can be done for any chicken recipe.  Or you can roast the bird whole and then flake the meat for a recipe.  It isn’t hard to do!

The key to this method of cooking is simple – it is TASTE.  Taste your food, taste your ingredients, and consider what goes well together.  And if something doesn’t work out, don’t be upset, change it up in the next recipe.  I have a compost pile here at home and and area in our back yard where I make “offerings” to the local mongooses and iguanas of food that we aren’t going to eat!  So now, I’m throwing out as little as possible.

And that is the other side benefit of this type of cooking – now, when I have half a head of bok choy left to cook, instead of throwing it out because I don’t have a recipe, I am now seeking a way to add it to the next dish I prepare.  Much less waste!  And much more taste!  This is the delight of cooking with fresh, local, seasonal St. Croix ingredients at home.  So now my steps are:

  1. Shop for local foods
  2. Consider how to add them to dishes/find a recipe to use that can include them
  3. Cook.

And my cooking life is much more simple and joyful, and closer to the Earth.  As it should be.

*For a wonderful read on how to shop at your Farmers Market and prepare your week’s dishes in a simple and sustainable fashion, I recommend “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” by Tamar Adler.  Read this book.  It will change your cooking relationship with food tremendously.

“A Taste of St. Croix” Review: Farm to Table Musings

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So this year was my first year attending “A Taste of St. Croix” (simply known as, “the Taste”) as a local food advocate and blogger.  And honestly, I had very little idea what to expect and do other than I knew that I wanted to attend the event with one goal in mind:  Seek out and find the local food, and report on it.  I wanted to show a perspective of the event that was different from the beautiful and glamorous photo shoots, the glitz and the glitter, the laughter and the full tummies and happy smiles going into the night.  I was a woman on a mission, and I had ONE mission:  Find the local food ingredients, and taste what had been done with it.

I am happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed.  The theme of this year’s St. Croix Food and Wine Experience week has been “Food, Farm, Philanthropy,” and what I found at the Taste was that most of the chefs and restaurants had incorporated some aspect of that theme in their dishes.  Most had at least one or two local ingredients, and several had many more, with some being composed of almost entirely local food ingredients.  And I had some wonderful surprises!  Everything I tasted was very good, bordering on delicious.  To paraphrase the words of visiting chef Simon Stojanovic, local food doesn’t have to be boring!  And that’s the message that many of our local chefs were embracing as they created their dishes.

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I started out before the doors opened to the public, and I went from table to table seeking out the chefs to ask them what local ingredients they incorporated into their dishes.  The ambience is quite different without the crowds!  And I was able to see the items that the chefs were preparing for the judges’ table, and that was quite exciting too.  The atmosphere was one of hurried anticipation as each team prepared their table perfectly for the hungry throng about to come through the doors.

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Here’s Dashi’s table prior to the event.  You can see the fountain arrangement that won them “Best Presentation” – lovely!  And the sushi included fresh local wahoo in the rolls, as well as local mint and arugula in the chimichurri sauce.  Later I tasted the sushi, and I was nervous about tasting raw wahoo – and discovered that it is quite flavorful, it’s a tender fish that pairs well with the sushi flavors.  I now have a new way to enjoy local wahoo!

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Maria’s Cantina won Best Entree (tied with You Are Here bar) for her Pescado Veracruz – one of the few dishes to feature a local protein as the primary ingredient.  That’s fresh-caught mahi on that delicious Veracruz sauce, and boy, was it good!  Congratulations, Maria!

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Here is Salud Bistro’s table during the event – local pig ear salad!  I was very nervous about tasting pig ear for the first time, but it was chewy, crispy, and delicious, and the sweet tangy dressing and local vegetables in the salad made it wonderful.

Another table that featured a local protein item (which I don’t have a photo of, unfortunately) was the Galleon.  I am CRAZY impressed with how much local food their chef Kenneth Biggs is integrating into the dishes they serve, both at the Taste and every day.  I did not know how much focus this restaurant is bringing to local ingredients, and I’m planning on a visit to the restaurant really soon for an interview!  For the Taste, they served the ONLY local lamb of the night (from Sejah Farm, of course), slow cooked and served over a ravioli stuffed with local pumpkin and finished with a demiglace.  It was absolutely delicious, and I don’t usually enjoy lamb.  I asked Mrs. Brown of Sejah Farm the secret to her lamb, and she said it is that they responsibly slaughter the lambs while they are still very young, before the meat develops that stronger flavor which normally I don’t enjoy.  So the combination of the quality meat and the cooking was just outstanding.

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This was the Galleon’s vegetarian dish, which one second place in the “Vegetarian Fare” category.  Lentils with a sweet and savory local vegetable salad, very delicious!

The Palms at Pelican Cove won “Best Soup” for their Sweet & Spicy Plantain and Papaya soup, and I enjoyed it very much as well.  The soup contained local papaya, plantain, sour orange, lemongrass, bay leaf, and peppers as key components – one of the most purely local dishes of the night to be entered by a non-farm table.  Congratulations guys!

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Here’s lettuce from Tropics Hydroponics Farm being combined with other local lettuces by Central High School to create a salad dish.  I was there when this lettuce was bought at the Farmers and Chefs Market Day at the Ag Fair – and here it is being prepared to be served to a hungry crowd!

Another local dish that won in the “Local Fare” category was served by Lighthouse Mission.  They prepared spinach fritters to order on the spot, finished with either a sweet tamarind chutney, or a hot mango chutney.  This was perhaps my favorite vegetarian dish of the night.

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There were also local food vendors represented bringing local produce to feature.  Here’s a bushel of local tomatoes at Quality Food VI….

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And here’s a display of local honey products at the Department of Agriculture’s booth.  Local honey wine, one of my favorites!

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Local Farmers were also in attendance – here’s Luca Gasperi from ARTfarm, who brought a display of produce to display with local VI honey artisan Wanda Wright featuring her local honey.  ARTfarm prepared a flatbread that was then drizzled with a honey dressing from Wanda – out of this world!

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And here’s Mrs. Browne from Sejah Farms.  Mr. and Mrs. Browne entered the event this year as well with local foods prepared fresh that day from Sejah Farm.  Their dish was a local pumpkin soup that included coconut milk prepared fresh that day by Mr. Browne – and once you’ve had fresh coconut milk, you will never want canned again!  Mr. Browne also prepared local “golden apple” drink, which actually isn’t an apple but is from a fruit called pommecythere (pronounced “pom-cee-thay”).  Delicious and refreshing, very light and crisp.  You can often find their local juice drinks for sale at Sejah Farm, Saturday is generally the best day to find them available.

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And as the beautiful St. Croix evening wore on, people began to wear lots of happy smiles and satisfied faces.  And I stepped aside for a moment to pause and consider all that I’d learned that evening.

I thought about how most of the chefs that I spoke with told me that they would love to use local ingredients even more in their dishes, but sometimes they are challenged with sourcing them for their restaurants.  I also thought about how I heard from many of the farmers that they could increase production of the products for restaurants if they knew that there would be a consistent demand.  To me, this seems like the biggest challenge in the “Farm to Table” restaurant movement on St. Croix right now – and it is a “chicken or the egg” type of challenge, as in, the restaurants are seeking greater production of goods (for consistent supply) and the farms are seeking a consistent demand before they increase production and yields.  So the question then becomes – who moves first?

I had a great conversation with Andrew Havanchak from the You Are Here bar about his winning dish – fried shrimp corn dogs with a sweet and spicy pineapple sauce.  He told me that he felt bad that he couldn’t use more local ingredients in his dishes, and he would love to be able to find them!  In his winning dish, for example, the sauce contains both pineapple and hot peppers, both of which are grown locally.  However he is challenged to find a supply for his restaurant that he can use for his dish on a consistent basis, and restaurant guests are not always understanding when a dish can’t be served simply because ingredients are missing.  So he’s currently obtaining his supply from off-island sources to ensure that locals and visitors alike are not disappointed.  But I assured him that I will be taking on the challenge for him of sourcing the local ingredients that he can use.  I know we can do it, together.

And now that’s my personal goal for 2013 as the “Go Local Gal” on St. Croix – to find a methodology that enables both restaurants and farmers to work together and bring more of the wonderful local foods that we produce to the restaurant table – especially local meats (senepol beef, anyone?)!  Food personality Andrew Zimmern visited St. Croix a few months ago and issued us a challenge – “It would rejuvenate the economy here, putting farmers back to work, communities back to work. Keeping local things local. We stopped at a farm stand on Queen Mary’s yesterday … GLG Plants and produce, with a husband and wife who are teaching their sons how to farm. That to me is the economic model for success here.”  I want to rise to that challenge.  2013 is the year when we will be able to say when the Farm to Table movement really caught traction on St. Croix – and I can’t wait!

I hope you’ll all stay with me, as we all work together to celebrate the local culture and heritage of Agriculture and food that makes St. Croix so unique and wonderful.  Thank you, to the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience, for all that you do to bring awareness to the rich culture of food that St. Croix has to offer – and here’s to another amazing year!

Meet “A Taste of St. Croix” Farmer: Grantley Samuel

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I’ve been looking forward to writing this post about my good friend and amazing farmer Grantley Samuel for a few days now.

Grantley is officially the first farmer I met on St. Croix when I moved here two years ago.  I was new, confused, and had NO idea where to shop for the local fresh produce I’d grown accustomed to buying in Austin, Texas.  Grantley was kind, welcoming, and offered me help and ideas – he even told me how to cook a breadfruit the first time!  And he has a warm heart and a constant smile on his face.

Grantley in his corn field

Meet Grantley Samuel of G.L.G Plants & Produce – standing in his favorite place, his corn field.

Grantley is very proud of his corn, as he is his all his other plants.  My husband and I have discussed Grantley’s method of success, and it all comes down to the facts that he is professional, he is organized, and he is friendly.  And – most importantly – he sees farming as a career, and an important industry that holds a significant role in a successful community.  Grantley was Agriculture’s “Farmer of the Year” in 2012, and he frequently works with local schools and the University of the Virgin Islands for Agricultural outreach programs with children and adults.

Grantley's fields

Grantley’s fields are neat and organized.  He focuses on growing five primary crops – corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, and watermelon.  He uses a minimum of pesticides, and focuses 99% of the time when he does have to use pesticides, he uses organic pesticides.  He never sprays food crop items.  His philosophy is that if he is growing food that he wants to feed his family, then he should grow food that everyone else wants to feed their families as well.  And he is able to get tremendous yields simply by applying time-proven agricultural principles of crop rotation, adequate spacing, proper watering, and fertilization.

GLG Cucumber

Here’s a cucumber that’s close to ready to harvest.  And yes, you see a few weeds and spots – which illustrates what I mentioned above, that Grantley is able to produce some wonderful produce in his fields without excessive chemicals.  Local produce typically is not “perfect” produce – because it is grown for quality and taste instead of shelf life and appearance (traits of conventionally grown produce).  And I can personally testify that Grantley’s produce has a wonderful flavor!

A field ready for corn

This is a new 2.5 acre plot that Grantley is about to plant exclusively with corn.  In the future, G.L.G Plants & Produce will have roasted corn available at its roadside stand on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays every week.

Plants in pots

And, don’t forget the herb and vegetable plants that Grantley grows for sale!  Some of the best on St. Croix, in my opinion.

G.L.G. Stand

You can find G.L.G Plants & Produce on my map of Farmers Markets and Farm Stands.

Talking about the bees

Grantley is also beginning to raise his own bees, and soon will have chickens for eggs as well.  Here he is talking with me about the bees and future chickens to be housed in a coop made with the reclaimed shipping container directly above his hands in the photo – and you can see the banana plants he’s raising also.

And that takes me to my closing thoughts about Grantley.  When we were discussing his bees, he told me something really profound.  He said, “As I learn more about bees, those bees, I wish we all could get along like those bees.  When I open that hive box, I think about how every bee in that box has a job to do, and they all know that they are dependent upon each other, and each bee’s job is important.  No bee is more important than the others, from the bee in the bottom of that box to the bee at the top.  I wish we all knew that we are equally as important.”

Well said, my friend.  I’m proud to know you, and I am thrilled with the hard work you put in for agriculture on St. Croix.  Thank you for it.

Meet “A Taste of St. Croix” Farmer: Toni Downs

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As we head into St. Croix Food and Wine Experience week, I thought it would be an ideal time to feature a few local farmers that I know, and talk with them about their “Farm to Table” efforts.  I specifically wanted to find out what produce they’ve grown for the chefs to choose from for the dishes that they will be preparing for “A Taste of St. Croix” on Thursday night.  So I toured two farms today (the other I will feature on Wednesday), and tomorrow I will be attending the “Chef/Farmer’s Market Day” at the Agriculture and Food Fair Grounds (open to the public 8 AM to 4 PM), and I’ll have more photos and information to share about the process our farmers go through to provide food from seed to plate.

So today, I introduce to you:  Farmer and Beekeeper Toni Downs.

Toni at her gate

And yes, she does smile that big all the time!

Toni moved to St. Croix a few years ago from Kentucky, where she served as the Eastern Apicultural Society Director 2007 – 2011 .  Toni has a number of years in the beekeeping business, and has been invited to speak at several apiary industry events, most recently an event for 400 “backyard beekeepers” in Connecticut, where she discussed Caribbean bees and their specific characteristics.  Since Toni moved to St. Croix, in addition to her beekeeping business, she has been growing (pardon the pun) her farm business, as well as providing valuable information and services regarding beekeeping on the island.  She has a group of hives that she raises for both honey and beeswax, and she rotates hives on her farm property as well.

Toni's tilled fields

The red box just left of center in this photo is one of her hives.  We didn’t approach it much closer today as it was windy and the bees were a little cranky from the weather, so I was happy to let them stay in their home for the day.  These fields have just recently been tilled and are going to be planted with Sunn Hemp (a cover crop), in an experiment in concert with the University of the Virgin Islands to find out if the bees harvest pollen from the sunn hemp plants, which would be valuable as a honey source in addition to a cover crop.

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Toni has food crops growing as well, here we see okra just getting started, as well as rows of corn – yes, that’s right, sweet corn on St. Croix!  Several farmers are now growing this crop with success, and you’ll be seeing it more often at farm stands around the island.

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Mmmmmm….corn…..

Green Beans

And for the chefs at A Taste of St. Croix?  Here are green beans…

Basil

Basil…

Mustard Greens

And mustard greens!  You can also see a bit of curly leaf red lettuce in this photo.

Queen Caribee

And of course, Toni will be selling her line of “Queen CariBEE” honey and products, made from honey from her own beehives, as well as local produce ingredients.  Right now many of her products (like this tomato/papaya chutney) also contain tomatoes from Ridge to Reef Farm…oh yeah, YUMMM!!!

Toni has a long-term goal of opening a community kitchen on St. Croix – a community kitchen that will rent space for production of food items in an inspected and insured environment.  She’s also working to expand her production of crops, and creating a dialogue with local restaurants about how food crops can best be supplied for restaurant dishes.  And of course, she’s always interested in preparing and selling more of her delicious products directly to the public!

But the best thing about Toni?  It’s her heart, and her passion for what she does.  Toni is kind and friendly and she cares about what she sells, and the people who buy from her.

Toni will be at the Chef/Farmer’s Market Day tomorrow with these produce items, and possibly a few more goodies I didn’t see today.  And after tomorrow, you can find her on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Southgate (marked on my map of Farmers Markets and Farm Stands).  Please stop by, say hello, and see Toni’s sunny smile for yourself.  You’ll be glad you did!

Ridge to Reef Farm: An Organic Oasis

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Here on St. Croix, we’re blessed to have Ridge to Reef Farm, a local, sustainable organic farm located in the West end rainforest. A few weeks ago, I visited for a Sunset Farm tour, as well as stayed to dine in one of their remarkable “Slow Down” dinners. Welcome to Ridge to Reef Farm

Ridge to Reef is more than just a farm.  It’s a movement, in its own way.  It represents the growing body of people who seek to not only eat in a “Farm to Table” manner that is healthier and closer to nature, but who also seek to leave the world a better place than how they found it.

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Nate Olive is the Director at the farm, and wears a lot of hats, from Event Coordinator to Marketing to simply being host and tour guide.  Here he is getting ready to blow the conch shell to round-up the group for our evening’s tour.

Seed starts under shade

Walking around the farm gives an inside look into the entire food production process.  From the seeds started in trays under shadecloth…

Rows of organic produce

To the rows of produce in various states of production…

Nate Olive discussing moringa

To the extent of just how much acreage they currently have under sustainable growth.  In this photo Nate discusses the moringa trees that are growing behind him in a terraced arrangement with tomato plants and banana trees, which provides shade and moisture for the tomatoes while preserving soil from erosion.  And this year, Ridge to Reef has produced some beautiful tomatoes!

Slow Down Dinner

But the biggest treat of the evening is returning to the Main House and sitting down for the Slow Down Dinner cooked by the evening’s guest chef.  These dinners are usually 5 – 6 course affairs, with each course featuring a different seasonal produce item, as well as meats raised on the farm.  Slow Down dinners typically happen every 4 – 6 weeks, and the next one is actually tomorrow night, April 15!  You can always find information about these special events on the Ridge to Reef Farm Facebook page.

And there’s much more going available to those who are interested in experiencing the oasis in the rainforest that is Ridge to Reef Farm.  If you’d like more information about Farm Tours, the Market, or Accommodations, check out the Ridge to Reef Farm Website.  And then visit.  Sit.  Talk.  Laugh.  And eat.  And become part of a movement that is celebrating the history and vibrancy of agriculture on St. Croix.  Thanks Nate, and everyone at Ridge to Reef, for all you do!