Saturday, February 25, 2006

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The Wayward Chef

Sail More, Work Less...

Steamed Lobster Tail

With A Creamy Whole Grain Mustard Sauce

And Poached Eggs

The final meal on the boat was breakfast which I was told should become my signature dish. I had originally planned on making eggs Benedict, but learned fresh butter and fresh milk are luxuries on these little islands, and lemons, like the kind we are used to, aren’t easily found either because they are imported… So, I had to alter my plans. I started by making an aioli with egg yolks, white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, my very last lemon which I’d been hording since after we left St. Martin, and extra-virgin olive oil. But I used whole grain Dijon mustard, and went a little heavier on the vinegar and oil, so it was more like vinaigrette. I steamed the lobster tails and served them topped with two poached eggs, the mustard sauce, a drizzle of truffle oil and toasted baguette. I may have to try this as a starter, with a little frise salad…

The owner has decided to cancel the rest of the trip which was supposed continue on to Bonaire, and my position did not go permanent because the owner is only on the boat three times a year and I don’t want to become a decky. But no matter, it’s been an amazing time and all winter my heart has been set on going to the Mediterranean for the summer yachting season.

When we finished in Grenada I set out to find my friends with the Catamaran. I had an idea of which bay they were in so I hired a taxi and brought a radio with me. As soon as I pulled up at one bay I went onto the call channel and was able to locate them. As luck would have it, I also found my friend Judith from the Crew House in St. Martin, she was hanging out with my friends on the Catamaran too. The captain of the boat Judith works on is allowing me to sail back to St. Martin with them. A straight shot from Grenada to St. Martin would take three or four days (sailing 24 hours a day) but we will be doing only day sailing and stopping on our way up for snorkeling, dinner, sleeping, etc. in St. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Antigua and St. Barth. Our plan is to be back in St. Martin around the first of March, in time for the Heineken Regatta; a big party week, and a great week to find a new boat to work on.

I’ll be completing my STCW, a safety certification required of crew for charter boats, on March 6 – 11. If I haven’t gotten on a boat by that time, I’ll head back down to Antigua for race week where chances will be high that I’ll get on a boat heading to Palma, Spain. Antigua is where all of the boats head after the Heineken Regatta, then after race week in Antigua everyone leaves either bound for the Mediterranean or to the East Coast of the United States.

So, hopefully by May I’ll be posting from some other exotic corner of the earth…

Picture Perfect. Well, almost...


Feta and Herb Fritatta

Hash Browns

Fresh “Sqeezed” Passion Fruit and Mango Juice


Baguette Sandwiches with Poached Chicken, Bacon and Roasted Peppers


Fresh Caught Lobster Steamed and Served with Asian Dipping Sauce

(Soy, Sesame, Ginger and Lime)


Hamburgers, Homemade Buns, Green Salad

After two days in Bequia we sailed on and anchored in Tobago Cays. The sail was gorgeous and took about two hours and there were only four other boats along a beautiful stretch of beach as we dropped anchor. That was the case at least until a cruise ship pulled up and let off 300 pasty skinned, overweight holiday goers accessorized by overly festive sarongs, whining, screaming children clinging about their ankles, and the boat boys from Union hanging “Tobago Cays” t-shirts from the coconut trees, 3 for $10. It was a complete zoo, and my nightmare, in the most picture perfect, serene setting…

But I digress.

As soon as we dropped anchor we were approached by several locals in small, colorful motorboats with names like “Desperado”, “Irie”, and “Soul Jah” offering fresh caught lobster, ice and bread. We bought two lobsters which I steamed, made a dipping sauce with lime, soy, sesame oil and cilantro and served as an hors-d’eouvre, along with the captains homemade margaritas made from fresh squeezed limes and Patron …

Caribbean lobsters are large and spiny and don’t have claws. There is a debate going on as to which is better; Caribbean or New England. I’m sure anybody who reads this, especially anyone from New England, probably would scoff at that debate. But I happen to think they are both good in their own way. A lot of people complain that Caribbean lobsters are tough, but like any shellfish, it gets tough when it’s over cooked and anytime I’ve had one in a restaurant it’s been completely overcooked (as have the New England lobsters), but not when I’ve cooked them myself, they’ve been very tender. Their shells are hard and thick and they are quite large in size, which is probably why they are so often overcooked, kind of like the Thanksgiving turkey… In my quest not to overcook the lobster, I undercooked my first ones and rather than putting them back in the steamer I marinated them overnight in a tangy tarragon and lemon vinaigrette for lobster salad. They were absolutely delicious the next day, and perfectly cooked. Now, I pull them out of the water before they are cooked through and let them finish cooking from the residual heat and then I either serve them warm or marinate them for a salad. Caribbean lobsters don’t have the same buttery-ness that NE lobsters do, but they lend themselves to a different sort of cooking too and go well with Caribbean spices and produce. And the fresh lobsters, I have to say, are far superior to the frozen lobster tails that you buy through the provisioners here in the Caribbean.

For dinner I decided to make hamburgers, which meant that I’d have to make buns because where the hell am I going to find American hamburger buns on a deserted island in the West Indies? Fortunately, I discovered early on the quirks of bread making in a warm, humid environment… The bread dough takes half the time to rise, if not less, and requires twice the amount of flour that I’m used to for my dough. A sponge with a teaspoon of yeast and one cup of flour will quadruple in size in about 20 minutes and require around four cups of flour to make nice soft dough for flatbread. The second rise takes maybe a half an hour, and the final rise when the balls have been formed, takes less than ten minutes. I made focaccia dough for the buns which came out perfect. The men loved the hamburgers, and the effort that went into them…

Bequia Rasta Market

Eggs to Order

Crab Cakes with Sun Dried Tomato and Herb Aioli

Callaloo Vichyssoise
With Yoghurt and Crispy Pancetta

T-Bone Steaks with Bana Cota
(Anchovies, Garlic, Chives, Lemon and Olive Oil)
Jerk Roasted Potatoes
Sautéed Christophine with Red Onion and Cilantro

We’ve just wrapped up a ten day tour sailing from St. Vincent to Grenada with three lovely gentlemen from Chicago (the owner of the boat and two of his friends) and it couldn’t have gone smoother. The weather was perfect, they loved my cooking, I provisioned really well for the trip, and the captain has been great.

We spent three days in St. Vincent and funny enough, ended up anchoring right next to my friends that I sailed with from St. Barth to St. Martin with on New Years day, and had dinner aboard their boat the night before we picked up the owner. Dinner was great. Two friends of theirs were anchored nearby and came with wine, I made breadfruit salad and marinated ribs in the seasoning that Vee taught me to make the day I spent in her kitchen, and my friends made steaks, roasted vegetables and a big green salad. All three boats were preparing for guests and we’d all spent long days cleaning from top to bottom and getting ready. The dinner party was a welcome break and a good time was had by all.

It’s amazing the transformation the boats go through before the guest’s arrive. Before our owner arrived their were “crew covers” on everything, like the plastic coverings over the couch in the living room at Aunt Martha’s, only much nicer. The floors were bare, nice glassware and dishes packed away. But in preparation for their arrival crew covers came off to reveal leather couches; oriental rugs were laid out on the floor; artwork was uncovered; dishes and glasses were put out; the wine cabinet and liquor cabinet were stocked, etc. and every single inch of the boat is cleaned and polished. The captain even sanded and re-stained the floors… Voila, a new boat…

The owner and his friends arrived early in the evening on the 8th. I prepared dinner which received rave reviews and everything started off just right. We spent two days in St. Vincent and then set sail back to Bequia, although this time we wouldn’t see our friends, as duty called...

I shopped at the Bequia produce market, a series of enclosed stalls in a small building near the harbor. I felt like an injured calf amongst a school of hungry piranha as I entered the market, chumming the water with my boat uniform and pasty hue … I was quickly swarmed upon by half a dozen dreadlocked Rasta’s saying, “miss, miss, you want to buy something from me today?” Everything I touched cost at least $10 E.C. (East Caribbean Dollars), or $10 E.C. a pound. As soon as I began to buy from one stall, the Rasta’s from another stall would come over to me and say, “miss, miss, save something for me, ok?”… $80 U.S. dollars and three not-so-big bags of groceries later I knew I’d been had…

On my second trip to Bequia market I was confident that I wouldn’t be taken as badly as I had been on my first trip. Upon entering, as the Rasta’s started to approach with their, “miss, miss, what do you want to buy from me today” I was quick to announce that I wanted to look around first and they stepped back and let me pass. I walked from booth to booth checking everything out and not touching – because as soon as you’ve touched something, they assume you’re buying it. Then, when I found the things I liked I would point to it and they would say, “for you $10 E.C.” and I’d walk away and they’d follow saying, “miss miss, I give you very nice price. I take care of you…” to which I’d laugh and reply, “no, no, you’re just taking me” then the price would fall to $8 E.C. and I’d look at them and say “come on” and roll my eyes, and then they’d throw in some “free” passion fruits, banana’s or a soursop. By my third trip, they wouldn’t even approach me when I walked into the market and I’d have time to roam free and touch anything I wanted. Then, I’d buy and I was able to get them down around $7 E.C., with lots of goodies thrown in for “free”. But still, these prices were far different than what the locals would receive.

Calalloo in the wild:
On one of my trips to Bequia market I bought a large bag of calalloo. I’d seen calalloo soup on the menus in St. Vincent and Bequia and the guests had told me about the calalloo soup that they had at a restaurant – a thick, green, pureed soup similar to Vichyssoise. The calalloo leaves were beautiful, dark green and looked similar to the leaves of a Bird of Paradise. I tasted a piece raw and within minutes my throat was burning, half my face felt like it was going numb, and the inside of my mouth felt like it was being stabbed by millions of little pins… Interesting, I hoped I wouldn’t die from eating it and when the numbness passed and I knew I would live, I went on preparing… After cutting out the thick stalk and shredding the leaves I sautéed some onions, garlic, chili pepper and ginger in a pot, added the calalloo and cooked it ‘til it was very soft. Then I added chicken stock, seasoned it and pureed it; crisped some proscutto in the oven and garnished the soup with the crispy proscutto and a dollop of yoghurt (in lieu of creme fraiche). The guests loved the soup and were amazed that I could make it just from their description. I though the soup was really tasty and I can’t wait to make calalloo soup again; but I’ve also been told to bring a big bag of calalloo to a friend in St. Martin who supposedly makes an excellent calalloo lobster bisque... can’t wait!

School for Wayward Chefs...

February 5, 2006

I spent the day today cooking in the kitchen with Vee (Veronica), Quembe’s sister. Quembe woke up the boat at 6 a.m. so that he and Captain could go play soccer. They were set to begin by 6:30 a.m. because by 9 a.m. it’s too hot… We rode the dinghy ashore and walked to the soccer field where I left the boys and took a taxi up to Vee’s house. She said she woke up early on Sundays to cook – but I think I startled her when I knocked on her door at 7:15 a.m., giddy with anticipation…

Vee has a very warm and gracious personality and she looked so cute when I arrived; her hair in three pigtails, pajamas and glasses on. With a big smile and in her thick island accent she welcomed me into her home. We chatted and made small talk and all the while she was squeezing fresh fruit into a pitcher; Caribbean lemons (nothing like the lemons we are used to, these have rough, pale green flesh and a fragrant lemon and floral smell), fresh grapefruit, Caribbean oranges (again, totally different than navel or juice oranges), and limes. She then added water, bitters and sugar which made for an amazing elixir. We drank some, talked more and set to cooking…

Vee had a pot going on the stove with boiling water into which she poured a bag of flowers, which she called “sorrel”, and fresh ginger and clove. Like everything I’m finding in the Caribbean, what they call “sorrel” is nothing like the sorrel I’ve seen in the states which is a leafy herb. She showed me the plant in her yard, a branchy shrub with very few leaves and bright red tubular flowers. Once the brew had boiled and cooled we added sugar, strained and chilled it; another amazing drink tasting very similar to hibiscus tea but which is called sorrel juice.

She set into bread making like a pro, pulling a giant bowl from her cupboard and adding a large amount of brown sugar, copious amounts of yeast, pounds of white and wheat flour, condensed milk (fresh isn’t available on the island) and vegetable oil – nothing measured - and within a few minutes was kneading a mammoth ball of dough. I was fully impressed. She threw a towel on top and set it aside to rise.

Aromas began to fill the kitchen; breadfruit boiled in a pot for breadfruit salad; plantains boiled for a gratin; a mixer worked the batter for a rum cake; cornbread baked in the oven. Vee was seasoning some spare ribs (which she had hacked up outside with a giant machete) with a green marinade which she referred to just as seasonin’. It smelled divine. When I asked her what was in it she said it was made from something called “tikki thyme”, then she took me to her garden and showed the plant to me; a large succulent with juicy, fuzzy, silver-dollar sized, incredibly fragrant leaves. She told me that she would mix up a batch for me before I left that afternoon. I couldn’t wait!

Around noon the boys came back from soccer; Captain, Quembe, Clem, Otis (Vee’s son), Turkey (everyone has nicknames here) and more. Vee and I rushed to finish up lunch; we mixed up the breadfruit salad with an egg, carrots and green beans and with a mayonnaise based salad dressing just like potato salad in the states. The spareribs stewed in the oven with the seasonin’ and some jerk barbeque sauce that Vee’s sister had brought her from Trinidad; cornbread cooled on a rack…

I had asked Vee about a vegetable that I had seen in the marketplace. It had a pale green, wrinkly skin and had a crease down the middle like a peach, only much deeper. She called it Christophine and pulled one out of her fridge. As she peeled it she kept dipping it in fresh water, explaining to me that the skin releases a substance that will make your hands break out in a rash so you have to rinse it constantly while peeling it. Once peeled, she sliced a piece off for me. It was crunchy and tasted had the taste and texture of the core of a stalk of broccoli, or a cross between a cucumber and celery. It’s eaten raw in salads, steamed, roasted or mashed with ginger and coconut milk. Vee put some in the salad and some in a pot with other mixed vegetables to steam.

We set up the counter with plates and silverware and laid out the food for all who stopped by (the crowd was growing). Vee’s whole wheat bread was absolutely perfect in the texture, consistency and taste and surprisingly not sweet considering how much sugar she had put into the batter. I was really amazed at her skill with the bread making. She whipped up four loaves of bread like it was nothing; then she gave one to me, gave two to friends and kept one for herself. She says that she makes bread every Wednesday and Sunday, and always makes some for friends…

I never saw any prepackaged bread on Bequia. Everywhere you went, even the grocery store, the breads were homemade and of all the breads that I tried, Vee’s was definitely the best…

Well satiated from our venerable feast, we sat out in the backyard, in the hot Caribbean sun, told stories and drank ice-cold Harroun’s, the local beer. Vee told me to pick a large handful of the Tikki Thyme, I did but it wasn’t enough so she had me go pick more, and more, and more… She was out of garlic and onions so she gave me the recipe for making the “seasoning” myself. I’ve now noticed is in every market in the Grenadines – green bottles simply labeled “seasoning” is sold everywhere and everyone down here knows what that means…

Later in the evening the Captain, Quembe, Clem, “White Boy” (another nickname, another cousin of Quembe’s) and myself headed back to the boat loaded down with gifts from Vee – tikki thyme, fresh bread, charcoal roasted breadfruit, rum cake, a bottle of sorrel juice, roasted cumin seeds from Trinidad, hot peppers from Vee’s yard, etc. On the way we stopped by Rush Hour where Clem grabbed a bottle of a white milky looking liquid that he calls “Okra Punch”…

Back on the boat I blended up my seasoning with the tikki thyme, onions, garlic and salt. A lengthy debate ensued between Quembe, Clem and “White Boy” as to whether to add ginger or other spices to the seasoning (Vee adds ginger, clove and chives). The final verdict was to leave the seasoning as simple as possible because you can always add those other ingredients when you’re cooking something specific – but you may not always want those other spices. So, I blended up my seasoning and passed it around for the men’s approval – they all smelled and tasted it and in unison agreed that it was “right on target”.

Clem poured glasses of the okra punch for us all. It was thick, white and milky, slightly sweet and hinted of nutmeg – reminding me a bit of eggnog in taste and texture. It didn’t contain any alcohol, but certainly wiped away the effects of that days drinking. We all got a second a wind from the okra punch – I found that it left me feeling relaxed and awake. I tried to pry the recipe from Clem, to no avail… But it seems that each island in the Caribbean has some sort of elixir that is known for certain beneficial effects…

All in all, an amazing day.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Green Banana Soup

After some more cleaning and polishing of the boat, Clem came by with bunches of green bananas and breadfruit and he and Quembe set in on teaching me how to make the Bequai boys favorite soup… These green bananas weren’t plantains and although they looked similar to the bananas you would find in a grocery store, these won’t ever ripen. Quembe taught me to score and peel the green bananas without breaking them, not an easy task, but by the 25th banana I think I had it down. Next we peeled, cored and chopped breadfruit, the potato of the Caribbean. This was the first time I’d seen a breadfruit, but how do I describe it other than that it looks completely alien to this planet with its emerald green glow, honeycomb pattern across the skin, and uncooked has the texture of foam rubber. Odd, but intriguing. Breadfruit secretes a milky substance through its skin which dries on the outside, a sign of ripeness.

Into the pot went the staples of Caribbean aromatics; garlic, onion and sweet peppers, covered with water, a pat of butter and a couple tablespoons of Matouks hot sauce which the boys say isn’t hot, but which sets my mouth afire. After all the ingredients came to a boil we added the green bananas and breadfruit and let them simmer for about a half hour, until they were soft. The aroma of the pot filled the air as we sat on deck, appetites growing, and friends and relatives of Quembe’s dropping by in gradual succession to relieve us of our stash of Presidente Beer (which isn’t available on the island).

When the bananas and breadfruit were cooked, we threw in chunks of dorado (dolphin fish) and the split open head of a kingfish (for Quembe and Clem to fight over); turned the heat to a simmer and cooked just until the fish was done, about 10 minutes. Seasoned to taste with salt and more hot sauce, we all sat down with our steaming bowls of fish soup.

The breadfruit was similar in texture to a potato only more firm and not mealy like a baking potato. The green bananas didn’t taste anything like the bananas that you and I know. They were savory and similar in quality to a potato but not starchy. The fish was flaky and perfectly fresh having only been caught a day prior by Quembe and the captain. The soup was savory and nourishing but not heavy or overly rich. The spice was just enough to make you sweat but not enough to send you to the doctor, and mellowed slightly by the pat of butter and the sweetness of the fresh fish.

Clem and I talked long about breadfruit and all the different things that could be done with it (I see some breadfruit fishcakes in my future) – basically anything you would do with a potato you could do with breadfruit, and just like a potato you would boil or roast it first… Clem said to come by “Rush Hour”, his snack shack, later that evening for “sauce” (stewed pigs feet, pronounced “sow”-“ess” by those in the know) and he promised to make me roasted bread fruit with salt fish. I kindly obliged and at eight o’clock last night the captain and I were chowing on roasted breadfruit and salt fish followed by hearty bowls of “sauce”. We blissfully supped away on the rich, porky broth and gnawed and sucked the knuckle bones with fervor as meltingly soft pieces of fat gave way to pockets of rich meat and succulent morsels of marrow; not a meal for the squeamish but worth the reward if you can get over your gastronomic inhibitions to eat it... Clem is known for making the best “sauce” on the island and when word spreads that he’s cooking up pig’s feat, the whole island makes its way to his snack shack…

Clem is a chef, and Quembe’s cousin (I’ve come to learn that everyone on the island is Quembe’s cousin). He’s warm and friendly with a heart as big as he is, and a deep, baritone voice that can be heard around the island. He was a great duet partner as we belted out “Red Red Wine” by UB40 at a local karaoke bar, Clem hitting the low notes that I couldn’t reach even in my most tragic attempts…

Then the captain, myself, Quembe, Clem and an entourage of about 13 others, that were all related to Quembe and Clem in one way or another, made our way to a local nightclub for a Reggae shakedown and dance party of epic proportion.

We made it back to the boat just in time to watch the sun come up…

Boilin’ A.K.A. Green Banana Fish Soup
(pronounced “bow”-“lin” by the locals)

1 Very large pot
25 Green Bananas, peeled and soaked in lime water to prevent browning
½ sweet pepper, sliced
1 med. onion, sliced
1 tomato, seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
Hot pepper sauce (preferably “Matouks”)
8+ cups water
1 Breadfruit, peeled, cored and quartered
3 lbs. kingfish and/or dorado steaks, plus head, split opened and cleaned (eyeballs intact, they’re a delicacy here)
2 Tbsp. butter
Salt to taste

Add water to pot along with sweet pepper, onion, tomato, garlic, hot pepper sauce, butter and salt. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer 10 minutes. Add bananas and breadfruit and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until breadfruit and bananas are soft and cooked through. Turn heat to a gentle simmer, add fish and cover until fish is cooked through – about 10 minutes. Ladle into big bowls and serve with hot sauce…

Boilin’ – Breakfast of champions…

Friday, February 03, 2006

Bequia and the return of the prodigal sons...

This whacky adventure began around 2am Wednesday morning as we set sail from St. Martin down island. Yesterdays journey was spent basking in the sun and reading as we breazed passed Guadaloup in near perfect weather except for an early evening squall followed by the starriest skies I have ever seen.

This morning we cut the engine power and were cruising along between 8.5 and 10 knots with the genoa and the main out. I learned how to hoist the main sail; the captain and I walked the length of the boat as he pointed out and described all the different mechanics to me – which halyards were for what uses, etc. and I was given a piece of line to practice my clove hitch and bowline.

A ways off of Martinique we had thought we came upon a life raft and all of us began preparing for a “situation”, possibly rescuing someone. But upon closer inspection it was a nude Canadian couple in an ocean-fairing row boat heading for Costa Rica! Only 5,000 miles to go, they were moving at about 1 knot a mile; completely exposed to the elements; a solar panel the size of a shoebox lid; and space for only one person to sleep at a time not to mention food storage, etc. It’s a thin line between adventure and suicide, but to each his own; we waved goodbye and sailed off…

The boys caught a beautiful dolphin fish, probably close to 12 lbs., just past St. Lucia. When they pulled the fish on deck the captain poured rum into its gills which killed the fish immediately; then, with one small slit below the gills and the quick stroke of three fingers, Quembe (the captains sailing buddy we picked up in St. Martin) had the entire fish gutted! I want my fish monger to be able to do that. I went to take a nap and missed the excitement of them catching and butchering a kingfish…

We sailed into Bequia around 6pm Thursday night, welcoming committee waiting… The captain and Quembe were greeted like the prodigal sons returning home. Before we even dropped anchor people were cruising past us in their dinghy’s waving and hollering – Clem, Burnin’ Flame, Gregoire. The captains has been here before and has sailed down with Bequians on his crew, so he’s known amongst all the locals; Quambe grew up here but hasn’t been home in almost a decade and in one way or another is related to absolutely everyone on this tiny island…

Quembe has promised to make us green banana and fish stew, which I can’t wait to see and taste. We are going to go to the market tomorrow (after cleaning the boat) to buy the ingredients that we need. But tonight we went to the Hotel Frangipani where Quembe’s sister works and had a lovely dinner which I was happy to not have to cook.

Afterwards we walked to the local snack shack for drinks with more friends and relatives of Quembe’s, and after that it was off to another large gathering of locals only this one on a tragic note as two days earlier Quembe’s young nephew returned after being away working on a cruise ship and on his first day back was killed in a car accident. It was awkward to walk into this family tragedy, but everyone had heard about the captain and was happy to finally make his aquaintence, and welcome Quembe back home. I was blown away by their welcoming and graciousness amidst their personal devastation and I can’t help but believe that the return of Quembe and the captain are a happy and much needed distraction for all of them…

After many more visits to friends and family from one end of the island to the other, in the wee hours of the morning, shoes tossed aside, I found myself dancing in the street with a local rasta to some great reggae streaming from a small (12 x 15) bar called the Penthouse, and known by the locals as the best club in town.

At that moment I realized that this is the Caribbean I’ve been dreaming about…

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