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.

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“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!