Monday, February 28, 2011

Tea Party

Today I hosted a tea party for one of my dearest friends. The plan: six adults and eight (yes, eight) children under the age of five. Actually, it ended up being five adults and six children at the end, thank heavens. It was like a kindergarten around here - running, playing, screaming, laughing, and yes, some crying but fortunately that was not until the end of the day, when everyone was ready for bed...and a gin and tonic. Mostly, however, there was a lot of eating.

The table had something for everyone. I baked my mother's recipe for a lemon merengue pie (which is to die for, so I'll ask her permission to share the recipe with you) and Ina Garten's sour cream coffee cake. I heated up mini filo quiche (store bought), and offered goodies for the kiddies, including squeezable applesauce from Trader Joe's. If you're lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe's in the US and have a toddler then run, do not walk, to your nearest TJ's and buy these little guys - totally awesome snacks for kids. All natural, no added sugar and all that jazz. I've also seen similar versions in Publix, fyi.

I enjoyed baking up a storm for my dear "H", dear girl friends, and their lovely kids.
for chai with sugar, cardamom & cinnamon
my mama's lemon merengue pie
kids' stuff - trader joe's applesauce crushers, mini raisin boxes, & animal crackers
ina garten's sour cream coffee cake

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Doubles: The ultimate Trinidadian street food

I don't know how I've gone this long writing about Trinidadian food without telling you about doubles. They are by far the most popular comfort street food and are yet another example of how Indian cuisine has evolved into Trinidadian cuisine on this Caribbean island.
Doubles consist of two fried flat breads and filled with channa (chick peas) and other sauces, such as chutneys or pepper sauce. If you only want a little hot sauce, you ask for "slight pepa" = "a little pepper". People crave doubles in the morning, which is when you're more likely to see vendors on the streets.
The taste is not uncommonly delicious, and it is not the best food ever made. It does, however, taste like, well, like Trinidad. It offers a few bites of T&T pride. The vendor I bought my doubles from this morning proudly served me my food, asked me where I was from and if I had come for Carnival (which is next Monday and Tuesday). Speaking of Carnival, I can't believe I haven't told you more about it, and it's coming up so soon! This week, I promise to get you in a Carnivalesque mood and write to the rhythm of the soca beat.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Toddler food idea - chunky tofu

My 21-month-old son has pink, chubby cheeks and it is kind of obvious that he is a good eater just by looking at him. Of course he has his off days, when his appetite decreases, but who doesn't? People are always asking me what kinds of meals I make him, so I decided to start sharing some of his favorite recipes, in case you'd like to make them for your kiddlings.

Please don't let your possible prejudice or misconceptions about certain foods ruin your child's interest and ability to try new things. Instead of having an "I don't like _____" attitude, how about having an open mind toward food? Nothing makes me angrier than hearing a child (or an adult, for that matter!) say "I don't like that. Yuck!" To me it shows a lack of character and well-roundedness. I believe an open mind toward new foods makes for more interesting and agreeable people. The kinds of people I'd like to have around my dinner table.
This open-minded attitude definitely applies to tofu. Whenever I tell parents that we eat tofu at home, many cringe and look at me funny, as if I were some kind of organic-food eating, vegetarian, tree hugging hippie. I think I've established in this blog that I do not fit that profile. Actually, we eat tofu because we know how to make it taste great, and it is extremely healthy.

In Beijing I tried something called stinky tofu. Ok, so this may be an extreme since it is fermented tofu and has the smell of, well, yes, putrid tofu. I'm not suggesting you take it to this level. All I'm saying is give my recipe a try and help your toddler enjoy a wonderful new dish. And besides, the Chinese seem to live forever and ever, so they may have something here. In fact, tofu is incredibly healthy. It has tons of iron, protein, omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, and a lot of other good stuff. Check out this website for more information on the health benefits of tofu.

If you think you might be giving your toddler too much meat or chicken, then you probably are. Trust, me. Give this a try. After all, because tofu can magically take the taste of whatever you cook it with, it'll only be as good as you make it. My son loves grabbing the chunky pieces of veggies and tofu and putting them into his mouth - he can pick them up with his fingers (has been doing so since he was six months old), and now that he's using a fork, he's able to eat them this way as well. It works for him developmentally and nutritionally.

Chunky Tofu and Zucchini

1 pack firm tofu
Extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 medium white onion
2 medium tomatoes
1 zucchini
1 can chicken broth (get the good stuff w/o MSG)
Kosher salt to taste (I love the texture of kosher salt)
Herbs de Provence to taste

Saute the garlic in a bit of extra virgin olive oil, then add the diced onions, diced tomatoes, sliced zucchini, and finally the cubes of tofu. Season with kosher salt* to taste, herbs de provence, and pour 1/4 of the chicken broth to let everything steam. Pour the rest of the content of the chicken broth in 1/4 intervals and let steam for about 20 minutes. Serve on a bed of brown rice.

*I didn't start adding salt to my son's food until he was around one year old. Now he eats what we eat, which is with a bit of salt.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Guanabana = soursop

Cure for cancer? Who knows...but research has shown that soursop (as it is called in Trinidad), or guanabana (as it is called in Colombia) has many medicinal benefits. These benefits include treatment of liver diseases, skin disorders, and diarrhea. Some researchers even claim that the flesh of soursop can kill malignant cells. 

In Colombia, you are offered every kind of fresh fruit juice known to man (or at least to Colombian man). Having every climate on earth and soil that is fertile enough to make a pencil grow roots, Colombia has many many different varieties of fruits. Among them are fat, beautiful, and fleshy guanabanas. At any given restaurant, you can choose from among dozens of fruit juices, made with milk or water. Guanabana is among my favorite. 

I was thrilled to find a guanabana, or soursop, at my local fruit market the other day and decided to make a smoothie with it. It was super labor intensive because the shiny, black seeds are enveloped in a sac of white flesh, and it takes time to squeeze the seeds out. Also, the flesh is quite stringy so you have to sift it once it goes through the blender.
It was worth it. A smooth, tangy-sweet and refreshing drink. Give it a try.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cocktail party

I'm off to Paris in two weeks. WAAAHOOOOO. Apologies, I'll try to contain my excitement and keep a professional, controlled attitude toward this surreally fantabulous event that's about to occur.

Eager to share my happiness with friends, I decided to have a cocktail party chez nous. It was awesome - like playing house and dress-up. 

The table:
The food:
Bruschetta with pesto, cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil from my garden on ciabatta
Deviled eggs with stone ground mustard, mayo, and paprika
Crab meat cocktail on endive boats
Store-bought goodies - hummus, black olive tapenade, stuffed grape vine leaves - who says you have to make everything yourself?

The drinks:

An overall success. The best part, however, was spending time with wonderful friends we've made here in Trinidad. Will miss you all.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Red snapper - eye and all

Inspired by the beautiful red snapper I bought at the public market, I decided to give our family an omega 3 boost. Here is a super easy recipe that will clean out the arteries that you clogged with that Trinidadian "oil down".
Pick a couple of pink beauties at the market. The key to choosing a fresh fish is to look at its eyes - they should not be cloudy. Ask the fishmonger to clean them and take off the scales but to leave them whole.
To prepare, wash them and place them individually on aluminum foil. Marinate with olive oil, coarse sea salt, garlic, and herbs de provence. I love this mix of herbs. You can buy many varieties, but most include marjoram, thyme, rosemary, basil, fennel, summer savory, oregano, bay leaves, and lavender. Make sure to rub the marinating ingredients on both sides of the fish and also in the inside cavity.
Wrap them up in their individual aluminum foil and bake in 385 degrees for about 30 mins. Cooking times can very depending on the size of the fish, so check to make sure the fish is cooked, but not dry. You can also place these on a grill.
The result will be a flavorful and aromatic white fish skin that you pick with a fork. Healthy and delicious. I served this dish with shitake and white mushrooms sauteed in butter, salt and pepper, and a side of basmati rice.
When I was little, I used to call this "pescado con ojo", or "fish with eye" - what I meant was that I wanted to eat the whole fish for dinner. You know what the best part is, don't you? Yes, the eye.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Trinidadian home cooking

Market bags full of goodies, we headed to my friend Arline's home. Arline is the same friend who challenged me to try souse - remember, the chicken feet ceviche-type dish that I couldn't bring myself to taste at the street food market a few weeks ago?

Well, I accepted Arline's challenge and oh boy, did I get a treat. She made callaloo and "oil down", which is made with breadfruit and pig tail. Arline told me that these dishes are soul-comforting for Trinis, and are the kinds of food they crave when they're away from their island home. 

Let me begin by telling you about my experience buying the breadfruit at the public market. The vendor was, well, I'll let the photo speak for itself:
Breadfruit vendor
I've seen quite a few gentlemen sporting this t-shirt style. It's brilliant, really, their bellies are cool, their lower backs get a nice breeze and a break from the 85 degree weather. It works. Back to the breadfruit, which is something I'm familiar with since we also eat them in Cartagena. They are starchy and I like to think of them as glorified potatoes. Like many fruits and vegetables, breadfruit originates from Southeast Asia. I have no idea when they were brought to the Caribbean, but it must have been quite a long time ago because Arline tells me that it was cooked by slaves in Trinidad oh so long ago. On to the next ingredient in "oil down" - pig tail. 
Pig tail
Arline tells me you have to wash, wash, and then wash it again before you start cooking it. The result is, let me tell you, DELICIOUS. I don't even want to think about the amount of cholesterol that pig tail has to offer, but these little guys are salty, savory, and little bits of pork heaven. They're a bit hard to eat, though, because they have little bones. They give dishes a salty flavor of the intensely delectable ham-like variety. They are used in many Trinidadian dishes, and I know why - so much to offer. Arline explained that back in the day, slaves had to make due with the parts of the pig (and cow, etc.) that they could afford. These included the tail, ear, feet, heels, etc. That is how these parts of the animals became important parts of Trinidadian dishes. Back then, they were dirt cheap. Now, they can actually be quite expensive. Ox tail, for example, can cost as much as a good steak here in T&T.

On to the preparation of "oil down". In a pot, Arline sauteed peppers, thyme, chives, salt, a super salty Trinidadian butter, garlic, and coconut milk. Let's pause there. Coconut milk - is there anything better for kicking food up a notch? I don't think so. Remind me to write an entry about Cartagena's coconut rice one of these days - to die for. Back to "oil down". The pig tail is added, followed by cubed breadfruit.
"Oil down" broth
Breadfruit for "oil down"
This was the end result after letting "oil down" do its thing. It got its name because the oil from the coconut milk and butter create a kind of delectable paste, complemented perfectly with the starch of the breadfruit. I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up. 

On to callaloo. The first time I heard of this soup-like dish was on the Cosby Show when I was eight. It was the episode when Cliff wanted to re-create a romantic Caribbean getaway for he and Claire's anniversary. He hired a Caribbean chef, and they made callaloo. I'll give you a sticker if you remember that episode as well. Anyway, Arline's callaloo was delish. A great representation of one of T&T's favorites. Made with a large green leaf that Trinis call callaloo bush, okra, coconut milk, onion, chives, chili peppers, garlic, pumpkin, and topped with crab legs.

The ingredients were left to simmer on their own, and once they reached the right consistency, Arline blended them with a hand blender. The result was this. Simply delicious.

Finally, we were ready for me to reclaim my reputation as an open-minded eater. I received a bit of criticism for my souse entry from some readers, where I confessed that I couldn't bring myself to taste chicken feet souse. We'll, Arline is my witness - I tasted it at her house! The only difference is that instead of chicken feet, it was with pig feet. I'll say this; the sauce part is good - much like ceviche in that it is refreshing, vinegary, and cucumbery. But the pig feet, well, I simply couldn't handle the consistency. They were cold, rubbery, and piggy. Not my favorite. Arline laughed and I'm sure she understood that this dish is definitely an acquired taste. 
Pig feet souse
Arline, my dear friend, thank you. You are a wonderful cook and represented your country's cuisine brilliantly by making this delicious, soul-comforting Trinidadian meal. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Trinidadian public market

The best way to get to know a country is to visit its public food markets. This is where you see people up close and personal - what they wear, what they look like, how they speak, how they interact with each other and with you, and, of course, what they eat. It's where you figure out where the food you eat comes from and where you can get tried and true local recipes. 
My favorite fish vendor
What's left
The pristine super markets of today have distanced us from what food really looks like. Watermelon isn't actually diced cubes of fuchsia fruity flesh - it is actually a large, hard, green oval-shaped thing that you have to chop up in order to get to the fruity flesh - and remember seeds? In most countries they are still not a thing of the past. Chicken is actually not the perfectly clean piece of pink meat that we know as chicken breast - it is actually full of veins and bones, feathers, and feet that you have to clean and cut. How long has it been since you saw a chicken? I'm talking about the whole shebang - the complete chicken that you are about to eat? A while, I'm sure.
pig snout
My point is that public food markets remind us of what food really looks like. I enjoy taking my son there because I want him to know what real ingredients smell, feel, and taste like. Of course we also buy things from a box and inevitably eat processed foods, but I believe it's important to always return to the real stuff. The original food that we, as humans are meant to eat. I often wonder if cancer rates are going up because we're eating so many processed foods. I'm no expert, but I feel better eating the real stuff. Bones, veins, and all.

hot sauce and chutneys
So, this morning, armed with my Mexican market bag, we headed to the public market in downtown Port of Spain. Here, vendors set up tables and sell everything from pig feet, salt fish, cow liver, tongue, and intestines to plantains, okra, hot pepper, red snapper, shark, bread fruit, and lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

I love this place. People are always eager to tell you about their produce, especially when they proudly explain that they grew it themselves. Many others import produce since Trinidad imports most of the goods consumed in the country. 
Locally grown okra
My market bag full of goodies, we headed to my friend's house to cook the things we bought. Tomorrow's blog = Trinidadian home cooking.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Trinidadian flower power

It's shameful how long it's been since I wrote an entry - please accept my deepest apologies. I hope it never happens again unless I'm once again put on diaper, lactation consultant, scrubbing toilets and tub duties, and flying back home to tend to a husband and son whom I neglected in order to fulfill the aforementioned duties as a new auntie. 
*Just for the record, I've never been as happy to scrub toilets and tubs as I was for my sister and brother-in-law last week.

So I'm back full force - batteries charged with Trinidadian flower power. Not a food-related entry, I know, but the purpose is for you to feast your eyes on these images of the tropical flowers that I found this morning at the Trinidad & Tobago Horticultural Society, which sells flowers daily from 6 to 11am. 

In Colombia, we call these "baston del emperador", or "emperor's baton".
Local flower and fruit vendors bring their goodies bright and early in morning. Around the corner from my house, this is one of my favorite spots in T&T. Usually available are anthurium, heliconias, ginger flowers, orchids, different kinds of ferns, and other tropical beauties. 

What is the national flower of T&T, you ask? It is called the chaconia, also known as "the pride of Trinidad & Tobago" and "wild poinsettia". It grows wild in Trinidadian forests, blooms around T&T's Independence Day (August 31), and is absolutely gorgeous. My friend has a chaconia tree, which looks more like a bush, in her yard - lucky girl.
Chaconia, T&T's national flower.
Some of my fondest memories of life in Trinidad involve the long walks I take with my boys along the trails of Chaguaramas. You can walk undisturbed for miles and hear only the tapping of bamboo reeds against each other and the wind shuffling life among the bush. We walk surrounded by bamboo so large, that I can't wrap both my hands around a single bamboo reed. These green steel bars curve inward towards the trails, making tunnels and creating the illusion that you're in a sacred place meant only for monkeys and birds, but somehow you're welcome. It's a spiritual experience. Actually, one of these trails is very appropriately called "The Bamboo Cathedral". Embedded among the bamboo, palms, and other tropical flora, is a lonesome heliconia, draping red and yellow happiness, golden against the green backdrop of the jungle. If all you see is snow outside your window right now, I hope this image fills you with a little warmth.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Washington DC - Pupusas and soap operas

As promised, today I pranced on over to a pupuseria around the corner.
The Latin American soap opera playing on a TV in the corner of the restaurant helped pass the time. During the ten minutes I waited for my lunch, I witnessed Gloria vow never to love her man again because he had slept with her sister, and the man explain that his amnesia prevented him from differentiating between the two women. Oh, how I love a good, solid, melodrama of the Univision variety.

I eagerly awaited my pupusas - I love that word - pupusas, pupusas. Let's say it again - pupusas. Anyway, I eagerly awaited my pupusas watching the soap and feeling watched by the multiple "gold"-gilded Virgin Marys and plastic ivy plants decorating the walls. A nice man seated in the corner of the shop smiled and greeted me in English. "How chu? Chu happy girrrr?" I responded in Spanish, and he insisted on speaking in English. My white skin and blue eyes seem to confuse many of the Central Americans that I meet in DC. It often happens that I'll walk by a construction site and receive comments of the catcall persuasion from Central American construction workers who assume that I can't understand a word they say. When I respond something in Spanish along the lines of "Be careful - you never know who can understand what you are saying", I receive flowered apologies and looks of shame. It's ok, I think to myself, it feels good to hear compliments  - some parts of the world are so cold and rigid...

Back to my pupusas. The waitress brings my two little patties - one filled with cheese and black beans, the other with just cheese. She gives me a kind of cole slaw to serve over the pupusas made of cabbage, carrots, and some kind of tangy/spicy red sauce. Overall, I would rate them a 6 out of 10. Not the best I've had. The most delicious pupusas I've tasted were in San Salvador in a strip of pupuserias near the airport that specialize in these little patties. So yummy.

I think the best part of my pupusa experience today was the soap opera and the man greeting me in broken English. Is it terrible that I immediately thought about his residential status in the US? All I know is that he's probably working like a dog to support a family of 30 in El Salvador. He probably pays his taxes on time, contributes to small businesses in DC, and obviously loves the US and speaking English.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Washington DC - Julia's Empanadas

So I didn't get stuck in the house after all. The ice storm that's affecting much of the US spared Washington DC. Thank you, ice storm gods and goddesses!

I was able to visit my nephew, who is totally adorable by the way, and also grab lunch at another DC hotspot: Julia's Empanadas. As their website and storefronts explain, many countries have an "empanada" concept. Calzone in Italy, knishes in Israel, patties in Jamica, etc., etc., etc. In Latin America (and Washington DC), we call them empanadas

They have many different types of empanadas and I've tried four of them: Chilean Style Beef, Saltenas, Spinach, and Jamaican Style. My favorite: Saltenas. (I hate that I don't know how to add the squiggly line above the "n" to make it a Spanish "n" on this keyboard - any advice on this would be greatly appreciated). Anyway, saltenas are Bolivian empanadas - filled with chicken, potatoes, green peas, green olives, onions, and a hard boiled egg. Yum.
Notice the snow in the background...this little empanadita kept me warm.

The population of Washington DC is around 600,000, and is extremely ethnically diverse, which is one of my favorite things about it. The black population is roughly 56%, whites around 36%, Hispanics around 8%, 5% other, 3% Asian, and 1% mixed. 

Mount Pleasant, where I happened to enjoy my empanadas, feels like you are in El Salvador. Salvadorans are the largest Hispanic group in DC, and I believe it is safe to say that it is the largest population of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador. Salvadorans are the backbone of the service industry in DC, and, lucky for us, they make darn good food. So, my next food stop in DC...pupusas - funny name, yummy food.