Convenience Foods

This is the fifth of five posts that get all food travelogue-y about Barbados, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and Grenada. The previous posts were “Return from the Windward Islands” “Coconut Drops from Carriacou” “St. Vincent and the Grenadines” and “More Fruits in Heaven and Earth.  . .

I’ve been thinking about convenience foods. Partially, I’ve been thinking about it because I wrote an article on TV dinners for the newest Local Banquet and partially because it drives me around the bend when people use the phrase “convenience food” to mean “terrible food that you should be ashamed to feed your children” and largely because I read a description once of Spanish missionaries arriving in what is now Mexico in the 1500’s and finding streets full of vendors with all manner of what we’d call tamales* for sale as takeout. That last idea has lodged in my imagination, much like the fruit descriptions from the last post.

[*If they had been eating tacos I would have been able to link this thematically appropriate article from the Smithsonian - but tacos are a recent invention. Thus, linked in a footnote]

Convenience foods are. . . convenient. Somewhere we (and by “we” I mean “liberal Vermonters”) developed a negative moral judgement around convenience - which, granted, the behavior of many fast food chains helped reinforce, and for some of us Fast Food Nation was published about the same time we started fending for ourselves as adults setting our own food rules, thus impeding our ability to enjoy fast food hamburgers ever again. Getting judge-y around using convenience really is a self-generating moral quagmire because convenience foods have for thousands of years been associated with working classes and, well. . .  tamales are still delicious.

This bigger point is that convenience foods and takeout foods have a centuries (millennia, even) old pedigree that far predates McDonald’s - and it’s not entirely Americans who set the agenda in this field, even today. I’ve mentioned Icelandic hot dogs and South African bunny chow before, and now let me speak the word “roti”.

A roti is a flatbread originating in India, and as it has traveled across the globe it has evolved to mean a wrap around a meal of curried items. I realize that “curried items” covers a huge range of possible interpretations - but that’s correct, we’re talking about a huge range of possible interpretations. The rotis I had in St. Vincent were filled with either conch, fish, or lobster. In nearby Trinidad they apparently get even more creative  (I may fly to Trinidad some day just to taste their rotis). And then there were the Chefette rotis in Barbados.

Chefette is a chain of fast food restaurants with solidly good-tasting food. They’re a Barbados company, founded in 1972. Everyone we talked to -- from the cab driver to the founder of the Bridgetown food tour -- adored Chefette. I’m sure it’s not universal. I’m sure that, just as you can find someone in Vermont who will disparage the local maple creamie stand, you can find people in Barbados speaking ill of Chefette, but nonetheless eating there felt like we were rooting for the hometown team against KFC and Burger King (and did you know that KFC is a major pro cricket sponsor? Something I learned while sitting at a Barbados bar eating Chefette rotis and watching sports TV). I particularly liked the Chefette beef and potato rotis, with a mild-yet-not-insipid curry flavor, tender meat, and potatoes cooked to soft yet not mushy, and the roti wrapper tasted somewhere between the soft, flour-y rotis I know and a crepe - and how do that you quality control that dish in a fast food snack bar system that’s on every corner? The potatoes alone - the texture was perfect, I’d be happy just to know the potato secret.

Anyhow. Chefette proves two things that I’ve long believed: 1. The roti is the most brilliant fast food ever* and 2. screw McDonald’s**! Which doesn’t have outlets in Barbados.

[*It tastes great and also its packaging (the roti) is edible. Want to hear about wild stuff happening in edible packaging? Here’s a podcast on that very topic]

[**Except when McDonald’s is doing things like creating massive demand for meat to be antibiotic free and eggs to be cage free, in which case, yay McDonald’s! And, McDonald’s, I thank you in advance for figuring out a way to popularize veggie burgers, since surely your food technicians can produce the same Big Mac taste without ground beef, and you can find a hot shot marketing person to invent a way to sell it. Yes there is an article to link on that topic too - it’s about junk food ending obesity - I told you at the beginning I’ve been thinking a lot about convenience foods]

 

The next questions is - naturally - how can we make these foods from scratch at home, thus making them much less convenient.

I’ll defer to better home-cooked roti experts first with these two recipes:

If you want to experiment at home. . . the filling could be anything curried, usually with potatoes. You could even maintain the convenience spirit and get curry in a can / premade sauces. Here is the most recent recipe I made, a sort-of-Asiany fish that I wrapped up with yogurt-braised potatoes in a coconut "roti" (see below). 

  • 2 Tb Ginger Paste (or very finely minced ginger - when I get a big ginger root I puree it in the food processor and then freeze it by the tablespoonful in trays made from plastic Pete & Gerry’s egg cartons)
  • 2 Tb Green Curry Paste
  • ½ an Onion
  • Juice of 1 small lime
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 Tb canola oil
  • 1 hot red chile seeds and membrane removed (optional)

Puree all these in a food processor, then blend in about ¼ cup of water (to make it a marinade)

Cut about 1.5 pounds of a white fleshed fish fillet (cod, catfish, etc.) into bite sized chunks and marinate it in the marinade, in the fridge, for about 2 hours.

In a large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of canola oil, then gently cook the fish chunks until they’re about cooked through (this will depend on how large they are). Towards the end, add enough of any extra marinade to be sure the final fish are coated in it.

 

For the roti, I recently stumbled on this delicious option. In a mixing bowl, mix up

  • 1/2 cup rice flour
  • 2 1/2 cups regular flour
  • 1 egg (lightly beaten)
  • 1 can of full fat coconut milk
  • However much hot water you need (if any) to make a very soft dough.

Knead gently just until it holds together in a smooth dough. Put in a greased bowl, covered, and leave out 12 hours. Then break the dough into pieces the size of a clementine, roll thin, and cook in a hot skillet until browned on each side.

More Fruits in Heaven and Earth . . .

The fourth post in the notes from the Caribbean series. 

I’m not going to say that Vermont lacks in produce diversity (we’ve got a lot of different apples, that much I know), but it’s one, relatively cold, bit of the world. The world beyond my home is huge and full of food. Adam Leith Gollner gives a hint of the possibility in the introduction to his book The Fruit Hunters:

 

. . . Our whole planet is brimming with fruits that are inaccessible, ignored, and even forbidden. There are mangoes that taste like pina coladas. Orange cloudberries. White blueberries. Blue apricots. Red lemons. Golden raspberries. Prink cherimoyas. Willy Wonka’s got nothing on Mother Nature. The diversity is dizzying: most of us have never heard of the Araçá, but Amazonian fruit authorities say there are almost as many types of this yellow-green guava relative as there are beaches in Brazil. Within the tens of thousands of edible plant species, there are hundreds of thousands of varieties - -and new ones are continually evolving. Magic beans, sundrops, cannonballs, delicious monsters, zombi apples, gingerbread plums, swan egg pears, Oaxacan trees of little skulls, Congo goobers, slow-match fruits, candle fruits, bastard cherries, bignays, belimbings, bilimbis and biribas. As Hamlet might’ve said: “There are more fruits in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

 

I can get my hands on wonderful ingredients that provide a taste of far off places - dried Sumac, canned Amarillo pepper sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, mastic, real Champagne. But produce? I’m not even sure I know what a pecan tastes like, since I’m 90% certain that what I’m eating up here does not taste like what I ate one summer in the pecan groves of Louisiana (although there’s an equal chance that the Drive Through Daquiri stands affected my perceptions for the entire four day trip). And pecans can’t be that difficult to ship. I’ve stalked the “Winter Market Digest” from Los Angeles’ KCRW and I seriously doubt I know what a good orange tastes like, to say nothing of the pink cherimoya. Plus, it’s really really hard, even impossible, to recreate the complexity of these fruits and vegetables. Flavorists have been trying it since 1851. You can see how they’re doing by sampling a box of Jelly Bellies.  

 

I wanted to try lots of fresh produce when I was in the Caribbean. I do seem to always pick a time of year that is not peak harvest, however. One day I will synchronize my vacations appropriately. Some of what wasn’t in season, I found in other forms. . . like Golden Apple Ice Cream. Golden Apples are not apples in this context - they look like little papayas (according to photographs) - and the ice cream tasted like very concentrated watermelon. I also found out that fruits I know to be very sweet in their familiar non-fresh forms (e.g. juices) are pretty darn tart in their unadorned state - passion fruit is in this camp, although very fun to scoop out of the shell with a spoon. It did not bother me that the insides looked like yellow frog’s eggs. Honest.

 

Here are three produce items of note, with recipes:

 

Callaloo

 

I took a keen interest in determining the best callaloo soup in the Windward Islands. It turned out to be at Coco’s, the restaurant that claimed to have the best callaloo soup in the first place, which was a surprisingly straightforward answer. “Callaloo” means different varieties of dark greens depending on where you are in the world, here it meant the leaves of amaranth or taro bush.

 

I attempted to recreate the flavor of callaloo soup at home, and while I didn’t get it spot on, I did make a tasty modified spinach soup that gets you closer:

 

Spinach Soup Reminiscent of Callaloo

In a medium saucepan combine:

  • ¾ cup small chopped Jerusalem artichoke / sunchoke

  • 2 Tb dried Nettle leaves (bulk spice section of co-ops, or in with teas / health foods)

  • ¾ cup water

  • 1 tsp salt

Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, then add:
 

  • 12 oz fresh spinach

  • 1 can of full fat coconut milk

Cover and simmer another 10 minutes, until spinach is all wilted and the chokes are soft.

In a blender / food processor / with an immersion blender puree the saucepan contents with

  • 2 tsp curry powder

  • ⅛ tsp Cayenne pepper

  • salt to taste (around 1 tsp)

  • 2 Tb Cream (omit to make vegan)

Breadfruit

The breadfruit I saw growing were the size of petite watermelons, the fancy kind that they have at the farmers’ market, except these grow on trees. Which strikes me as dangerous, but this is also a place where coconuts grow, so I suppose people are used to being attacked by large and heavy fruit. As the name implies, breadfruit is starchy. It first came to St. Vincent and the Grenadines as an option for feeding slaves cheaply. The Mutiny on the Bounty, in fact, was caused by breadfruit - Captain Bligh's men went ashore in Tahiti on a breadfruit collecting expedition and intra-ship relations deteriorated soon thereafter. This history is both indicative of what was happening along those trade routes, and also of the fact that breadfruit is astoundingly good in both nutrition and yields - the horticulturists got that part right. The national dish of St. Vincent today is roasted breadfruit with fried jackfish. Also, there’s a Breadfruit Festival during Emancipation Month (August) every year. The advertisements for this festival promise that “The dishes include but are not limited to breadfruit cheese pie, breadfruit puff, pizza, lasagna, breadsticks, quiche, sweet and sour candy (blossom). There are also breadfruit drinks available.”

Breadfruit is a sort of blank palette, cuisine-wise. I had salt roasted breadfruit at Auberge Grenadines and topped it with the rum and peppercorn gravy that the beef came in and, let me tell you, the starchy fruit covered with that rich delicious gravy was delicious. Japanese Sweet Potatoes give a sort of similar sense of dry starchiness with a hint of sweet. However, the breadfruit has a different texture inside - I looked up botannically how to describe it, but trust me it’s complicated, so just picture how a pineapple is textured inside - like that. When you plan to smother a dry roasted starchy fruit in gravy, you want this texture to catch the gravy up. I could not get my Japanese Sweet Potatoes to behave in the same way. I’ve also learned that while there are whole campaigns to transform breadfruit with preparations like rum & peppercorn gravy, there is no campaign to turn other produce into something like breadfruit so that you can then turn around and transform it back into something delicious.  

Soursop

Oh how I love soursop. It wasn’t technically in season when I visited but it was good enough for me. It’s a big soft ugly fruit. Inside the thick green skin you’ll find white flesh with black seeds, like a watermelon seed perfectly formed for spitting but ten times larger. Yes it’s sour but it’s not acidic* or tart. Also yes, acidic and tart are subsets of the taste “sour”. Think of a sour flavor, then think of fruits that don’t have that tartness - roasted pears, for example. The flavor was mild, but on the very ripe mango end of the tropical fruit spectrum. It’s the texture, though, that really got me. I’m going to tell you it’s like eating BBQ with your hands - the way the meat falls apart and juice runs down your arm and it’s so satisfying - and you’re going to think I’m ridiculous. But I’m not. Soursop is often marketed as similar to jackfruit and jackfruit, my friends, is a trendy vegan meat substitute because of it’s texture. So it’s not just me.

Soursop might not be easy to get around here but you can find canned green jackfruit for vegan meat experiments. I first encountered such a recipe with the vegan fish sticks in Justin Warner’s The Laws of Cooking And How to Break Them. It’s mainstream now and we know this because Splendid Table did a segment on jackfruit, and it comes with recipes.

*According to the Internet, where a bunch of people are worried about acidic foods in their diets, a soursop is slightly alkaline and far less acidic than something like a strawberry. I believe that Wikipedia’s soursop entry is wrong about this issue and if I knew how to correct it, I would.

A Note On Carriacou Botanical Gardens

While wandering the Windward Islands looking for fruits to eat, we naturally wandered into the botanical gardens in Carriacou - which the tourist guides listed as a major attraction currently undergoing repairs. "Undergoing" might have been optimistic.

I don’t know that it will be a tragedy if this particular botanical garden is never again tended to, but it still felt sad. Pause to imagine: these islands were a doorway between two very different botanical worlds. Transatlantic currents, and the prevailing winds, put early ships from Europe into the southern Caribbean, carrying plants to and fro. Pretty quickly, land was transformed into sugar plantations and monoculture. There’s amazing diversity. There’s diversity collapse. More broadly, as two hemispheres mingled, tomatoes met onions and there was sauce. Apples met pecans and a great pie rivalry was formed. Bananas met peanuts and Elvis got his favorite snack. Vanilla met coffee met cacao and eventually we had frappes. Someone invented rum. And one day it too was added to frappes. Everyone learned about maple syrup. There were plants that aren’t food - there were textiles, medicines, and many beautiful flowers. There were also invasive plants and species extinction. The humans building commerce around these plants opened Pandora’s box - and I mean that in the classical sense of all the world’s evils being released. Remember the Garden of Eden? That didn’t end very well, either. There’s discovery and wonder and greed and evil and chocolate - I’m not a botanist but the need for history-rich gardens feels compelling. 

St Vincent and the Grenadines

This is the third of what will be five posts on the various foods I enjoyed on a recent trip to the Caribbean - specifically Barbados, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and Grenada. I swear these posts are necessary because otherwise we’ll all sit around reading TripAdvisor and those folks aren’t nearly as nice as I am, plus they hardly ever include recipes. The previous posts were “Return from the Windward Islands” and “Coconut Drops from Carriacou”.  

 

At no point in the tourism guides for the Windward Islands did I see a big billboard with flashing lights that said ‘they barbecue pig tails here!’ But that should exist. BBQ Pig Tails! These are not tiny curls but meaty better-than-ribs, fatty and succulent and well appointed with bones from which you may suck the meat. With gusto. I might have done so with more elaborate gusto if I had not been eating mine on top of a trash can in the Barbados airport, scarfing as much as possible before the flight attendant hustled us through security. I also had a serving of pudding and souse - essentially sweet potato sausage plus pickled pig parts. They were precariously balanced. It was the lunch that had been interrupted by an urgent summons to the airport to catch a much-delayed flight to St. Vincent for our honeymoon, which left us a few minutes (total) to pack up, hop in a cab, navigate check in and find a way to cut a two hour line for security. In moments of urgent action, people sitting down to a good meal take their plates with them. I confirmed this later in the trip when the grills at a Bequia restaurant caught fire in spectacular fashion and in spite of purses and phones left on the tables as patrons fled, nary a scrap of food had been abandoned.

 

(The restaurant was more or less fine in the end - a pair of retired firefighters were enjoying a cocktail one patio over and they dealt with the situation).

 

I lost a lobster dinner in the conflagration. I'm still thinking about that lobster. They eat spiny lobster in the Caribbean. This picture of one is from the NOAA fisheries page, and to justify my photo use, I will also link this Vice article on spiny lobster fisheries and why we aren't eating this variety in the U.S.

I lost a lobster dinner in the conflagration. I'm still thinking about that lobster. They eat spiny lobster in the Caribbean. This picture of one is from the NOAA fisheries page, and to justify my photo use, I will also link this Vice article on spiny lobster fisheries and why we aren't eating this variety in the U.S.

 

If you desire BBQ pig tails, a bar owner on Union Island assures me there’s a West Indian grocery off of Dudley Square in Boston that stocks them. (Yes, I asked bartenders about the pig tail situation on every island we visited). Serious Eats has a recipe for BBQ-ing the tails; the ones I had were all slathered in BBQ sauce, though, so I recommend adding that component with your favorite sauce (or make one).

 

St. Vincent and the Grenadines (our primary destination) had relatively thin information for the food-focused traveler. Possibly because most people were sailing-focused travelers and there’s a big ocean full of fish right there that you then get grilled up on a beach, or on your boat, and wash down with rum or cheap beer. Problem solved. Point well taken. I did serious work with a small tuna on our boat’s grill, plus putting away my share of lobster on the beach in the Tobago Cays. I’ll add other items that I enjoyed, with a few recipes for good measure.

 

Here I pretend that I'm sponsored by Doris' Fresh Food on Bequia because it is super awesome. She's taken countries from all over the world and stocked a shelf of what people from that country would really crave after sailing for several weeks. The varieties of sesame seed in the Japan section alone was eye opening - why don't I have wasabi coated sesame seeds in the convenience store next door?  If you lacked motivation to acquire wealth, being able to afford full provisioning from Doris (never mind the yacht part) would be an excellent motivator.

Here I pretend that I'm sponsored by Doris' Fresh Food on Bequia because it is super awesome. She's taken countries from all over the world and stocked a shelf of what people from that country would really crave after sailing for several weeks. The varieties of sesame seed in the Japan section alone was eye opening - why don't I have wasabi coated sesame seeds in the convenience store next door?  If you lacked motivation to acquire wealth, being able to afford full provisioning from Doris (never mind the yacht part) would be an excellent motivator.

 

Rum

 

There was a lot of rum. I am not a big rum enthusiast. The local Captain Bligh XO rum tasted far enough on the cognac end of the spectrum that I managed a half dozen glasses of it one evening without complaint. The Guyana rum El Dorado (we sampled the 15 year old) tasted - not subtly -  like tobacco and chocolate and, eventually, vanilla. Which had novelty. Overall, the group sailing on our boat were devotees of Very Strong Rum. That’s its name “Very Strong Rum”. This introduced me to the “overproof” category of rum - and it scoffs at the better-known Bacardi 151, weighing in at 170 proof instead. Tourists mostly stock it on their boats to use lighting the grill. Not us, we hung out in tiny bars and sat at picnic tables with the owners and their families and ordered “quarts” (really it was closer to a pint) and bottles of ginger ale and had at it. There was a fortunate alternative - Campari and soda. No matter how small the bar, they reliably stocked Sunset Very Strong Rum and also Campari. If you don’t like super strong rum or super bitter apertifs, I’m not sure what the answer is. Low alcohol beer. (I guess I do know what the answer is).

 

If you want to learn about the history of rum, we brought the book And A Bottle of Rum with us - I recommend it and here’s an NPR interview with the author should you want more details. If you want to know more about the Very Strong Rum, there’s a 2015 article in Maxim (some people do read it for the articles, you know).

 

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That blank spot up there is proof that the Internet doesn’t have everything. We ate plantains baked in rum punch with cheese in one restaurant, and I swear there is no recipe online for this dish. There’s sweet plantains in rum. There’s savory plantains with cheese. There is no savory rum-baked plantains with cheese. Instead, I give you this article and recipe for Flygande Jakob, the Swedish banana and chicken casserole with peanuts and a great deal of heavy cream. Just to prove that a similar taste profile does exist in the public record. And it’s popular. In Sweden. I will update this after I figure out the plantain rum cheese concoction for myself.  

 

Beverages that Are Not Rum


The Christmas holidays were close enough that folks still had a small stock of holiday Sorrel Juice if you asked for it. Sorrel Juice is made from a relative of the hibiscus. It tasted like the purple corn-based Peruvian drink Chicha Morada. They’re both made by creating a strong tea from their primary ingredients (sorrel, purple corn, respectively), plus warming spices (think ginger, cinnamon, allspice), fruit trimmings (orange peel, apple cores, pineapple trimmings) and sweetened to taste. Also, they turn very bright colors. The cola of choice was Mauby Drink, which tasted like a hybrid of coca-cola and Dr. Pepper, with some high end artisan root beer thrown in. It’s made from the bark of the Mauby tree, and with a little internet ordering and syrup making, you too can have Mauby.

Here I pause because the next half of this post is a discourse on produce, and some on botany, and that seems like it should be separate. You can experiment with that bananas and chicken dish while you wait (it is good, I’ve tried it). See? There’s so much interesting stuff to eat in this world. Insert political commentary on immigration here, if you feel a need.