31 January 2007

A Foodie’s impressions of Saint Lucia

Before the 14th of January, Chefette’s only previous experience of food in the Caribbean was the Americanised offering of a large resort near Puerto Rico about five years ago. (Overcooked Chilean sea bass anyone?)

Fortunately, this time around in Saint Lucia, she and the Husband had plenty of chances to taste the real deal. They munched their way through as many of the local treats as possible. Imagine, if you will, eating freshly cooked fish cakes with hot sauce, bought from a vendor on the side of the road near a waterfall. Or being served grilled blue marlin, marinated in green spices, at a rickety sidewalk table on a balmy evening under the branches of a giant breadfruit tree. Or sipping on a positively lethal spiced rum punch at the Friday night street party in Gros Islet.

The food offering at our resort wasn’t uniformly perfect (at least one of the chefs was far too heavy-handed with the salt). But there were plenty of culinary successes when featuring island’s local produce. Favourite dishes that come immediately to mind included the sweet and tender conch salad with ripe tomatoes and fresh basil, and the homemade syrup for the breakfast pancakes infused with nutmeg, mace, bay leaf and star anise. Best of all were the tropical fruits. I think I ate my weight in slices of bright orange, perfectly ripe papaya finished with a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Yum!

The Husband enjoyed the food, too. But I think his top culinary moment came after dinner one evening in the beachside bar, as he sipped a glass of the locally made Chairman’s Reserve rum – an amber-tinged golden concoction, served over the rocks – while smoking his favourite brand of Cuban cigar.

Anyone interested who wants to see a few foodie pictures from the trip, can click on the pictured link. It’s worth it, if only to see the lack of refrigeration at the butcher’s market stall! (By the way, the cocoa beans pictured at the Fond Doux Estate are destined to make their way into Hershey’s chocolate bars.)

14 January 2007

Little ears

It's just after 1am, and in a little over 10 hours (touch wood) Chefette will be boarding a British Airways flight to St Lucia in the Caribbean. So there's just enough time to share a couple of juicy titbits from this week's kitchen adventures.
  • Spent most of the restaurant time this week getting the hang of making orecchiette pasta. It is a really easy recipe (see below* for anyone who is interested). Anyway, after a not-too-brilliant first attempt, things definitely had improved by my third batch. It all culminated in a bit of a "high five" moment today, when a visiting VIP who happened to be eating in our restaurant (a former Romanian president of some sort) -- told my boss that he loved the oricchiette. Tony Blair it ain't, but still. It always feels cool to hear praise for your food.
  • The Husband recently discovered a new cocktail on a recent jaunt to Bermuda, and has introduced it chez nous. Namely, the 'Dark and Stormy'. A mixture of dark rum and ginger beer, served over the rocks -- the percentage of alcohol to be determined by individual preference, but the Husband recommends a 40-60 ratio. It felt like drinking a refreshing, effervescent infusion of gingerbread man. (Must remember to serve those next Christmas in fact.)
  • Lastly, a wee confession. I'm starting to become addicted to steamed white basmati rice. I must have eaten it at 4 meals at least during the past week (once in a fried rice option). Please, please send me any fantastic recipes you have that incorporate long grain rice, I'm dying to roadtest them.

Toodle pip.

* Quick Recipe for Orecchiette

Mix together on a countertop or in a bowl: 255gr of plain flour, plus 150gr of semolina and half a teaspoon of salt. Then add 150-250ml of lukewarm water-- the exact amount will depend on how much water it takes to make a soft dough. (Tip: The dough should feel only very slightly sticky before you reach the kneading stage.) Knead for c. 5-8 minutes, until the dough feels smooth and a bit pillowy. Wrap in clingfilm and leave in a cool place for at least 15 minutes.

To shape the orecchiette, roll out small handfuls at a time into thin (1cm diameter) sausages. Cut thin rounds out, and then push the rounds into little ear shapes (around the size of a thumbprint) by applying pressure your thumb. Leave to dry on a piece of baking parchment sprinkled with semolina. Cook in rapidly boiling salted water until al dente. (Exact cooking time will depend on how dry the orecchiette are -- drier=longer cooking.)

05 January 2007

Dieter's delight

Well it’s back to work today, after a wonderfully relaxing break for the holidays. (For “relaxing”, read: 3 weeks-plus of taking virtually no exercise, and eating plenty of gingerbread men, iced butter cookies, slices of rich fruitcake topped with icing sugar, and every other fattening holiday treat known to man on a daily basis …)

Like many of you, Chefette and the Husband are starting the New Year full of resolve to lose an inch around the middle, and firm up those jiggly bits. I should clarify at once that, in our household, this will under no circumstances involve eating less. The Husband’s appetite is grand, and never wanes. And nothing is surer to drive Chefette running, panicked, into the arms of a chip butty than the prospect of food deprivation.

What it does mean is taking care to put plenty of tasty, wholesome food into one’s body. Let me state emphatically that this is not about consuming those diet food products dreamt up by the processed food industry. What on earth is the point of reduced-calorie cheese or zero-fat biscuits? They taste disgusting, and serve only to drag you down into the mindset of deprivation, reminding you of how much you’d rather be eating the real thing.

Much better simply to eat more of what you love that’s really good for you. Going for those favourite dishes that are naturally splendid in flavour, only they just happen to be low in fat, or high in vitamins.

For me, nothing is more of a dieter’s delight than steamed fish. High in lean protein, low in fat. And best of all, the steaming process protects all the delicate flavours. Usually I do this Chinese style, sea bass fillets steamed with black bean sauce and garnished with lashings of thinly sliced spring onion. But last Wednesday I had a successful go with a nice trout fillet, so thought I’d share the recipe. (Traditionally, en papillotte means steaming in individual paper parcels, but I find that foil makes a more effective seal.) Enjoy whether or not you are on a diet!

Trout fillets en papillote with lemon & dill dressing

Serves 2

2 trout fillets of around 150-175g each, skin left on
½ a large leek (including some white and some light green)
1 tablespoon of Noilly Prat (or other white French vermouth)
Sunflower spray oil
Salt & pepper

For the dressing:
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Juice of ½ a lemon
1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh dill
S&P to taste

Preheat oven to 425F/220C.

Wash the ½ leek well. Cut down the centre lengthways, and leave the segments to soak in plenty of cold water for a good 10-15 minutes. The place where the green meets the white is usually the most gritty, so take extra care to rinse out any flecks of dirt.

While the leek segments are soaking, line a lipped baking tray with aluminium foil. Try to choose one that is just big enough to hold the fillets. Spray a very thin layer of sunflower oil on the foil. Put the fish fillets skin side down on the oiled surface. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

When the leek segments are thoroughly cleaned, cut them on the diagonal into thin slices. Scatter these evenly over the fish fillets. Sprinkle the vermouth over the fillets. Cover the entire tray with a top layer of aluminium foil, making sure the edges are well sealed. Bake on a high shelf in the oven for 8-12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets.

While the fish is in the oven, mix all the dressing ingredients together. As soon as the trout is barely cooked through, remove from the oven, and carefully slide the fillets onto your plates, and pour the dressing over top.