Sunday, February 26, 2012

return to spice island

This past week I revisited the Caribbean island of Grenada, the beloved subject of a swoon-y blog post I wrote last year.
Grenada is a magnificent volcanic island dominated by an extensive rain forest and surrounded by crystal clear water.  This small, beautiful country is a visitor's paradise. The people of Grenada are kind and proud of their home, the weather is warm with cooling gentle sea breezes, the rolling hills are dramatic and the vegetation is lush.
 A bread fruit tree heavy with fruit grows in a front yard garden.
Tamarind grows all over the island.
Known as The Spice Island, Granada is famous for it's nutmeg, cinnamon and cocoa beans.
 These large coral colored cocoa pods are used in Grenadian chocolate and cocoa tea.
Almost everywhere you go on the island you are greeted by the fragrance of freshly ground spices. The Grenadian people are justifiably proud of their fertile land where everything grows in profusion.
Some spice crops of Grenada:
 Ginger root
lemon grass
annatto seed
I visited the spice and vegetable market in the harbor capitol of St. Georges on a busy Saturday and went crazy purchasing island specialties like the instant pain relieving spray made from nutmeg oil known as Nut-Med,  a product my husband swears by for his muscular aches and pains.
 The busy scene at the Saturday market.
A wonderful variety of root vegetables are part of the tropical cuisine.
Coconuts still in clusters cut from the tree.
It was hard to know when to stop shopping and within no time my basket spilled over with spice blends, jams, fragrant soaps, hot sauces and whole spices.
It is inevitable that all good things come to an end. Returning home last night I slunk past the customs official at JFK with my suitcase wreaking of Grenadian scents, hoping they would not feel like confiscating my chocolate bars and Tamarind BBQ hot sauce. This morning I surveyed my spicy loot and made a simple tribute breakfast to the warm, hospitable and deliciously welcoming Island of Grenada.
 My scent of Grenada breakfast: Toast topped with nutmeg jam, home fry potatoes seasoned with a Grenadian spice blend of sea salt, bay leaf, cinnamon and nutmeg and a batch of scrambled eggs jazzed up with a dash of passion fruit hot sauce.

A perfect way to extend the visit of a beloved place is to seek out the local condiments and give them a try. The defining aromas of a culture's cuisine can be captured in their spice blends and seasonings, giving an instant mini-vacation lift to an everyday meal. I leave a bit of my heart in Grenada every time I visit, but bring home equal measures of flavor and happy memories.

Monday, February 13, 2012

all in the crunch

The buds on my forsythia bush are starting to peek out, a sure sign of a change in season. Still, there is a long way to go before any local garden will be producing something to eat. Indoor amusements are getting me through these cold days.
With so little color in the landscape, these beets I had prepped for roasting beguiled me with their ruby striations. I grabbed my camera to capture their heart-shaped beauty, perfect for a valentine's day meal, if your loved one happens to be into beets. 
These golden beets, just pulled from the oven, retain their glow. It got my pulse racing a bit admiring these lusty root vegetables. So so pretty, but not my most favorite vegetable to eat, alas.

Sharing dinner this weekend with good friends at the cozy East Village restaurant Sorella, we were urged to sample the Broccoli Frito, a restaurant specialty our friends could not recommend more urgently. Sold! I am thrilled to try any dish so warmly recommended. 

The broccoli is doused in a hot pepper aoili and smothered with grated Grana Padano, the queen of Italian hard grating cheeses. The flavor of the dish was to die for, nutty, cheesy, with a fantastic spicy bite, but the killer tada! was the amazing crunchy texture that defied reason. The broccoli did not have a thick crust like tempura, and the vegetable itself was perfectly tender, but the resounding crunch, as if biting into a hard crouton, was somehow engineered into this little offering. I dissected a piece of the broccoli on the plate, searching for a clue, until our waiter graciously revealed that the chef uses rice flour to create the crunch. huh? cool!
So I am thinking, this could be done at home, no? I ransacked my cupboards today for rice flour, and found a bag of brown rice flour. Would the brown rice make a difference? I found other flour options while searching and thought, why not try them all and see if I can figure something out.
The flour contenders were: the brown rice flour, cornstarch, a gluten free flour blend, crushed rice chips and tapioca flour.
I mixed a bit of water into each flour to create a loose batter the consistency of infants baby cereal. 
 The gluten free flour from Bob's Red Mill is a blend of chickpea flour, potato starch, tapioca flour and fava bean flour.
Each flour absorbed the water differently so I had to adjust the liquid as I whisked the batters smooth.   A pinch of salt and a spoonful of grated cheese finished each batter off.

Next I cranked up my deep frier and prepped the broccoli. Oh this was going to be fun! Each piece of broccoli was dipped into a batter and fried for barely a minute. Out they came and the taste testing began. 

The brown rice batter had a soft crunch and a nice, mildly nutty flavor. Next up, the cornstarch batter came out with about the same level of crunchiness. The gluten free flour batter was the most "batter-like" and in fact tasted great, but it was a different experience than Sorella's crunchy masterpiece. The rice chips were a waste of time and the tapioca had such a non-flavor that it actually detracted from the flavor of the broccoli. I discarded the last two batters and tried the first three options again. 

I never got close to the astounding crunch offered at Sorella, but the brown rice batter had a pleasing flavor and is worth experimenting with further. The cornstarch batter is my old deep frying stand-by and there were no surprises here. The cornstarch does the job without interfering with the flavor of the food. The gluten-free blend was a nice option if you are going for a more obvious batter-like consistency and I will certainly use it when the occasion arises.
When the broccoli comes out of the frier smother it with more grated cheese. 

A deep frier can become an amazingly entertaining toy on a winter's afternoon. The conclusion of my trials is that broccoli tastes really good fried no matter what you put on it! I am fascinated to continue to uncover the mystery of the super crunchy broccoli and all suggestions are welcome.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

of curds and whey

The air was cool and the smell downright stinky. But stinky in a good way! I was being led through a chilled cellar housing racks of ripening cheeses, each with a characteristic shape and color that delighted my eye and tickled my nose.

I was taking part in a tour of the cheese-aging caves at Murray's Cheese on Bleecker Street. As a belated  holiday celebration, the staff of Wellness in the Schools (WITS) was being treated to this cheese tasting and cave tour.
Cheese has always been something I enjoy, but not a subject I have extensive knowledge of. No one in my family really eats cheese except moi, so I hesitate to treat myself too often to bringing home a tempting hunk, knowing I will eat the whole thing myself.

When I put together cheese platters for catered parties I always seek out a knowledgeable cheese vendor and allow them to make the recommendations, a practice that has not lead me wrong.

Murray's qualifies as a serious cheese vendor. Their selection is extensive and mind-boggling, a feast of the senses.

The shop is packed with cheeses from around the globe, coming in amazing shapes and sizes, from the tiniest ashy grey geometric blocks, to pristine white smooth discs, to gigantic amber colored wheels.

Murray's further distinguishes itself by having a comfortably appointed classroom on the premises where ongoing classes are conducted in cheese making, pairings, and regional samplings. They also boast the elaborate set of caves in the basement where through climate control they age the young cheeses that are purchased directly from small producers.

Touring the cave was awe inspiring. Rack upon rack of colors and shapes are on display. I was impressed and fascinated by the bread-like textures of some of the molds that cover the surfaces of the cheeses. These molds are carefully cultivated to enhance the flavors of the final product.

After the tour of the caves we sat down to a tasting guided by the highly knowledgeable and friendly instructor Elizabeth Chubbuck. Our own chef mentor Bill Telepan graciously supplied the wine we sipped as we nibbled our way around the slab of slate offering six sample cheeses, starting with a silky burrata, and ending with a buttery rich Chiriboga blue.
Necessary accessories for a cheese tasting: good bread. 
Needless to say everything was out of this world. I loved all the cheeses we tried, but went head over heels for an uncooked, unpressed raw sheep's milk cheese from France called Ossau-Iraty (don't I sound knowledgeable?) with a deep sophisticated and rich flavor that stole my heart. The wine was an Italian white 2010 Abbazia di Novacella (Stiftskellerie Neustift.)  Delicious and round with lovely sweet notes, the wine paired perfectly with the cheese.

I am feeling somewhat cocky that I could now put together a fairly impressive cheese platter on my own, armed with my classroom notes and some willing fellow cheese eaters to share the spread.

Thank you WITS for an informative and most delicious afternoon!