Ghost In The Kitchen

“Lord, I need a break.” Christian muttered.

Nora the grill cook snorted in disgust as her boning knife peeled the tough silverskin off a beef tenderloin. It was the last loin on her cutting board, and Christian glanced at her hotel pan, already filled with six long cylinders of butchered prime. As she hustled to get ready for the evening service, she pushed past him to grab the scale from the shelf and position it in front of her cutting board.

“Christian!!! Are you talking to yourself again? Muttering all that mumbo-jumbo crap…. If you’re gonna go crazy, do it on your own time, pantry boy!” Even as she spoke, her knife never stopped cutting; her stack of tenderloins became thick portions of filet mignon.

Christian sighed, but said nothing. Secretly, Nora scared him.  She was just 5’3”, but her fights with the other cooks were legendary. A mean drunk with a penchant for fighting when her lewd advances were not reciprocated, Nora had been dragged out of more bars than Christian could count.

But she always showed up for her shift on time, cooked like a beast, was never in the weeds, and moved masses of meat on a volcano-hot grill any given night. No one wanted to piss Nora off – especially not when she had a razor-sharp boning knife in her hand.

And in this kitchen, Christian’s pantry station was less than a knife’s throw away from her grill. He picked up a case of romaine and walked back to his station.

“Cut the damn lettuce, wash the damn lettuce, spin the damn lettuce”, Christian sighed. He filled the sink with water. His cutting board was beside the basin.

“Is this why I went to culinary school? I could have saved my forty grand and worked for FedEx… Culinary school to be a chef, my ass.” He swirled the romaine in the sink. “Just my luck, my first job in a professional kitchen: the glamorous salad station.”

Christian felt unappreciated and unnoticed, as if he were an unseen ghost.  But Nora watched him methodically chop the romaine with his French knife.

“Don’t look so sad, Christian,” she teased.  “Thought you’d have your own cooking show like Emeril? She walked outside to smoke a cigarette, laughing at her joke.

Christian looked up at the clock on the wall and cursed.  With his shoe, he pushed the salad spinner up against the grate in the floor.  He bent to plug the cord into the wall. Only fifty-five minutes to have his mise en place ready for service.

Christian kept his head down and used his hands to hold the vibrating spinner in place.  The spinner was old, and had a tendency to spew water all over the floor. The last time, Dave the sous chef made him mop the entire line as punishment.

Christian didn’t like Dave, a loud, pompous ass who thought he was Gods’ gift to women. Better hurry up, before Dave gets back from smoking a cigarette with Nora. Christian unplugged the spinner, took off the cover, and put the cleaned lettuce in a six hundred hotel pan.

An outsider looking in would think this kitchen was serene and tranquil… almost sleepy. Only a culinary veteran would see the brisk undercurrent of multiple cooks hustling to finish prep for their stations.

Craig the sauté cook was set for service, which gave him time to flirt with the new cocktail waitress. He was pure testosterone: two heads, two hands, two feet. Like a shark, he was always hunting for fresh meat. Craig saw the woman’s resolve weakening. He reached across and put a piece of swordfish in her mouth.

“Celia, isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever tasted? Tonight’s special is just for you. I’ll be thinking about you while I’m cooking it.”  She giggled and took the bait. Craig’s smile broadened, and Christian imagined razor-sharp teeth tearing at her pale flesh. Christian shook his head in envy as she slipped a piece of paper into Craig’s hand. Looks like Craig will be having waitress for supper tonight.

He wanted to be like Craig: arrogant, loud, quick, able to sling it when the action got dirty and heavy.  Both of them had started here at the same time; within a year, Craig was promoted to sauté cook. He had yet to see Craig in the weeds.

“Lord, I need a break today… something’s gotta give,” Christian frowned as he reviewed his station. It was 5:15 p.m.: the romaine lettuce for Caesar salad was cut and in his reach-in cooler. Mixed green lettuce… already did that. Candied pecans… done. Jumbo shrimp… poached in court bouillon for shrimp cocktail, chilling in the cooler. Mise tray for the Cobb salad… straight. Christian made sure to double-check; he poked his fingers into each nine pan, stirring them around.

Yesterday, Dave found a nine pan with slimy ham.

“Would you eat that?” Dave screamed. He held little cubes of ham high in the air so Christian could see the slime dripping from his fingers.

“No,” Christian had mumbled.

“Go get the garbage bin,” Dave shouted, waving the cubes of rotten ham around like a baton.

Christian grabbed the garbage pan and set it down in front of Dave. The entire kitchen stopped for the show. Dave paused for dramatic effect, making sure that everyone was watching. Then, one by one, he dumped Christian’s entire salad prep into the garbage. He made a point to throw each pan into the sink, and the sound of metal hitting metal cracked like a whip across Christian’s face.

“Lord, today I need a break.”

Christian squeezed his eyes shut, but Dave’s face, beet red from screaming, dragged him back to reality.

“You have fifteen minutes to reset your Cobb prep – start now!” Satisfied that he played his role to the max, Dave walked away.

Christian loved to cook. He loved the kitchen. The work was hard and the pay was small, but he knew in his heart he would never be happy doing anything else. It was a grind to cook and maintain the same intensity and focus, making sure that each and every plate that went up in the pass was perfect. These thoughts flashed across his mind as he hurried to replace his salad prep before Dave went berserk again.

For the last three months, Christian had been trying to get promoted, hoping to impress Dave by working harder and faster than everyone else.  Maybe, Christian thought, he could make it onto the appetizer station; Luis, the app guy, had quit two months ago. Craig was running both stations until the chef found a suitable replacement. Christian was already training with Craig on slow nights. He did as much prep and cooking as Craig would allow. Nora had complimented him on his progress, and Christian felt that he was ready to move up.

“Nora, isn’t that how it’s done? You work hard, take your licks, wait your chance, and eventually get promoted?”  She nodded and turned to focus on the steaks on her grill. “Tomorrow I’m up for review. I have a feeling that tomorrow, my luck will change for the better.”

The next morning, Christian woke up knowing that today he would start a new chapter in his life. He knew it as he made his bed, carefully folding the sheet back and fluffing the pillows. He knew it as he walked into his closet and took his chef pants and jacket off the hanger. Something was going to happen; he could sense it. Christian knew intuitively that whatever it was, it was going to be life-changing.

Christian was in such a chipper mood, he decided to stop at the bookstore on his way to work. Maybe he’d splurge on a cookbook. But first, a bowl of cereal and then a nice, hot shower to start the day right.  

The bookstore on Peachtree Street was a new addition to the neighborhood. It wasn’t big by modern standards, but it fit the community’s bohemian vibe. There was a specialty section aptly titled Books for Cooks. Christian was the only customer in the store. The cashier, busy reading a book of her own, didn’t even look up when he opened the door and stepped inside. He didn’t much care anyway; he knew exactly where to find his section.

At first, Christian didn’t see it. He probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but for the silver binding that showed his reflection. Curious, he reached down, but it was wedged in so tightly that he had to get down on his hands and knees to try and pull it out.

“God, this thing is sure stuck in there good.” He had to tug and wiggle it from side to side. “I hope all this effort’s worth it,” he thought, and tugged harder to get it free. Then as if it had heard, the book slid out and into his hands. The momentum was so sudden that Christian fell hard backwards and hit his head on the shelf behind him.

Christian woke up. His head felt funny, and strangely the book was still in his hands.  Something strange was happening… there was no other way to explain it. Puzzled, he walked over to a large standing mirror in the bookstore and looked at his reflection. A slightly rumpled chef’s jacket and checkered pants covered his scrawny frame. What he saw made him feel depressed.

His face was still cappuccino smooth.  He scrutinized his jaw line, hoping that a stray follicle would attach itself and sprout into a goatee. Even a thin mustache would do.  He tried to convince his reflection to grow some hair, but his face was his, and would never change.  The blister on his left thumb reminded him of the book he was holding, and he looked around for a table to at least put the damn thing down.

This made Christian mad; his thumb was hurting… and today Dave was going to do his review! He was still a bit woozy from hitting his head. He didn’t feel all in one piece: he wiggled his hand, rotating his bony wrist; satisfied, he picked his nose.   Christian picked his nose when something was bothering him. It helped him to think: some people closed their eyes, others talked to themselves. Christian mined for boogers. Whenever he needed to think, his finger would involuntarily lodge itself in a nostril. Sometimes it took a while, but eventually he always figured it out.

“Oh yeah, the book.” He walked over to a table and set the book down, then took a seat and opened it up. The cashier walked right past him as if he wasn’t there. He put out a hand to draw her attention, and she passed right through it.

Christian was so shocked that he jumped backwards as if stung. He got up and followed behind her and tentatively tried to touch her on the shoulder. His hand passed right through her, again.  At first Christian thought that he was still just dizzy from his fall, but as more and more people came and left, it dawned on him that none of them could see him. He sat down at the table and ran a finger through the pages of the book with its shiny silver binding.

Well, if he was a ghost, he was in serious trouble: his shift started in twenty minutes.

“Who would believe me?” He imagined himself trying to call in sick, “Hey Dave… ahhh, I can’t come into work today.”

“Christian, you idiot, what did you do to yourself this time?” he could almost hear Dave screaming at him through the phone.

“Well I, uhmm… hit my head at the bookstore and it kinda, ahh, uhmmm, made me invisible.”

“You must be kidding me; ghosts don’t make phone calls,” the sound of laughing through the phone, silence, then a dial tone.

Not a good idea. Christian was panicking; a wave of nausea gripped his stomach and squeezed it like a lime.  He broke into a cold sweat. Feeling like jello, he stood up, then sat back down and tried hard to stop himself from crying. Another wave of nausea, and the reality of his situation struck him full in the face like onion fumes. Christian started to cry, fat tears were flowing down his cheeks, onto his chef jacket and spilling onto his clogs. As each tear struck, his shoes began to fade as if they were being erased.

“I can’t die; who’s going to feed my cat?”

Another wave of sobbing, and his checkered pants began to shimmer and turn translucent. Christian was becoming invisible.

“This can’t be real; where’s the tunnel and the bright lights?” A sob escaped, sounding like a tiny squeak, and his chef jacket and name tag winked out like a light bulb.

“And where’s St. Peter and Jesus?”  He was embarrassed, a grown man crying like a baby in a dusty bookstore. Sniffling, he used his thinking finger to wipe away a single tear that hung suspended on his eyelash. His face grew paler and paler, until it too began to disappear. In the last millisecond as his brown eyes blinked for the last time, the truth dawned on him. He was trapped.  He had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be promoted. Not today, maybe never. He didn’t dare voice this out loud, but there was a strong possibility that he was dead.

To Be Continued…

Jomo’s Banana Bread Story

For many years, all I ever wanted was to become a pastry chef. I spent years working in the pastry kitchens of several leading hotels in Jamaica. For those few glorious years, all my dreams were as rich as dark chocolate laced with Meyers rum and whipped cream. I was filled with the enthusiasm of youth, and proud of my prowess with a palette knife and piping bag. To this day, I still can decorate a cake in five minutes flat.

My most treasured possession was a small hardcover notebook that I kept in the breast pocket of my uniform. It was the fashion in my kitchen for every pastry cook to own a notebook. Whenever the pastry chef taught us something new, we would dutifully copy the recipe and in this way make it our own. This was long before the internet. Smart phones were unheard of. We learnt by making things over and over again until committed to memory. I still remember the recipe for pound cake as clearly as the day it was given to me. This notebook – this magical tome if you will; in a sense we were all sorcerer’s apprentices studying and learning from the master – contained all our secrets. Our recipes were jealously guarded and shared only amongst ourselves. My book was four years in the making, every recipe tried and true. It was a source of great pride and I often swore:

“If I ever lost my book I would stop doing pastry.”

I lost that recipe book in a minibus travelling from Ocho Rios to Montego Bay. I still ache at the loss. I’ve come to grips with it, and though I no longer work in pastry, I’m still in the kitchen. Recently I found a handwritten recipe for banana bread tucked away in a box of odds and ends in my closet. It’s the best banana bread recipe I’ve ever been fortunate to bake and taste. I’m lucky to still have it. In fact, holding that piece of paper in my hands inspired this post and the memories that come with it. It’s a part of me, a bit of my history, and in sharing I hope that you will enjoy this recipe as much as I have.

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The best bananas for this recipe are overripe bananas.

I like to save the ones I cannot eat, ( it may be just one or two), by peeling them and storing them in the freezer in a Ziploc bag. Once I’ve accumulated enough, I’m ready to bake banana bread. There is no need to thaw the frozen bananas, plus thawing them attracts fruit flies.  Oftentimes I add them into the mixer still frozen; the batter comes out just fine.

Jomo’s Banana Bread

I’ve posted this recipe with the original measurements. It’s my way of challenging you to invest in a simple kitchen scale. There are many different types available to the home baker – and, expensive or cheap, most will deliver the same results. A good kitchen scale is one gadget that anyone who loves to bake should add to their arsenal. So use a scale for this recipe, and I can guarantee the results will be  moist, rich, flavorful, and utterly delicious.

 1 lb. banana (the riper the better)

1 lb. granulated sugar

4 eggs

1 lb. baking flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tbsp. vanilla

8 oz. milk

4 oz. vegetable oil

This recipe works well without a mixer; a blender, a bowl and a whisk are just fine. Just blend the bananas and sugar, then add the eggs and liquids while blending. Then pour into a bowl and whisk in the dry ingredients. Finally whisk in the oil. The mixture should be pourable.

Bake at 350F for 45 min – 1 hour until done

banana bread

 

 

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. ♥

The Dance

The Dance

It’s called the line, and each night we dance:

Bend, twist, lift, swing –

A ghostly symphony that waits and plays by ear.

 

 An orchestra:

Pots, pans, oil sputters, the Garland burner roars,

Refrigerators hum, a freezer’s occasional chime.

 

Pivot right, turn left, the MICROS begins to sing,

The rhythm crests, pulses.

Entrees hot and salads cold.

 

We dance our dance, a performance never seen

Receives the standing ovation it deserves.

 

We know our parts, and wait expectantly.

The MICROS sings, the rush begins:

Focus, push – the line moves as one.

 

Cooks, shoulder-to-shoulder:

Adrenaline rush, purpose,

Entrees hot and salads cold.

 

We dance our dance, a performance never seen

Receives the standing ovation it deserves.

 

Foxtrot lively, brisk, quick,

Nicoise, Waldorf, Cobb, Caesar,

Salsa picante, moves meringue – sweat, pivot, timing.

 

Seared halibut, glazed spring vegetables,

Well-done rib eye, tempura onion rings, peppercorn,

Sweet symphony, graceful, finesse.

 

Tiramisu, sorbet, cobbler,

Macaroon, red velvet,

Entrees hot and salads cold.

 

 

We dance our dance, a performance never seen

Receives the standing ovation it deserves

 

We special few cook with hand, heart, and mind,

Converting more than recipes from books,

A mirepoix of memories and tradition.

 

 

The bounty of the earth:

So, night after night we gather –

Hot kitchen, cold kitchen.

 

 

Begin the dance.

The chorus sings:

Entrees hot and salads cold!

 

We dance our dance, a performance never seen

Receives the standing ovation it deserves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Sous Chef, I Know You

Sous Chef, I know you. Your life has changed. For a split second, the room stands still and in that one brief moment, I look down.

“There’s an asparagus peel on my shoe.” It’s an errant thought and I mentally swat it away and force myself to breathe. My executive chef points and my eyes follow the motion of his hands and see the embossed folder lying on his desk. It’s there on paper – the title, I mean – all neatly printed in bold font. I sign my name and he says ,“Congratulations, proud, good job, yada yada yada,” and all I’m thinking is “I need a drink.”

It came so quickly, Sous Chef … I know you can never be truly ready. I’ve spent years preparing for this one moment.

I’ve worked hard, then forced myself to work harder. I’ve endured the insults and absorbed the pain. I remember one night when I was working the grill. It was just before service, and we had more than a hundred reservations on the books. It didn’t help that our executive chef was anal about every little detail; we were all tense and our fear was palpable.

He strode over to my station and took a black truffle the size of a ducks’ egg and told me to shave some for service. I was nervous: the truffle slicer was razor sharp, and I sliced my palm open. I ran to the back with a kitchen rag wound tightly around my bleeding palm. Another cook had a few waterproof Band-Aids, and together we pasted them on, then used masking tape to bind my wound. We stuffed my aching hand into two latex gloves, and I went back to my station.

I’ve never called in sick, never told my chef no, never complained. I’ve kept my knives sharp and my uniform clean. I’ve  seen each challenge as an opportunity. I’ve nurtured my passion for cooking even at my darkest hour. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve never burned a bridge; I’ve  always made sure my next job was in a better kitchen.

Sous Chef, I know you realize the dream was the easiest part of this journey. It’s easy to imagine all the perks of the position: finally your name on a jacket, on the menu, the beautiful food, the adoration, the careers of cooks you’ll influence. What I didn’t see was the great responsibility that comes with the position. Suddenly, I’m expected to have all the answers. Now I’m the adult in the room; it’s my job to make the tough calls  – and whether that pill is  good or bad, I have to swallow all my choices. It’s a sobering thought to realize there’s no one else to turn to. I can’t kick the can down the road anymore; Sous Chef you are the can.

Sous Chef, I know you’ve been at work since six. The day is done, the cooks have gone, but there’s still work to do. Can’t go home till payroll’s finished.  There’s inventory, and the produce and meat order. Gotta think about specials for tomorrow; did I order everything I need.? My inbox is overflowing and I sift through all my email and respond to as many as I can. I’m connected, I’m always thinking about work:  my computer, my phone, my thoughts. I take it all in, sort it in my mind, and go in search of another cup of “the devils brew”.  It’s either coffee or Red Bull, and I’ll probably drink large amounts of both throughout the day.

Sous Chef, I know you finally begin to see the dedication it takes: the sacrifice, the strength of will to pull it all together even when everything seems to be going to hell. Thing is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I’m comfortable with my vices, I love what I do, I’m not afraid of the responsibility, working in my kitchen is my adrenaline rush. I live for it.

Remembering Ackee & Saltfish with Roast Breadfruit

Seedlings from the ackee tree were brought from West Africa along with slaves in the early 1700’s. Every Jamaican knows that ackee can be poisonous; never pick the fruit before the pods fully open on the tree.

I’ve never been poisoned by ackee. Growing up, I was a willful child, but I did pay attention when my grandmother was teaching me how to prepare it.  We would sit on the verandah with the basket between us, filled to the brim with bright orange pods. As she plucked the ripe ackee arils from the pod, I would use a small knife to remove the shiny black seed.

Grandma loved to gossip, and as we worked she would tell stories of people who had been poisoned by ackee. She would always end by pointing a finger, warning, “Jomo, don’t forget to tek out the red membrane; is poison, yuh know.” Eventually the creamy yellow arils would fill the plastic container on my knees, and we would head to the kitchen to boil them.

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Ackee, breadfruit, and salted codfish are all transplants that traveled along slave routes in the heyday of European colonialism. Both plants adapted well to Jamaican soil and flourished in our tropical climate. As for salted codfish, it was a staple of any oceangoing fleet of that time –especially the British colonists who settled the Caribbean.

Establishing vast sugarcane plantations, colonists bought slaves from West Africa to work the land. The slaves were forced to adapt to their new surroundings and gradually learned to incorporate local fruits, ground provisions and vegetables into their cook pots. Ackee & Saltfish (recipe below) has become intertwined in Jamaican food lore and culture.

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My grandmother’s house has a huge breadfruit tree in the backyard. Growing up I’ve climbed that tree many times, scrambling from branch to branch, shouting and laughing in play with my brother. The breadfruit tree was center stage of our imaginary world, filled with swashbuckling pirates and rocket ships blasting off into space. We were explorers and space cowboys, born to be wild.

Despite the unwanted attention, our rough treatment and branch tearing, the tree bore fruit. Back then, I was too young to appreciate eating food picked from my own backyard and would have much preferred a bowl of Fruit Loops. My finicky eating habits didn’t faze Grandma; I was forced to eat breadfruit boiled in chicken foot soup on Saturdays. On Sunday mornings, I’d eat Ackee & Saltfish withroasted breadfruit, each slice smeared with warm butter or deep fried and sprinkled with salt.

IMG_2644Captain Bligh brought breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to Jamaica in 1793. Originally it was meant to feed slaves, but they did not like the sweet taste. For many years breadfruit trees grew wild, and the fruit was used to feed hogs. Eventually the fruit was incorporated into local diets, and breadfruit has become a staple protein food ever since.Weighing between two and six pounds, breadfruit can grow as large as volleyballs. Between May and August, the tree produces copious amounts of the bright green fruit.

My mom, who owns a small bakery in Port Maria, St. Mary, will tell you that there are two times of the year when bread does not sell well. Breadfruit season (May- August), and mango season ( May to July). It’s easy to understand why: mango, ackee, and breadfruit trees are common sights in both urban and rural Jamaican yards. Those without a tree need not worry; friends and neighbors are always willing to share whatever extra their households cannot consume.

An ackee or breadfruit tree laden with fruit is a sight to behold. It grows in your backyard, it grows wild, and it’s everywhere. With nature’s bounty on display and free, who wants to pay for bread? Most Jamaicans would rather eat juicy ripe mangoes for lunch and delicious roast or fried breadfruit for dinner.

These two breadfruit recipes were adapted from The Hotel Mocking Bird Hill  blog.  Recipes and posts by Barbara Walker provide an insightful look into Jamaican cuisine.

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 Stuffed Roasted Breadfruit

Take one medium breadfruit and score around the stem, pulling the stem out of the breadfruit.

Fill the cavity in the breadfruit with Ackee and Salt Fish (recipe below), or spinach and feta, sundried tomatoes (diced) and feta cheese.
You then take the heart of the breadfruit that you have cut out with the stem and cut it leaving only enough to cover the top of the stuffed cavity. Brush the breadfruit with olive oil and bake in 350 degree pre-heated oven for 35 -45 minutes or until a skewer or knife inserted into the breadfruit comes out clean.

Peel the roasted breadfruit and then split it in half, using the halved breadfruit as bowls for the filling. Slice like potato wedges and serve with a mixed green salad.

 Breadfruit FuFu (recipe)

(For anyone who likes Hawaiian Poi using Taro – this is very similar)

Using a coal stove or BBQ, roast the breadfruit at medium heat, until a skewer or knife inserted into the centre, comes out clean. The breadfruit must be turned often during roasting.

If using an oven, lightly brush the breadfruit with coconut oil and bake at 350 degrees for 35 -45 minutes, or until a knife or skewer inserted into the breadfruit comes out clean.

Peel the roasted breadfruit and remove its core. Cut in small cubes and place cubes in mortar. Pound with a pestle until it becomes like a soft dough (you can use an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook).

Break into small pieces and add to soup or stews.

Serves 6

Note: After roasting and peeling the breadfruit it is ready to be used as an aside in sliced form. As the breadfruit cools, it becomes quite dense so, a good option at this point is to fry the slices and use as a side dish.

I’ve made ackee and saltfish several times since I’ve migrated to the United States. All the ingredients can be bought at the farmers’ market or in the Caribbean food section of a Wal-Mart, Publix or Kroger supermarket.

I use canned ackees, and when I’m finished I make a plate and eat breakfast without much fanfare, in solitary silence. I know in my heart that it will never taste the same, but it’s my way of reconnecting with my culture – a Jamaican chef cooking regional American cuisine.

I cannot reproduce the creaking of the wooden floor, or the stillness of a household in slumber. My hands look nothing like my grandmothers, dicing onions, tomatoes and scotch bonnet pepper. In my apartment, the hood vent above the stove siphons off the aroma of coconut oil and the stew of tomatoes, onions, peppers and thyme, bubbling in fat.

And where is the smell of breadfruit roasting in a coal pot? These intrinsic memories from my past are impossible to duplicate in an apartment with electric burners and air-conditioned “atmosphere.”

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Instead, I’ll wait for Jamaica.  I’ll go home to my grandmother, in her small house close to the sea.  The car turns down the narrow lane leading to her house, and then stops at her gate. There, I’ll look forward to my first meal; I will eat whatever she chooses to cook. I can see her sitting on the verandah, waiting for me. There is a smile on her face, and I tumble out the car and rush to hug her. I’m remembering Ackee & Saltfish with roast breadfruit as it’s supposed to be. Breakfast from my childhood.

Ackee & Saltfish

½ lb salted codfish (saltfish)

1 lb fresh ackee (cleaned and deveined)

½ small Spanish onion (julienne)

1 scotch bonnet pepper (leave the pepper whole, for more heat slice the pepper into rounds, discard the seeds)

2 Roma tomatoes (diced)

4 sprigs of thyme

Black pepper to taste

¼ cup of good coconut oil

You can let the codfish soak in water overnight, but I always forget, so this is what I do: in a pot of cold water bring the codfish to a boil. Drain the water and repeat the process two more times. Taste the codfish; it should be salty, but not too much. Two birds with one stone: now the codfish has been cooked and the excess salt has been removed.

Remove the bones from the codfish, take the skin off if there is any, and flake the fish into small pieces. Not too small but not too large either –imagine stripping paint from a wall.

This is not a canned ackee recipe, so wait until you have the opportunity to use fresh ackees. Now it’s time to clean and cook the ackee. Use a small knife to cut off the black seeds, and then use your fingers to remove the red membrane lining the belly of each aril. Clean them well. Remember the red membranes are toxic, so have a care. Cook the ackees in a pot of salted boiling water, until firm but tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.

In a hot sauté pan add coconut oil. Make sure the pan is hot, then add the onions, let sizzle for a minute. Add the diced tomatoes, scotch bonnet pepper and thyme and let cook for another minute. Add the saltfish and stir together. Finally add the ackee, toss gently until heated through. Finish with a pinch of black pepper. And it is done!

Growing Up Country

Albany, St. Mary, is a small village deep in the Jamaican countryside. In its heyday, St. Mary was known as the “banana parish”; hundreds of acres were dedicated to growing the plant for export to Britain.  In the “good old days”, Jamaica had a preferential trade agreement with Britain, guaranteeing better prices for Jamaican bananas in British markets.

Then in the “best interest of free trade”, multinational fruit distributors  quickly put an end to that arrangement.  Thanks to Dole, Chiquita, and Delmonte, the Jamaican banana industry lost its small share in the European marketplace.

My story begins long after the heyday of the banana plantation. My mother had recently remarried, and her husband (now my stepdad) had decided to follow his dream and become a farmer. For us, it meant leaving Montego Bays’ bright street lights, movie theatres, supermarkets and neat subdivisions of concrete houses.

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I was nine and I cried when I saw my new home. We had no neighbors. I was swallowed by a kaleidoscope of varying hues of grass, trees and shrubs. Searing like a Scotch bonnet pepper, bush was coming out my nostrils, my ears and my brain. Bush as far as the eye could see – surrounded by it – bush was everywhere.

But my stepfather  worked hard to turn this wilderness into farmland.  He rented a huge D9 Caterpillar tractor to create a patchwork of crude roads so the Land Rover would not break an axle. Pumpkin and Scotch bonnet pepper were planted for export. Seedlings from coconut trees were planted in rows on hilly terrain as an investment for the future.

In those early days, the repetitive “thwack thwack” of sharp machetes and the angry buzzing of chainsaws became as normal as traffic on St. James Street.  Nature didn’t take very kindly to our efforts at domestication, and retaliated with a nasty counterattack in the form of ticks (grass lice).

Grass lice were especially virulent on cattle farms. They were everywhere in the waist-high grass that surrounded my house. They covered my jeans, t-shirt, and eventually my scrawny frame. I’ve plucked grass lice from between my toes, under my armpits, and my more private places. I itched and scratched for days with little relief. I was miserable, and my hatred for “the bush” grew stronger with each unfortunate encounter.

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But summer was my favorite time: no school and mangoes were in season. We had many mango trees on the farm. Best of all, there was a river running through the property. This was heaven for a country boy; mangoes to fill the belly and pools of emerald green water to dive into and explore. We would frolic for hours, searching for tiny shrimp under the rocks and trying to catch the fast-moving mullet fish that swam in the deeper pools. Bamboo poles made our raft of choice, and there were plenty to choose from. We’d take a minute to dry off in the sun, and a few Julie or Stringy mangoes for a snack before heading home, barefoot and carefree.

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I grew up country, but didn’t stay. I traded bare feet for chef shoes. Now I live in the huge metropolitan city of Atlanta, Georgia. The Decatur High School community garden is the closest I’ve been to a farm since moving to Atlanta. The garden is small,  but seeing the vegetables planted there rekindles fond memories, a reminder of life, simple and sweet. Far removed, yet close to my roots. Try this recipe for Picked Saltfish and Marinated Tomatoes. It‘s one of my favorites, and I hope it will become yours, too.

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Picked Saltfish and Marinated Tomatoes

½ lb.  saltfish

2 Roma tomatoes

1 cucumber

¼ red onion

8 sprigs parsley

1 Scotch bonnet pepper

3 tbsp sherry vinegar

3 tbsp coconut oil

6 tbsp canola oil

Pinch of salt if necessary

Soak saltfish in water overnight, this removes most of the salt from the cured fish.

Cut the tomatoes in halves. Remove the seeds and cut julienne. Do the same for the cucumber: cut in half, remove the seeds and slice into half rounds. Pick the parsley from the stems and rough chop. Use ¼ of a red onion and cut julienne.Cut ¼ of a scotch bonnet pepper into rounds.

Toss tomatoes, cucumber, onion, parsley together. Fry the whole pieces of saltfish in the canola oil about four minutes on each side until crisp.

Add the coconut oil to the saute pan. Next add the scotch bonnet pepper, then the vinegar.
Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes.

Flake the saltfish and pour the oil and vinegar mixture over the cucumber and tomatoes. Add the flaked saltfish to the salad, taste and season with a pinch of salt if necessary.

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.

“Once Upon A Mango 2” – Juicy Poetry & Recipes from Sunny Jamaica

Mango Lady

Her pushcart was parked on the sidewalk,

and she read a book while patiently waiting for customers.

She had a large orange parasol

to protect her precious mangoes from the mid-day heat.

Call it a mobile fruit stand with wares just hours picked from the tree.

A fleeting glance at all those mangoes made me pause;

but it was her smile that made me stop:

There were oranges for sale in a red cooler,

complete with a little machine to peel them as you waited –

A few hands of ripe bananas:

yes I saw those too, all different shades of yellow –

But set just so a hundred mangoes to catch the light.

I asked their names and she laughed as she pointed:

Julie, Bombay, Blackie, Stringy, Long Mango.

One hundred for Julie, fifty for Bombay, everything else hundred per dozen.

We spoke for a while and I made my selection;

she looked at my face and in my eyes:

A few extra mangos, for you to enjoy,

and flashed another beautiful smile.

I look at these pictures, a moment in time:

The mango lady and her cart of sunshine

This wonderful recipe by Barbara Walter was taken from The Hotel Mockingbird Hill blog. The eco-boutique hotel  overlooks the picturesque town of Port Antonio on the northeastern side of the island. I find Barbara’s blog a constant source of inspiration.

Mango Gazpacho with Pickled Shrimps

2 ½ cups water

½ cup vinegar

1 ½ tbs pickling spice ( we use our own homemade jerk spice)

1 tbs minced lemongrass

1 ½ tbs salt

Boil ingredients together. Remove from heat.

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup chopped green salad onions

1 ½ tsp minced jalapeño chili (bird peppers)

12 uncooked medium shrimp, peeled, deveined

Stir into the chilled water the parsley, onions and pepper and shrimp, chill and then cover overnight in glass container.

2 large ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted

1 small green apple, peeled, chopped

1 small celery stalk, chopped

3/4 cup fresh orange juice

1/2 cup chopped seeded peeled cucumber

1 tbs fresh lime juice

2 tsp chopped peeled fresh ginger

1 large jalapeño chili, seeded, minced

1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Puree all these ingredients together. Chill for at least 2 hours. Ladle soup into 4 bowls and top with 3 shrimp each and garnish with parsley. The recipe below, also by Barbara Walker from her Hotel Mockingbird Hill blog, is equally delicious and just as easy to prepare.

Mango Gazpacho 

2 mangoes peeled and pitted (just under 1 kg total)

2 cucumbers, de-seeded

3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice or to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Finely chop 1 mango and 1 cucumber and set aside. Coarsely chop remaining mango and cucumber and puree with ¼ cup of water in a blender until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir in finely chopped mango, cucumber, onion and lime juice and 2 cups of cold water. Chill in the refrigerator for about two hours. Stir in cilantro just before serving, along with 1 teaspoon of salt.