If your mind urges you to do something; listen. Mine has been nagging me for the past few days. Since Wednesday, it’s been industriously firing millions of neurons, triggering wave after wave of electric impulses. I’ve been unable to think about nothing else. If your mind urges you to do something; obey. I’m off this coming Sunday, usually, the idea of being out of the restaurant kitchen, is something I look forward to, but today it’s a means to an end.
I’m off on Sunday, but more importantly I’m in the mood to cook dinner. It all started when my roommate Elton bought a 2lb pork shoulder from the Buford Farmers Market. He was so proud of his purchase and his plans for the pork, that he called Tracy (a mutual friend) to share his jubilation. Tracy thought Elton was planning to cook “Jerk pork” and naturally invited herself over for dinner. That was on Wednesday, but somehow, the act of whom and when the pork would be prepared, got lost in translation. Elton claimed their discussion was about his purchase, and of his intentions to cook some jerk pork. He did not tell her he was going to cook it that same day. Tracy was not pleased, as she learnt the truth during subsequent phone calls. To appease them both, I volunteered to roast the pork shoulder on Sunday; if Elton would season it.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
It’s been marinating in the refrigerator for four days. The smell of the seasoning permeates the refrigerator, cloves and allspice and scotch bonnet peppers, it’s an aromatic reminder of a promise made. On Sunday, I woke up energized. Elton was getting ready for work, and I could hear him moving around the apartment. My wife Sherie had already left for work, so pretty soon; I’d be home by myself, perfect. Early that morning, I lay in bed and began to mentally plan my menu for Sunday dinner. After a fair amount of stretching, rolling, turning and yawning, I decided that today, I would do a potato salad with lots of bacon, with the drippings added for extra flavor. Why not, bacon fat in potato salad is delicious!
My mental checklist
- I’m going to roast the pork shoulder (marinated in jerk seasonings), check.
- I got the potato salad, check.
- Might as well do some Jamaican rice and peas, check.
- And some fried green plantains to top it off, check and check.
In Jamaica “rice and peas” is a traditional favorite, common in every household kitchen, rich and poor alike. We use red kidney beans, even though we call it “peas.” The kidney beans are soaked overnight ( they cook quicker), and then put to boil in water with a few pimento seeds ( allspice), a sprig of thyme, two or three cloves of garlic and a whole scotch bonnet pepper. It may seem strange, but boiling the pepper with the “peas” imparts a very subtle and fleeting nuance of heat; it vanishes like a will ‘o’ wisp. When the peas are done and tender, coconut milk is added, (for this I prefer to use Grace coconut milk in the powder form). Wash the rice and add to the beans. Let it cook and when almost done, turn the heat to low and cover with plastic wrap; (the residual heat and steam will finish the cooking process).
Believe me, it’s a skill, to get the ratio of peas to liquid to rice correct. In Jamaica, there are no recipes for “rice and peas. You learn by seeing and doing, helping in the more mundane tasks like grating a fresh coconut or washing the rice. The final test is to cook Sunday dinner under the watchful eye of your mom or grandmother. Woe unto you, if the “rice and peas” is too hard or “wet and soppy soppy.”
It’s a slow and lazy Sunday morning and I’m alone, which is how I like it. Outside the weather is warm and sunny and my mood is buoyed by the sunshine streaming through the windows. In the background, Pandora is playing my favorite quick mix of Portishead, Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin. Humming to myself, I set the oven to 250F. There’s no rush. I intend to roast the pork at a really low temperature. It’ll take about four hours, but it will be worth the time. Leaving the pork in the oven, I put on sandals and head to the farmers market to buy potatoes and green plantains. While shopping for these few item, I fall in love with this beautiful ripe papaya, it ends up in the cart as well. I’m not worried about my pork shoulder in the oven, it’s covered in foil and there’s some braising liquid in the roasting pan. It will behave until I get home to tend to it.
Cooking at home has a different vibe from what I do at work. In a professional kitchen, it’s a constant race against time. Everyone’s moving quickly. It can be chaotic. It is challenging. The push for excellence is constant like a migraine headache. Each day I walk out the door emotionally and physically drained. In contrast, today I’m taking time to cook. I’m melding flavors and ingredients that I’ve grown up with. Best of all I’m barefoot!
Cooking Tip #1
Standard kitchen philosophy whatever takes the longest to prepare, do it first.
- The jerk pork has been in the oven since noon
- Next get the kidney beans cooking
- Boil the potatoes for potato salad
I had bought 2lbs of baby new potatoes for the salad. Simple is best and I leave the skin on and cut them in half, before slipping them into a pot of cold water.
Cooking Tip #2
- While the potatoes are coming to a boil, I slip two eggs into the pot. Makes sense, the eggs are for the salad, might as well let them hitch a ride with the potatoes as they cook. It takes about 12 minutes to perfectly hard boil an egg.
- On the back burner I place small sauté pan with diced bacon. Turning the setting to low (it’s an electric stove, which I hate but oh well).The bacon will slowly cook and crisp on its own with minimal attention.
- So for the salad I’ve got potatoes and eggs cooking, plus the bacon in the back.
- Time to brunoise half a green pepper, some parsley and green onions for the potato salad.
- Meanwhile my pork is caramelizing nicely and I remove the foil and baste it before putting it back in the oven. I had decided to roast the shoulder, covering and uncovering it at thirty minute intervals. Each time the braising liquid is reduced to a dark glaze, add a ½ cup of water and let it continue cooking.
- Pay the kidney beans some attention. Taste one; it’s done when the bean is firm but not hard to the tooth. I stir in the coconut milk, add thyme and season the liquid with some salt, and finally add my rice.
- I’m just about done. The potatoes are in a colander draining, my eggs are done. The bacon on the back burner is nice and crispy.
- To finish the salad place the warm potatoes in a bowl, add the bacon and the fat, toss in the green peppers, parsley and green onions. With a spoon mix together and season with salt.
- Add the mayonnaise and the diced eggs mix gently with the spoon to finish.
- By this time the rice is almost done.
- A quick peek into the oven to check on the Jerk pork. It looks good and smells even better.
My final task
Fried green plantains. I had bought three green plantains and set about using my paring knife to score the skin. To peel the plantains it takes a bit of firm force and decisiveness. Running my index finger along the incision, the skin detaches itself to reveal the pale yellow flesh.
- To make fried green plantains: cut into one inch rounds and fry in a sauté pan until each side is light brown.
- While still hot, use the bottom of a coffee mug (or anything with a flat surface) to flatten the plantains (you literally crush them) then fry again, until crisp and golden brown.
- As they come out of the oil, season with salt.
I was done cooking. I washed all the pots and pans and put them away. The counter top and sink was clean. The kitchen looked like a brand new Cadillac still in the showroom. The only giveaway was the lingering smell of my home cooked meal. The smell of spices clung to the walls and ceiling like a sticky fly trap. I sat on the sofa to bask in the aromas of Sunday dinner. I was quite content and happy. I’m unsure when I’ll have the opportunity to cook like this again, but that’s for another time and another story.