Oxtail on My Mind

My culinary repertoire was limited. Numerous attempts at disputing this fact had led me to the same irrevocable conclusion: I could not cook! Like any male in a predicament, I found it easy to lay blame on someone else.

My theory insisted that my failure to feed myself was a matter of genetics – similar to being born with a non-life threatening condition.  My mother was a horrible cook, hated the kitchen passionately, and passed some remnant of this kitchen-hating gene to me.

For her, the kitchen was a mythical dragon ferociously protecting its lair, scorching béchamel sauce and overcooking pasta. I remember well the day the monster roasted her Thanksgiving turkey to a crisp cinder.

A stubborn woman, my mother was undeterred; she simply bought new pots and pans to replace the casualties of battle. She had a sizable stockpile of weaponry: eggbeaters and whisks, tall and slotted spoons, a meat grinder, a set of cookie cutters from France. In addition to her frying pans and stock pot, she had somehow acquired a gnocchi board, and rescued a rickety kitchen scale from someone’s garbage heap. Mommy arrived at the front line battle-ready, scarcely anticipating her humiliation, never fully accepting defeat.

The sound of a pot clanging on the stove. The slam of a cupboard door. The sound of Jack, our 8-year-old cocker spaniel, barking at the kitchen door.

These were the signals that the battle had been joined. As a child, I hated these fights, because if she lost (which she often did), we would have sardines for dinner.

As an adult, I still shiver whenever I walk through the canned food section at the supermarket.

After migrating to the United States, I decided the time had come to slay the dragon of my childhood.  I planned to cook oxtail stew, a dish I had grown to love thanks to my fellow Caribbean expatriates.  My neighbors Matthew and Lisa Denali were from my hometown in Jamaica and, like an island breeze, invited themselves into my life. They lived in the apartment next to mine: with typical island hospitality, they welcomed me to America with smiles, kind words, and homemade goodies.

Coconut drops, cornmeal pudding, rice and peas, and Lisa’s oxtail stew filled my small apartment with memories of lazy Sunday afternoons. Just opening one of their Tupperware containers gave me visions of swaying pimento trees and goats resting in the shade. Before the Denalis moved and were replaced by an aging spinster from Rhode Island, I never missed the opportunity to have dinner with them. Especially when Lisa was working her magic on a pot of cow’s tail: the resulting stew seemed nothing short of enchantment.

Oxtail is categorized as offal: in layman’s terms, the entrails and internal organs of a butchered animal. From a cultural standpoint, offal is “fifth quarter”: those parts of an animal considered waste material and normally thrown away during the butchering process. Oxtail, as the name suggests, is a cow’s tail that has been cleaned and cut into one- to two-inch disks of bone, meat, fat and gristle. Traditionally oxen, cows that had been neutered and used as beasts of burden, were the source of this delicacy.

Through periods of hunger and famine, butchers began to prepare oxtail from any bovine that wandered into the abattoir. Creative cooks worldwide have used this muscular meat to create ethnic specialties, a tradition evidenced by oxtail’s different variations. In Italy, it is the main ingredient in coda alla vaccinara, a rich oxtail stew with vegetables and herbs, the meat braised in wine. Versions of oxtail soup are popular traditional dishes in Asian countries: the Philippines has kare-kare, with a thick, mellow peanut sauce enhanced with shrimp paste. Indonesia gives us sop buntut, a clear soup made by boiling the oxtail, vegetables and some aromatic spices. In Colombia, oxtail turns up in sococho de cola, prepared with plantains, corn, yucca, potatoes, and squash. In Brazil, it’s rabada ensopado, in Korea, kkori gomtang; I call it delicious in any language.

After spending hours on the internet looking at recipes from around the world, I chose one from jamaican-recipes.com. It was straightforward and simple, with a Caribbean flair to it, and I liked the fact that it called for a pressure cooker. 

Not that I had any idea how to use that piece of equipment, but I was prepared to buy one.

A pressure cooker can be dangerous in the wrong hands: it is noisy, cantankerous, and has been known to explode on occasion. Perfect – the heightened danger appealed to my combative nature, for indeed I was preparing for battle. Pressure cooker and recipe in hand… tomorrow, the dragon was going to die.

No cooker? No problems! Click here for Chef Jomo’s “No-Pressure” Jamaican Oxtails!

 My best friend Nancy argued against this lunacy; she reminded me of my penchant for starting grease fires. She also recounted several other mishaps that had befallen my attempts at preparing a meal over the years.

But I was resolute, and her pleas relented. I would cook my dish and it would be perfect; I would love it, and Nancy would, too.

I had already gone to the supermarket and bought all the ingredients. Nancy had agreed to come for dinner tomorrow. She insisted on playing her part by supplying a bottle of Merlot for our repast. The thought struck me that the wine served a dual purpose: to celebrate as the drink to go with my accomplishment – or as a makeshift fire extinguisher.

My small apartment with an even smaller kitchen had never seen its occupant so busy. My shiny new cooker was out of the box and on the back burner of the stove. I had already dutifully washed my oxtails, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and put them in the pot, along with the other ingredients in the recipe.

For good measure, I had filled the pot to the brim with water, making sure the lid was sealed shut before turning the gauge on my electric stove to high. I had drawn first blood on the dragon; the pressure cooker was chugging and whistling, and I was watching it cook.

The doorbell chimed, and I untied my apron and hurried to open the door, expecting to see Nancy with my bottle of Merlot. Instead, I was greeted by dark brown eyes and my mother’s glasses sitting atop a petulant nose.

Imagine my shocked expression, as we stood facing each other in the doorway.

The pressure cooker must have been clairvoyant, because at that moment it shrieked, rattled, shook, and emitted what sounded to my mom a familiar war cry. The dragon was rallying, returning to battle right here in my tiny kitchen.

Mommy charged into the kitchen, removed the cooker from the stove, placed it in the sink and turned on the faucet. The pot sighed audibly as the cold water caressed it. I brought up the rear and stood sheepishly at the entrance to my kitchen as she expertly removed the lid and peered at the contents within.

“Give me a spoon,” she said, and scooped a little of the liquid and put it to her lips.

“Just a little more salt, a few sprigs of thyme, and I think we’ll be able to enjoy dinner in about twenty minutes.”  

Looking around, she found a small pot in the cupboard and said, “If you give me an apron, I’ll cook some rice and fry some plantains to go with it.”

The kitchen became deathly quiet, and at that moment something happened between us. My mother had been preparing for just this moment all these years. My oxtail came out perfectly; and as she turned to face me with a wry smile, I could imagine the dragon lying dead on the floor at her feet.

All these years, we had been missing one magical ingredient. We had found it in each other: love.

Without saying it, we both knew that from this day a common bond would unite mother and son, a force so powerful that no monster could defeat it. Humming contentedly to myself, I turned and went to find an extra plate and silverware. There would be three of us for dinner tonight. ♥

CurryLOVE

The word curry has different meanings. In the English language, curry can refer to “an attempt to gain favor or approval from someone through flattery”  – hence the saying, “to curry favor”. The word curry is more popularly used to describe a blend of spices that traces its origins to the Asian continent.

Curry is ubiquitous throughout the cuisines of South Asia, especially India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam. Unseasoned cooks subscribe to the popular misconception that curry is a single spice. In fact, there is no true spice called curry; it is a blend of spices which vary from one region of the world to the next.

Curry recipes in India can change from household to household and run the gamut from mild to searingly hot and spicy. Curry can be yellow or red or green, depending on the herbs and spices used in the blend. Common ingredients in curry powder include: coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds,  cumin, fennel seed, mustard seed,  poppy seed, chili pepper and turmeric.  The powdered turmeric root gives curry that distinctive yellow hue which most westerners are accustomed to seeing.

The word curry resides on a deeper and more personal level in my West Indian psyche. To speak of curry is to think of roti with split peas and dahl… A birthday party… the fair… the local cook shop. The smell of curry-spiced meat sizzling in a Dutch pot takes me home to my island heritage.

Curry is a 13 year old boy living on a cattle farm in Jamaica, workers in water boots chatting around a makeshift campfire. Curry is cooking and eating in the bush, with a banana leaf as my plate. Curry is boiled flour dumplings as large as a hand around topped the “watchman,” a small dollop of chicken back seasoned with said curry. Curry is more than just a mixture of spices;  it’s a harmonious blend of ethnic cuisines in the  global melting pot of food.Curry means goat. Local, from the butcher, cooked slowly until it falls off the bone, eaten with fried plantains, a raw salad of shredded cabbage, carrots, sliced tomato, and steaming hot white rice. In the eyes of the butcher, the ram goat above  is a prime candidate for the stew pot. Quick work with a knife will dispatch the animal to curry heaven, where greener grass and sweeter drinking water awaits. For the rest of us mortals, goat meat is easily found in supermarkets that serve ethnic neighborhoods, especially those with a strong Hispanic, African or Caribbean population.

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CURRY GOAT

For this recipe, a pound of goat meat bought from the supermarket will be sufficient to bring joy to you the cook and your diners. Season the meat with a teaspoon of salt, garlic powder, and black pepper. Add two generous tablespoons of curry powder, preferably Jamaican or Trinidadian curry.

If you can find it in your supermarket, add three or four seeds of whole allspice and a generous sprig of thyme. To this mixture, peel and cut two carrots into rounds as well as one large white onion (diced). If you are truly daring, procure a habañero pepper –  set it aside for now.

Mix all ingredients together and let sit for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator. In the meantime, find a sturdy pot suitable for stewing and add an ounce of vegetable oil. When it is really hot, add the goat meat (only) and sear for two or three minutes. This gives some color to the meat and “sets the curry”. There is nothing worse than eating uncooked curry; it is a surefire way to spend hours in the bathroom bemoaning your unlucky fate.

Add 6 cups of water to the vegetables, making sure to give it a good swirl to catch all the spices. Add this to the goat in the stew pot, reduce the flame,  and let your meal  simmer. Add the whole habañero (while the goat cooks, the habañero will imbue the stew with a rich flavor without over spicing the dish).

Let simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally until the meat pulls off the bone. Serve with white rice or other foods of your choice.

Curry from Trinidad

Channeling Breadfruit

As the world well knows, in the year 1789, Lt. William Bligh lost his ship Bounty at the hands of one Fletcher Christian and a handful of  miscreants on a voyage back to England from Tahiti, where the Bounty  had been sent to collect breadfruit and other useful plants of the South  Pacific. The breadfruit expedition, backed by the great and influential botanist  Sir Joseph Banks, patron of Kew Gardens and president of the Royal Society, had  been commissioned to transport the nutritious, fast-growing fruit to the West  Indies for propagation as a cheap food for slave laborers who worked the vast  sugar estates.” Captain Bligh’s Cursed Breadfruit by Caroline Alexander

 

No breadfruit trees in Atlanta, but I’ve seen the fruit for sale at Buford Highway Farmers Market, bearing faint hints of school-free summer days in Jamaica. But buying a breadfruit in air-conditioned comfort, thousands of miles from its native soil, is not the same as roasting one just picked from the tree. For me, it’s as natural to eat a slice of hot, buttery roast breadfruit as it is for Americans to enjoy a bagel or croissant with coffee. A year and some months away from the breadfruit tree in Grandma’s backyard, I long for a taste of my homeland.

In the topsy-turvy world of our professional kitchen, this year has been a roller coaster ride with enough loops and corkscrews to keep us in a quasi-permanent state of whiplash. We’ve lost ten cooks in less than 12 months; so far only two of those positions have been filled. Can’t remember the last time anyone has had two days off in a row. Each week as the new schedule is posted, we scan the meager list of names, certain with the knowledge that one of us will pull a 12-day work week.

Relief in my eyes, a slight drop in the shoulders of Derek the grill cook, a pat on his back from Scott working next to him on sauté. Necessity has forged us few remaining cooks into kindred spirits. Necessity means two cooks working a four-man line on a busy Monday night, trying to stay one ticket ahead of the dreaded weeds.

Together we fought and survived the maelstrom; and looking back, it’s been a long year. Like sandpaper on a block of wood, cooking this hard day-in and day-out wears down the soul. Fatigue creeps in and your motor functions slow, it becomes harder to concentrate, and even though we persevere and put pan to flame – it’s time for a break.

My thoughts turn to roasting breadfruit in a coal pot or on the kitchen stove burner and the smell like extra crispy toast. Slowly the leathery, green skin chars to a blackened shell, but don’t be fooled: under that dark crust lays a golden dome that is soft, almost doughy in texture, and delicious with butter and a little salt.

For the past three years, I’ve lived and worked in Atlanta: an urban mecca that embraces cosmopolitan glitz and glamour, but is tempered with genteel southern hospitality. As an immigrant accustomed to the relaxed rhythms of an island culture, adapting to the hectic American lifestyle has been challenging. Like breadfruit, enjoyed by rich and poor alike, the mantra, “chasing the American dream,” resonates strongly among the collective populace.  It seems that each waking moment here is given to achieving this elusive sense of status.

I’ve had to learn to live and work with punctual precision. The train for work leaves at a specific time, I’m scheduled to work a specific shift, I clock in and out four times daily. We have a ten-minute window to put out the first course, and 15 minutes later the second course is fired. Every action has been codified: don’t forget, in my kitchen, “If you have time to lean, then you have time to clean.”

But at night, I still dream of my grandmother’s tall breadfruit tree swaying in the breeze. In the islands the breadfruit tree is taken for granted, as one is found in almost every backyard. When in season, May through August, they bear prodigiously, and the “fruit” is a staple on the tables of every Jamaican household.

Sense of purpose renewed, I begIn making plans for my trip. I’m met at the Montego Bay airport by my Aunty Marlene and my cousin Zoey. It’s good to be back, and we hug and chat amiably as we leave the airport and head to Grandma’s house.

Its summer, it’s warm, and we cruise along the Howard Cooke Boulevard with our windows down. There’s a comfortable cadence as we gossip about the latest Jamaican news. Suddenly, my aunt mashes the brakes and exclaims loudly, as the car screeches to a halt in the middle of the road. We watch in disbelief as a man wrestling with the steering wheel of a white Toyota Corolla careens across the divided highway, missing our front bumper by a whisker.

In shock, we follow his sudden trajectory as the car runs across the road, climbs the sidewalk, catapults into the air, and lands upside down in a shallow gully.

“What the rassclaat!”  I gasp in exclamation, not even realizing I had just said a Jamaican cuss word out loud.

My aunt pulls off to the side, leaving the keys in the ignition as we rush to the overturned car. All around us, traffic comes to a grinding halt as other motorists leave their vehicles to offer assistance. Luckily, the driver climbs out, barefooted and unhurt and sits on a large rock, looking slightly dazed. The car is on its roof, the four wheels are still slowly spinning and everyone is chatting excitably about this man’s narrow brush with death.

My aunt moves closer to get a better look at the hapless man and suddenly begins to laugh, she taps me on the shoulder and says “Jomo, kiss mi neck, mi know him! Jomo ! Nuh one madman dis.” Shaking our heads in disbelief, we return to the car, leaving the madman still perched on top of the stone surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.  He’s crazy, and I think she’s correct in this. He probably stole someone’s vehicle and decided to go for a joyride.

I can’t help but chuckle at the thought that my first taste of roast breadfruit was almost sideswiped by a madman careening across the highway. What a way to spend your first hour in Jamaica! Goodness Gracious! I’m home. The miles pass in a blur as my thoughts return to my grandma. She’s at home cooking, and I look forward to sharing a meal with her again.

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Love Breadfruit.

Jerk Pork: Our Jamaican Freedom Food

“Wherever the hog is killed there the camp is pitched—water is always nearby in these wonderful mountains—and, a fire being kindled, the process of “jerking” is begun.” Charles J. WardIMG_7471

I’m longing to travel to a place with burnished walls and ceiling darkened from years of smoke and soot. A place where every breath draws in spices and roasting meat.

A place of razor-sharp cleavers, and the repetitive staccato of meat chopped into finger-size portions.

I know my prize will be tightly wrapped in layers of butcher’s paper. Meat larded with fat, protected by crispy skin. My fingers greasy and my tongue seared by scotch bonnet pepper.  I want the mongrel dog to look directly in my eye and patiently wait for scraps.

My freedom food should come with friendly smiles, green trees, an island breeze.  My Red Stripe is ice-cold and everyone speaks patois.

Today, I’m enjoying fried fish with festival, but my heart longs for jerk pork.

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Thank the Maroons, Jamaica’s first freedom fighters. Descendants of escaped slaves.  Deserted by their Spanish masters in the British invasion of 1655.  The Maroons fought to stay free: to survive in our mountainous Cockpit Country, they hunted wild boar and raided sugar plantations for food.

Always on the move and on the lookout for the British, the Maroons devised an ingenious “smoke-free” method to cook meat. They dug a hole, layered it with hot coals, well-seasoned wild boar, and pimento leaves, and then covered the hole again. With no campfire to announce their presence, the Maroons could prepare their meat unobserved by the British. The heat, smoke, spices, salt, pimento leaves and long cooking time created a peppery kind of pork jerky. Curing the meat by “jerking” also kept it from spoiling in the humid tropical climate.IMG_7900It takes a skillful cook to make really good jerk pork. It all starts with butchering the carcass. A razor-sharp knife removes the bones so the meat can lay flat. Then an exotic medley of herbs like lemongrass, scotch bonnet pepper, oregano, pepper elder leaves, bay leaves, thyme, ginger and scallion, are used to marinate the meat.

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Then he turns his attention to the grill. The coals have to be the right temperature; the pimento and sweet wood must be fresh and green. In Jamaica, the pimento and laurel trees are crucial to the unique flavor of jerk pork.

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Coal is stoked under the grill until blazing hot. Both sweet wood and pimento are laid on top of the grill followed by the seasoned pork. A zinc sheet is a practical way to cover the slowly cooking meat. The meat sizzles and pork fat falls on the cherry red embers. The green wood releases aromatic oils and fragrant smoke adding another layer of flavor to the pork.

Every Jamaican has a bit of Maroon blood in them.  It shows, in the rhythmic drumming of our music.  In the rich diversity of Jamaican patois. The way we dance.

Our taste for yellow yam, green bananas, cassava, coconut oil, river crayfish and wild pigs.  The Maroons taught us to love the foods of our island home and gave us the herbs to cook them with. The essence of Jamaican jerk pork has not changed for centuries, it still remains as it should; an aromatic distillation of meat and spices and heat and smoke. Our freedom food.

 

Once Upon A Mango

IMG_4509 copyOnce Upon A Mango

Always thank Mrs. Mango Seed

You enjoyed it

 She can tell

Children dance round big mango tree

 Sound of laughter

 Clear and free

Eat ripe mango

 One to ten

 School is out

Barefoot then

Climb and pick or use a stick

Search the ground

Look round and round

Ripe ripe Julie sweet and juicy

June July Big Bombay full

Mango blossom caressed by breeze

Perfect food for worker bees

Share a mango

Make a friend

 Give a smile

Mango zen

Sweetest candy on a tree

Share God’s gift

With feet and wings

Crawly things

He is wise

He knew so well

Ripe mango sweeter

Than a dinner bell

Artisanal Chocolate from Bean to Bar

“Transforming the simple cocoa bean into chocolate is the most powerful form of alchemy.” Jomo Morris

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The aroma is a sign: important things are happening to these beans.

Fresh cocoa beans are fermented in the open to increase their flavor – just like coffee beans. Prolonged exposure increases the risk of bacteria, fungi or mold. When cocoa beans are roasted, several chemical reactions occur. Roasting removes moisture, concentrating and intensifying chocolate flavor. Roasting also sterilizes the bean, and separates it from the outer husk, making cracking and winnowing easier.

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The beans then go through a Crankandstein® cocoa mill that breaks the beans into pieces.

It’s a hand cranked cocoa mill, with abrasive double rollers. It’s hard work to crack the cocoa beans by hand, but hard work and perspiration adds integrity to the chocolate making process.

The broken bits are then “winnowed

Chef uses a common hair dryer to blow away the flaky outer shell and leave the inner kernel or cocoa nib. Imagine seeing hundreds of tiny cocoa snowflakes covering the wall, the sink, swirling up and around as the hair dryer moves back and forth to separate the nibs.

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Bring forth the Champion juicer

The Champion juicer was originally created to juice fruit and vegetables; but somewhere in its history, someone discovered it could grind cocoa nibs. The Champion juicer grinds cocoa nibs until they liquefy to produce a sludge called “chocolate liquor.”

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 The Melangeur – Refining and Conching

The melangeur is a chocolate mixing machine with a granite basin containing two opposing granite rollers. Think of a turn-of-the-century mill with a huge granite stone to crush the grain, and you have an idea of how this piece of equipment works.

Chocolate liquor is grainy in texture and bitter in taste. At this stage, sweeteners and additives like cocoa butter are added to manipulate the characteristics of the finished product.  This bar is 70% chocolate, which means that it retains a high level of antioxidant flavonoids which are actually good for you. The melangeur reduces the particle sizes of cocoa solids, fats and sugar crystals through heat and friction. Eighteen hours of frictional heat from granite rubbing against granite refines the chocolate and keeps it liquid.  This process is called “conching.”

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 The next step is tempering.  Chocolate can be tempered by hand with the aid of a chocolate thermometer and a little knowledge, but a tempering machine removes the chance of error from this step.

Tempering chocolate is an exacting process that changes its finished characteristics. The process of heating, cooling, stirring and reheating to specific temperatures ensures that the chocolate crystallizes evenly. If not tempered correctly, chocolate will be dull in color and have ugly white streaks on the surface. Tempering also raises the melting point of chocolate (so it doesn’t melt in your hand). Properly tempered chocolate has a polished, shiny appearance and a crisp, clean snap when you break it.

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 Pouring the chocolate into molds

A large syringe works well to draw the warm chocolate from the machine and fill the molds, and then the chocolate is left to set. The day is done but chef is still in his office with a stack of chocolate-filled plastic molds on his desk. He carefully unmolds each bar and wraps them in shiny aluminum wrapper and finishes with protective paper sheath. There’s a story in his chocolate, and this story intertwines chef, the cocoa beans, and the person lucky enough to taste his artisanal chocolate bar.

 

Even A Scientist Could Make This Chocolate Brownie

“The true measure of passion is the ability to follow your dreams

without encouragement from anyone else.”   Jomo Morris  

Science was never one of my favorite subjects in school. I had no time for formulas, physics, or complicated mathematic equations. Within our rigid “British styled” school system, it was ludicrous to equate science with anything happening in the real world.

The preferred method of teaching in our Jamaican school system was for students to memorize and accurately regurgitate whatever was written in our textbooks. Teachers were encouraged to use the strap, and they were quite adept at using this as a motivational tool.

Fear helped me commit to memory the collective works of Einstein, Hahn and Newton. Much to the delight of my teacher, I had become a human Xerox machine and could repeat verbatim “Einstein’s conversion of mass to energy” or Newton’s “law of gravitation.” I made it through high school with a foolproof recipe for success: binge study, pass the exam, and promptly forget everything. IMG_6989 It’s no wonder I decided to pursue a career as a cook; in my kitchen there wasn’t a textbook in sight. Line cooks didn’t need to study: my hours were spent chopping, peeling, and prepping ingredients for service. I was content with this routine, until I saw my chef making chocolate.   IMG_7374My executive chef likes to make chocolate. Call it his passion: some people paint, some sing, some write; he processes chocolate from raw cocoa beans. I never knew the cocoa bean had such a rich history. It took centuries for the bean to make its way from the jungles of South America to the imperial courts of European aristocracy and ultimately into the hands of artisans, who transformed chocolate into the decadent treat I know and love today. This was a rare opportunity to witness a centuries-old process, and I was determined to soak it in like a sponge.IMG_4451 At first, I was afraid. A line cook’s sole purpose is to prep hard – focus up and head down – but I was intrigued. It took time, but over the ensuing months I’d strategically position myself whenever the smell of roasting cocoa beans filled the kitchen. The rich earthiness of the roasted bean, a kind of edible perfume for cooks, conjures images of distant rain forests and faraway lands. Gradually, as my chef went through each stage of the chocolate making process, I was able to follow along. IMG_5456 I discerned that prying the sweet essence from the cocoa bean required diligence, technical expertise and a delicate touch. Chef had spent years perfecting his recipe. Surely I would have paid more attention in high school chemistry if I’d known the results could be this delicious!

 I’d never dare attempt making artisanal chocolate in my tiny apartment; instead I’ll share my favorite recipe for chocolate brownies. There’s not a hint of baking chocolate in this recipe – which may surprise chocolate aficionados –  but trust me, this is the best brownie you’ll ever have. It was given to me by the pastry chef at work and I was surprised that it was so simple. In this recipe, cocoa powder stands in for chocolate and the entire mixture can easily be made by hand.

Chucks’ Chocolate Brownies

2 ¼ cup granulated sugar

1 ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ tsp. salt

1 ¼ cup butter

1 tsp. vanilla extract

4     eggs

1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Use a pat of butter and heavily grease the sides and bottom of an 11 x 7 inch baking tray. Combine the sugar, salt and cocoa powder in a mixing bowl.

Melt the butter and pour the melted butter into the sugar, salt and cocoa powder mixture. Use a rubber spatula to stir the mixture until it resembles a thick chocolate paste.  The mixture will be thick and grainy.

Whisk in the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously. Sift the all-purpose flour and use the rubber spatula to incorporate into the chocolate mixture by thirds. Make sure to mix one third of the flour in completely before adding another. The mixture will be extremely thick, like chocolate paste

. Spread evenly into the baking tray.  Bake for 30 minutes. It is done when a toothpick in the center emerges slightly moist with batter. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack. For presentation purposes ,the best way to cut a brownie is to freeze them for a bit before removing them from the pan. IMG_5670

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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Go for the Coffee, Stay for the Tiramisu

Sometimes, it’s nice to find a place that lets you leave your world outside. I had such an experience in Midtown’s business district. Tucked away amid the steel and glass edifices, this unlikely place, a European coffeehouse, sits on the corner of Peachtree and 11th streets next to Loews Atlanta Hotel. Its entrance is marked by thick glass doors with ornately carved brass handles and elegant gold lettering.

intermezzo

When you step through the foyer and into Café Intermezzo, you are transported to an age when old world elegance, charm, etiquette and grace were as much a part of the dining experience as the food. It doesn’t matter if you came for a single cup of coffee, a small bite to eat, a bit of solitude, or a chance to catch up with a friend you haven’t seen in years. Café Intermezzo is an opportunity to experience the antithesis of fast food, to sit at a table and make the statement that you are here by choice. The gentle light from the chandeliers and pleasant smile from the hostess assures –there will be no rush.

I agreed to meet Valerie at Café Intermezzo at noon. She needed to interview me, and asked if I’d be available. The tables were small – there was barely enough room for Valerie’s notebook, our glasses of water, the beverage menu, and silverware. The beverage menu is quite extensive; it would have proved a daunting task to choose from its 50 pages if not for our helpful server Mirlene.

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She answered all our questions and allowed us to take our time in choosing: I decided on espresso with a shot of Bailey’s topped with whipped cream. Valerie opted for Godiva Roche, a delicious tea blend of rooibos, cacao bean, vanilla, hazelnut pieces, calendula and sunflower petals. Mirlene had confided that these were her favorites, and Valerie and I both agreed, they were delicious!

seafood dip

Café Intermezzo also offers a smorgasbord of savory menu choices featuring crepes, appetizers, soup, salads, breakfast, lunch, and dinner choices. Mirlene suggested Valerie try the duck crepe with goat cheese and fig jam; I chose the seafood dip with crab, shrimp and scallops smothered in cheese. I asked Mirlene to bring share plates so we could sample everything, and both dishes satisfied our expectations. The fig jam and goat cheese were a nice complement to the flavor of the duck, and my dip featured generous amounts of seafood. The roasted peppers in the cheese sauce gave the dip a pleasant heat.

dessert counter

I was really enjoying myself, so I decided to splurge on dessert. Café Intermezzo has a marvelous glass showcase filled with a wide range of cakes, pies and cheesecake. In fact, it’s the first thing your eyes are drawn to as you walk into the café. I like the visual appeal of a dessert showcase, but found the manner in which desserts are sold a bit quirky.

I wasn’t able to order dessert from a menu or through my server. I was informed by Mirlene that patrons must visit the showcase where the desserts (which have no signs on them) are explained by a “tour guide”. The significance of this was lost on me. I stood in front of this magnificent glass case and asked questions about the desserts that caught my eye. My “tour guide” responded with the name of that particular dessert, then stood there as I made up my mind. It would have been a better experience if my “guide” was able to offer information about the ingredients, or how that particular dessert was made, or maybe a brief history on the origin of a particular cake or ingredient. Yes, desserts have a history too – and oftentimes the story is just as sweet.

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After I made my selection, I went back to my seat and my choice was brought to the table. Hopefully, Café Intermezzo will improve on the concept of a “dessert tour guide”. It’s the only thing that detracted from my overall experience.

I chose tiramisu and another cup of espresso to go with it. The tiramisu at Café Intermezzo is the best I’ve ever had. I was so surprised that I bought a second slice to take home. Tiramisu is my all-time favorite dessert. It’s also my litmus test for the quality of a restaurant’s dessert whenever I eat out. My experience of trying to find good tiramisu in Atlanta has been abysmal – oftentimes I’ll ask for a to-go container after the first bite. I’ve decided it’s better to carry the dessert home in its casket, rather than risk spoiling a good meal with a bad menu choice. I was happy that today there was no need for a “dessert walk of shame.”

I’ve never had the privilege of sitting in a tiny Parisian café nursing an espresso and soaking in the joie de vivre. But at  Café Intermezzo, I made the transatlantic voyage through a Midtown Atlanta portal.

 

My Favorite Street Food

There’s something glorious in the way the sights, smells, sounds, and taste of Jamaican jerk chicken combine to make the ultimate street food experience. It’s a common sight in Jamaica to see men setting up their jerk pans on busy street corners near congested bus stops. Laughing with each other, the jerk men expertly splash kerosene to fire up their dusty black coals.

A raucous serenade – horns noisily honking, taxis and buses jostling for passengers, streetlights popping and fizzing as they come on one by one – sets the evening atmosphere.  The jerk man’s outdoor restaurant is simple: his grill is made from a 50-gallon steel drum cut lengthwise and outfitted with hinges to open and close.  He fills the bottom half with coal and places a grate, cut to fit, on top of his grill pan. With a spout installed on the cover, the smoke wafts over the evening breeze, enticing customers even when the grill is shut.

All the jerk man needs to finish setting up shop is a small side table with his chopper, cutting board, and extras. Jamaican hardough (or hard dough) bread soaks up the juices that escape from the deliciously smoky and charred chicken meat.  Add bottles of street condiments – pepper sauce and watered-down ketchup – and he’s ready for business.

The most popular jerk men have secret chicken recipes that their legions of loyal customers swear by. Preparations and seasonings are confidential; even if I knew the formula, I probably wouldn’t share with you, either.

Click here for Jomo’s Jerk Seasoning

 

000_00051I know that they use fresh herbs, spices and generous doses of Scotch bonnet pepper to make a wet marinade to season chicken cut into quarters. I know that the meat is usually prepped the day before, and stored in five-gallon buckets so all the flavors of the marinade can permeate the meat.

I know that the distinctive heat that plays across the tongue and tickles the senses comes from the Scotch bonnet pepper essential to all good Jamaican jerk. The complex nuances in flavor that slide in under the heat of the peppers come from that seductive berry called pimento (known more popularly as allspice). But how each jerk man combines his ingredients to make his offerings  so delicious remains a jealously guarded secret.

The heavily seasoned chicken quarters are laid out on a hot grill and cooked slowly with the cover closed. This slow-cooking process allows the skin to become crispy and charred on the outside with the meat remaining juicy and succulent on the inside. The smoke streams from the spout in the cover, and the sizzle of meat as juices hit the hot coals announces to all that the food is ready. Customers wait impatiently as the jerk man, ever the showman, judges the time right to lift the cover and reveal perfectly cooked pieces of meat.

Customers are asked their preference of “leg and thigh” or “breast and wing” as the jerk man expertly removes a done piece. He places it on a cutting board, chops it up for you, and wraps it in a sheet of aluminum foil. This can be had with your choice of ketchup or pepper sauce, or even a combination of both. If you are willing to pay a little bit more, you can get two or three slices of freshly baked hard dough bread added to your meal.

This prize, this piece of sizzling hot chicken meat wrapped in “foil paper”, can be eaten on the spot or taken home to be consumed at a more leisurely pace. It’s not uncommon for people to buy half a jerk chicken or more to bring home as dinner, especially on a Friday evening.

This street food is so popular that enterprising jerk men will set up shop near nightclubs or popular events. They wait expectantly for the steady stream of tired and hungry partiers who want to reduce the effects of too much alcohol. Even at two in the morning, sales can be brisk with the jerk man trying to keep up with the demands of hungry customers as they catch a quick bite before going home.

I, on the other hand, prefer to buy my chicken on a Friday evening, when I know that my regular chicken man has set up his usual spot close to my bus stop. Tired after a day in school, I approach him expectantly, my bag on my back, my tummy rumbling, and my feet plodding wearily on the pavement. I know he sees me because he looks up, smiles and waves a friendly greeting as smoke drifts out the spout of his jerk pan.

Swapping a few jokes, I order a “leg and thigh” and wait in anticipation as he prepares chicken and hardough bread – no extra gimmicks, just the way I like it . My first few bites are wolfed down too quickly to taste anything, and it takes a minute or two for me to satisfy my hunger rush and savor my food.

My next bite tears through the crisp skin and into the meat that envelops my mouth with the silky heat of the peppers. The juicy meat falls off the bone and the spices cloak my nostrils with familiar warmth akin to a passionate embrace. This is heaven, manna from the skies as I take another bite and the full force of the peppers and spices burn away the last vestiges of hunger.

As I mop up the remaining juices with my hardough bread and lick my fingers, my bus careens to a halt, obviously in a hurry to discharge its passengers. Throwing my empty foil paper in the garbage, I thank the chicken man and join the line for the bus, sated and happily humming to myself as I prepare to go home.