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


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.


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.



Green Beans

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



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


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.


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!

Crispy Seeded Chickpea Crackers and Roasted Vegetable Tomato Bruschetta


Tonight I thought I’d share with you two recipes that we eat fairly often around this house – they are both Vegan, Gluten-Free, and Paleo (with one change), and absolutely delicious!  The bruschetta mixture takes advantage of whatever local vegetables are in season, and the crispy chickpea crackers are a wonderful substitute for traditional toasted bread rounds as a base for the bruschetta.

Both of these recipes are simple to prepare, but take a bit more time due to baking in the oven.  But, both can be prepared way ahead of serving time, and actually get even better as they sit, as the flavors meld in the bruschetta as it rests – so don’t worry about timing this one out from stove to table, rather just take the steps as they fit into your schedule.   There are even several places where you can set the recipe aside and finish it later, if you like, to prepare for guests or to have with other dishes – up to you!  Just let your time in the kitchen flow and don’t pressure yourself with a timetable, because there isn’t one here.

I always start with the chickpea crackers first, as they need to be baked and cooled before they are finished, and while they cool I can roast the vegetables and prep the tomatoes for the bruschetta.  I’ve taken and adapted a recipe for traditional Socca, which is a street food dish from France and Spain, and given it an Indian twist as I’ve found in one of my favorite cookbooks, Heaven’s Banquet by Miriam Kasin Hospodar.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and then you begin with an empty food processor (or a bowl with a mixer), into which you place equal amounts of chickpea (also sometimes called garbanzo) flour and water.  I use Bob’s Red Mill brand, which can be bought locally at Plaza Extra, and sometimes at CostULess.   For this recipe, I use two cups of flour and two cups of water, and one teaspoon of salt.

Chickpea Flour in the Processor

Blend it all together just until a smooth batter forms, about the same as pancake batter.  The main point is just to eliminate any lumps.  Again, you could do this in a bowl with a handheld mixer or even a whisk, if you wanted the arm workout!

After it’s blended, grease a 9×13 inch pan and have it ready, and then pour the batter into a saucepan on the stove and add your seeds.  I used Charnushka seeds, which are a traditional India seasoning seed, but you can use cumin seed instead.  You can also try other seeds and see which ones you like, such as mustard seeds, fennel seeds, sesame seeds – there are many possibilities, just go with what you like!

Charnushka Seeds

Chickpea Batter with Charnushka Seeds

Slowly heat the batter over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens.  You’ll know it’s thick enough when it separates away from the bottom of the pan while you whisk.  Small lumps in the batter are okay, but if larger ones form whisk it until the lumps go away, or run it through the processor again.

Chickpea Batter Thickening

Pour the batter into the greased 9×13 pan.  Smooth and shake it around until it forms a thin layer on the bottom, which will be about 1/4 inch thick.  Then drizzle olive oil over the top and spread it around with the back of a spoon.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, just a shine of olive oil over the surface.

Chickpea Batter Ready for Oven

Then place the pan in your preheated 350 degree oven and set the timer for 30 minutes.

While that is baking, it’s time to move onto roasting the vegetables for the bruschetta!  I basically go through the ‘fridge and see what we have that needs eating from my latest market run.  I also prefer to have fresh local tomatoes because they really make the flavor of the bruschetta sing – so this is a great dish for this time of year while tomatoes in season.  For tonight’s bruschetta I used a few various local zucchini and a local eggplant in addition to the tomatoes, but I have also used asparagus (not local, bought at Quality Food), green beans, and peppers – think warm weather vegetable crops that will hold their texture as they’re roasted.  I opted to not use the mushrooms in this picture as they would get too soft in the oven for bruschetta, so I’m going to roast them separately for another dish tomorrow.

Local Veggies for Bruschetta

I peeled and chopped the eggplant, and peeled and chopped up the white zucchini (I find this variety has a thicker skin that is better removed), and then chopped the green zucchinis as well.  Throw all the chopped pieces onto a roasting pan and toss them with olive oil and salt.  Notice that the pieces are slightly larger than bite size, as they will reduce as they cook and you want the bruschetta to still be chunky.  I also don’t mind that the pan is crowded, as these veggies are better a bit more tender and not as dry as they would be if they were roasting with more space between the pieces.  Also notice that I am not roasting the tomatoes – those are used fresh in the bruschetta.

Chopped Bruschetta Veggies

Set this pan aside and wait for the chickpea crackers to finish baking.  The crackers will be done after baking for the 30 minutes, after which time take them out of the oven and let them cool – the surface of the pan will be cracked somewhat, which is good, and the texture will be dry and slightly chewy.

Baked Chickpea Batter

Then turn the temperature up on the oven to 400 degrees, and place the roasting pan of veggies in the oven for another 30 – 45 minutes to roast and reduce.  Go walk the dog or read a book or something, and then come back and take them out and also set them aside to cool.

Roasted Veggies

While both pans rest, chop your tomatoes and put them in a bowl.  Then chop up a handful of good fresh basil – I used a sweet Thai basil that Doug has been growing in our garden lately.  It has a wonderful flavor!  Set the basil aside to add into your veggie mixture.

Chopped Tomatoes

Thai Basil

When the roasted veggies are cooled, pour them in the bowl as well and add the chopped basil on top.  Add about 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, and 2 – 4 Tablespoons of balsamic or red wine vinegar – whatever is good to your taste.  Salt and pepper, mix it all up, and then set the bowl in the refrigerator to cool (the bruschetta tastes better slightly chilled) while you finish the chickpea crackers.

Mixing Up the Bruschetta

For the last step of the crackers, heat about 1/8 inch of oil in the bottom of a flat-bottomed pan.  You just want enough for the crackers to brown in, but not be completely submerged, so that they fry on each side.  I have been using grapeseed oil as I like the neutral flavor, but you could also use olive oil or even ghee or palm oil (to make it paleo).  There are several different opinions around regarding your choice of oil these days, so just use the one that you prefer for your particular diet – it doesn’t make much change to the flavor, other than ghee, which makes the crackers much more buttery!

Take a sharp knife over to your pan of crackers and cut the crackers into 2-inch squares.  For a 9×13 pan, I get about 12 good-sized crackers.  Lift them out of the pan with a flat spatula – be a bit careful, as they are thin and can break – and then lower them into the hot oil to brown on both sides.  Fry the crackers about 2 minutes on each side, flipping in between – they should have a nice golden color.

Frying Chickpea Crackers

Remove them to a paper towel to cool.  You will be tempted to try one right away, but don’t!  They stay hot for several minutes, as the beans hold the heat – I’ve burnt my tongue more than once!  Just let them cool, and then you can either go ahead and top them with the bruschetta, or put them in a storage container for later.  They keep at room temperature for 1 – 2 days, but they never last longer than 24 hours in our house!

Cooling Chickpea Crackers

Last step – take your crackers, and top them with the bruschetta, or set them with the bruschetta to use them to dip it up.  Be as simple or as decorative as you like, it tastes yummy whichever way you choose.

Here’s how I served the bruschetta to Doug:

Cripy Seeded Chickpea Crackers and Bruschetta

And here’s how I ate it (’cause the cook can’t wait, yanno):

The Cook's Bruschetta

And here’s how Doug ate it.  Yum!

Doug's Bruschetta

And either way, it was DELICIOUS.   Eating fresh, local vegetables brings such flavor to food, that once you’ve begun to experience it, you’ll never go back to stale store-bought vegetables again.

I hope you enjoy these simple recipes, and try them and adapt them to whatever you have fresh in your kitchen.  Eat local, St. Croix, and ENJOY!!