Lima Beans, Eggplant, Cucumber, A Chef’s Wishful Wait for Spring

“The unfortunate gardener loves gardening, but isn’t very good at it.” Jomo Morris

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Loves gardening, but not very good at it.
That description fit me perfectly. The 12 or so scrawny hibiscus planted in a row along the edge of my lawn would agree. In my defense, I dug the holes deep and lubricated each one with copious amounts of manure before sticking the young saplings into their final resting place. Like a doting father, I gave each plant an early morning shower with the water hose. 

I never shirked my duty and would talk to them like children as I stooped low to peer at the leaves for bugs. Then I’d run my fingers along the stems to check for other plant maladies.

But they were doomed from the start. Poor soil and a malicious Jamaican sun transformed my pet project into a forlorn row of spindly kindling wood. Despite my best efforts, the unfortunate gardener had struck again.

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My luck with gardening wasn’t always a downhill struggle; a wee sapling of an avocado tree clung to life and seemed to enjoy the spot I picked for it. The ginger lilies by the side of my house were in constant bloom, especially since I grew handy with my favorite pruning tool – a machete. I had three beautiful frangipani trees, two Julie mango trees and an unruly bed of Mexican petunias that were pretty to look at but apt to spread if not carefully watched. My bougainvillea hedges were a riot of color during the summer, not to mention the pink oleanders that led up my driveway.

It’s been years since I left my garden home in Jamaica for the United States; and I’ll admit, I had a good run. But the memory of my ill-fated hibiscus plants still makes my green thumb wilt.

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Maybe this year I’ll finally be able to make things right. Each spring the cooks in my kitchen volunteer time and energy to fill four large concrete planters on the fifth-floor terrace with herbs, flowers and vegetables. Each concrete planter is four feet high and eight feet square with a tent- like covering for shade. The state of Georgia experiences all four seasons, which is perfectly fine with me, because I need time to assuage my  fears. Maybe I am still haunted by the ghosts of hibiscus past? Am I superstitious? I am determined to prove myself wrong. So as Old Man Winter releases his icy grip on the earth, I thaw enough courage to join the team in charge of this year’s chef garden.

Chef says we should make sure that we do some research on what plants are best for our small garden. He said, We should think about the best frost-tender vegetables and herbs, because whatever we choose to plant in the next few weeks must be able to withstand sudden temperature changes. According to the climate chart, Atlanta is in zone 7b, which means that there is potential for cold snaps well up into the end of April.”

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I stand with the other cooks in a semi-circle around him, hands respectfully clasped behind us. “The best part of planting a garden is the learning process involved. It requires commitment and a willingness to get your hands dirty,” he says. It’s obvious that he’s on a roll and you can see his enthusiasm for the subject building.

“You will sweat, being outside in the July sun can be hot work, but sweat builds character and you’ll learn first-hand how plants grow. Imagine being able to put seeds in the earth and watch them grow!”

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His excitement is infectious, and if he had said, “Charge!”at the end of his speech, every cook would have run out the door screaming, ready to dig into the earth with their bare hands.

It was  good meeting, and we finished prep for dinner service in an animated mood. Even as tickets came in and plates flew out the kitchen, gardening was all we could talk about. Now, the gardener in me would have loved to plant scotch bonnet peppers, callaloo, gungo peas, pineapple and sugar cane, but I’m a long way from Jamaica.

Instead, I chose to apply my green thumb to lima beans, eggplant, peppers, tomato and cucumbers. I can already imagine myself cooking with all the fresh basil, thyme, oregano, sage and mint just picked from the garden. I may be pushing my luck but a planter filled with various types of plump lettuce would be ideal. I’m excited by all the possibilities. In the next few weeks, as I head to the nursery to buy compost and select plant seedlings, I’ll be thinking about warm spring breezes and a privileged cook working in a small urban garden, planting dreams, wishes and memories.

 

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Don’t Pick the Peas Out the Rice!


I can’t say my mother loved to cook. I would rather say, my mother was adept at feeding her two young sons. I was 9 and my brother 7 – both too young to know or even understand – when my mom was going through a bitter divorce. I’m sure she did her best to keep our lives as normal as possible, but necessity created what I have come to call “The Bitter Divorce Menu.” It consisted of whatever was easiest to prepare and required the least amount of cooking.

Shopping in the produce and meat sections of the supermarket became a thing of the past; instead she would head to the convenience aisle and load the shopping cart with oatmeal, cereal, milo, Vienna sausage, corned beef, hot dogs, ketchup, macaroni and cheese, and bread. Dinner from a box, cans, and whatever was quick,  didn’t spark our culinary appetites, but it got the job done. The “Bitter Divorce Menu” meant cornflakes with milk and sugar in the morning and corned beef with steamed rice for dinner. I can’t recall how many times we had Vienna sausage with a fried egg for breakfast, but it was all stuff we liked. As long as we didn’t complain, we could have as much as we wanted, when we wanted.

The “Bitter Divorce Menu,” didn’t last for long; as with many families in times of trouble, we were sent to stay with our grandparents. One thing about grandma, actually two things about her: she was happily married, and she loved her kitchen. Grandma loved to cook, and nothing pleased her more than to prepare a meal and sit and watch as we licked the plates clean. Grandma’s kitchen was small with plain brown cupboards and a utilitarian countertop, but the space had the patina of happy memories from feeding her family.

The kitchen had a cheery glow from sunlight streaming through the clear glass windows over the sink and the wall adjacent to it. There was always a length of orange peel hanging on the burglar bars, and on the shelf a knob of nutmeg resting in its own special grater. Years later, I would learn, these were the magic ingredients to her delicious cornmeal porridge. In her kitchen everything had a place, and grandma could close her eyes and point to every dish, glass, spoon, knife and fork as unerringly as a compass pointing north.

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Grandma didn’t believe in a light breakfast; instead we got cornmeal porridge, toast and half an orange for each of us. We would wake up to steamed callaloo, roast breadfruit and mackerel cooked in coconut oil; we cried all the way to school. The evening meal fared no better; gone were my favorites, like Vienna sausage with baked beans and white rice, instead dinner read like a litany from the farmers market: brown stewed beef, rice and peas, boiled green bananas, pumpkin and yellow yam.

As soon as she set the plate down, I would promptly pick all the peas out of the rice. My brother and I would sit through dinner pushing the food around with our forks and watching grandfather noisily plow through his plate. My grandmother was keenly aware of how little we ate. I’m sure it must have burned her soul as she scraped the food from our plates into the garbage.

To say I was a finicky eater was an understatement, but grandma knew the way to my heart was through my belly. Cornmeal porridge, ackee and saltfish with fluffy fried dumplings and roasted breadfruit, stew peas made with coconut milk, oxtail with butter beans: she instilled each dish with love and it opened my appetite. I even began to leave the peas in the rice. The commingling of rice with red kidney beans, coconut milk, scotch bonnet pepper and pimento has become one of my first indelible memories of Jamaican home cooking. As I grew older, we spent many a Sunday cooking and baking in her cozy kitchen. Grandma never wrote a recipe, everything was in her head and she could add a bit of this, and a bit of that, and it would be perfect. She taught me many of the dishes I still cook at home today. Rice and peas is a special side dish that Jamaicans like to serve as part of Sunday dinner. It’s a tradition that I’ve always observed and I share this recipe with fond memories.

Jamaican Rice & Peas

½ cup red kidney beans (we say peas, but it is actually a red kidney bean)

8 cups water

4 pimento seeds

2 cloves garlic

1 scotch bonnet pepper

1 stalk green onion

2 stalks fresh thyme

¾ cup coconut milk

1 cup white rice

½ tsp. salt

It is best to soak the beans overnight, but I’ve soaked them as little as three hours before cooking them. Soak the beans overnight in 8 cups water; it’s the same liquid you’ll be using to cook the beans in. In a pot with a thick bottom add the soaked beans, water, pimento seeds, garlic and a whole scotch bonnet pepper. Do not pierce the pepper, but allow it to boil with the beans.

It takes about 90 minutes for the peas to be cooked enough to add the rice. The cooking liquid should be reduced to 1 ½ cups. It’s important to get this ratio correct because too much liquid will make the dish soupy and not enough will undercook the rice. Remember the ratio to cook white rice is 2:1, two parts liquid to one part rice.

Measure the rice and rinse 3 to 4 times with cold water to remove as much starch as possible.

The pot with peas should be simmering as you add the coconut milk, thyme, green onion and salt. It’s best to taste the liquid at this point to make sure it seasoned to your liking. Add the rice to the pot, do not stir. It takes about twenty minutes for most if not all the liquid to dry out, don’t worry if the rice does not appear fully cooked. When the liquid is almost gone, turn the flame to low and cover the pot with plastic wrap and a lid, allow to steam for a further  ten minutes until the rice is cooked.

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A “Woman’s Place” In The Kitchen

“Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art”.

Fernand Point, 1950 

Women have a hard time working on equal footing with men in a professional kitchen. Line cooks  shudder at the thought of working the pantry station and justifiably so – that’s a woman’s station: safe, away from the heat, away from all the action. Like it or not , “the back of the house” is still an old men’s club, where women are traditionally hired to work primarily in the pastry kitchen or in garde manger.

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 Have I upset you ?

I ‘ve worked in enough kitchens and seen it myself. Ask yourself this question: Have you ever worked the hot line with a female line cook?  Better  yet, have you ever stopped for a moment to watch as she puts pan to flame in the middle of the 7:30 dinner rush?IMG_2446

Women cook differently from their male counterparts.

The motions are not the same –  the rhythm is subtle, less aggressive in cadence and tempo. Almost intuitively, women tend to be more fluid in cooking style. Their moves are more  graceful and orchestrated,  there’s a connection from the time the pan hits the flame that remains until the plate hits the pass.

Men are polar opposites.

They cuss the stove, jiggle the handles, bang pots, grab plates, as if by sheer will, the beurre blanc will reduce faster, the halibut will sear more evenly… rush, push, rush… Honestly,  I have a deep respect for my female counterparts.  Being a cook is not easy. Cooking professionally is not easy. To do it, and do it well, takes years of dedication and physical toil. Cooks work with sharp instruments, boiling liquids, extreme heat and extreme cold. It is presumptuous of men to think that women  are unable to withstand the the rigors of working a hot line. And even more so, to promote based on gender instead of talent, attitude and the dogged determination to work hard.

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 Some of the best chefs that I have worked for are women.

Some of the toughest , hardest hitting, pan-slinging cooks I’ve had the pleasure to work beside are women. The dynamic of the modern kitchen is changing, championed in part by chefs like Alice Waters ( widely credited for defining California’s cuisine), Cat Cora ( Iron Chef) , Cristeta Comerford ( first female executive chef at the White House), Clare Smyth (Head Chef at the three Michelin starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay). The classic idea of a “chef ” as male is changing. “A woman’s place in the kitchen” is no longer limited by our culture, tradition, and male chauvinism. We stand shoulder to shoulder, prep together, work together, laugh together and most importantly, share our passion for craft.   staff

Jomo’s Key Lime Pie

Also known as three easy steps to Key lime bliss:

graham crust

Make

GRAHAM CRACKER CRUST

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

 2 tbsp granulated sugar

3 tbsp all purpose flour

1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Combine first three ingredients. Add butter in a steady stream until mixed. Make shell in pie mold or pan, pressing graham cracker crust mix in bottom and sides until evenly applied throughout.

mini key lime piesFill crust with

KEY LIME PIE CUSTARD,

bake and chill

1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk

5 egg yolks

4 oz Key lime juice

If juicing your own limes, zest them first for Key Lime Whipped Cream and set aside for later. Mix milk, egg yolks, and lime juice. Pour key lime custard mixture in shell until it reaches the top of the sides. Bake at 200° F, until custard is set or approximately 30 minutes, then refrigerate for 2 hours.

 

whipped creamTop with

KEY LIME WHIPPED CREAM

2 ½  cups heavy cream

½ cup granulated sugar

Zest of  5 Key limes or 2 regular-size limes, finely grated

Place all ingredients in bowl and whip until stiff peaks form.

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When Life Sours and Tears Taste Like Limes

When life sours and tears taste like limes… CRY. Or decide that today is the day to eat pie.

I’ve been feeling like a sour lime of late. Normally, I’m an optimist who can find something positive in any situation. But somehow, my sunny outlook has gone dark, leaving seeds of uncertainty and melancholy. I will not let them germinate.

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Hope springs eternal in the kitchen… Make a graham cracker crust and pat it down firmly in a pan or pie mold to keep melancholy away.

Graham Cracker Crust

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

3 tbsp all purpose flour

 2 tbsp granulated sugar

1 stick unsalted butter (melted)

Combine first three ingredients. Add butter in a steady stream until mixed. Make shell in pie mold or pan, pressing graham cracker crust mix in bottom and sides until evenly applied throughout.

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My life savings paid the first year of my college tuition; the next year sort of took care of itself. Instead of believing those who cast shadows of doubt in my path, I persevered. At night while my classmates slept, I worked; and with each paycheck came the means to pursue my passion. Passion created Photochefs.com, a blog that allows me share my love of writing and cooking – a passion is as thick as Key Lime Pie Custard – with you.

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Key Lime Pie Custard

1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk

5 egg yolks

4 oz Key lime juice

If juicing your own limes, zest them first for Key Lime Whipped Cream and set aside for later. Mix milk, egg yolks, and lime juice. Pour key lime custard mixture in shell until it reaches the top of the sides. Bake at 200° F, until custard is set or approximately 30 minutes, then refrigerate for 2 hours. Top with Key Lime Whipped Cream, below.

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Complacency is to grow up in a small town and never leave. Like limes in a basket: sameness, roundness, green-ness… safety in being just like everyone else. But there was this pinprick in the back of my mind. Something was not right…. Like the feeling of an oncoming headache, building slowly, tiny stabs of pain, immune to aspirin and water.

Many lack the courage to dream of being more, and fall to the ground and hide under leaves and grass. Away from the warmth of the sun, growing hard, bitter, resentful… But some limes are meant for greatness. They grow from seed to sapling to tree and bear fruit; hoping that one day –  somewhere, somehow – someone will notice their efforts. A lime hopes that someone will see beyond its green skin and say, “Imagine if…”

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By itself, a lime is tart and its essence sharp and forceful to taste; but condensed milk, yolks, and graham cracker crust are good company. Baked in a hot oven, a lime gives its juices to balance sweet with tart, and custard adds creaminess to crispy. Left to our own selfish ways, we too become harsh and tart; but with the gift of love and warmth, a smile will emerge. The day will brighten and the mind will clear, as surely as the lime ripens.

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… But one lime heard the whispering in the wind. And listened to the buzzing of the bees. And it knew within its pith and seeds: that the day would come when it would become sublime, covered with Key Lime Whipped Cream.

Key Lime Whipped Cream

 2 ½  cups heavy cream

½ cup granulated sugar

zest of  5 Key limes or 2 regular-size limes, finely grated

Place all ingredients in bowl and whip until stiff peaks form. Set aside in refrigerator.

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… Until finally we are rejuvenated, for how sweet it is to be truly alive.