Local food musings, recipes and fun from Ann Tindell Keener.
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Recipe- How to Make Salt

First Step- write a newsletter complaining about yellow prussiate of soda in salt.

Next Step- receive and email from the infamous Charlie Loomis (or famous, depending on what side of the email you’re on) telling you to make you own damn salt.  He will tell you about how a child can do it- in fact a child did do it, with him, Charlie Loomis, for a science project.  He will send you instructions on how to make salt your own dern self.  You will think it’s a great idea but somehow forget every time you go to the sea for a swim to also collect water.  Just when you have completely forgotten about the salt endeavor, Charlie will send you yet another email checking on your progress.  Eventually you will run to the sea with a jug, come back with the water and make you own damn salt.

-One ocean

-Shallow clay or glass containers (I used baking dishes and pie pans)

Pour a very teeny amount of water into the dishes and set then in a place where the wind blows hard and the sun shines bright.

The first time I tried this I put way too much water in, and then a volcano exploded on a neighboring island and covered everything in ash.  Second time I just barely covered the bottom of the containers and set them on the roof to dry.  It took two days for the water to evaporate and I was left with salt crystals.  I let the pans sit in a warm oven for thirty minutes or so to make sure it was completely dry and scraped the salt from the bottom of the pans.

And that’s it.  The beginning is the only hard part.

Recipe- Mike’s Birthday Dinner

 I actually stole this off Epicurus.com where it was posted by chef Art Smith from Art and Soul from Washington, D.C.from Bon Apetite or something…  If you want to see it in it’s true internet form go here.  I really just stole the idea, which I guess is how most people cook anyway- that’s what cookbooks are for, stealing from.   Everything can be made in one day but the sauce is probably better made ahead, the chicken can be cooked ahead, and the slaw made earlier in the day.  The hoecakes must wait til the last minute.

Hoecakes, ‘Barbecue’ Chicken, and Tropical Slaw

The Chicken: (our chicken and eggs come from Angela, the social security collector for this region of the island.  She rolls around all day with her paperwork and flats of eggs and frozen chickens.  Not only is this a wonderful way to buy chicken, but they are also very good- bright yolks and yellow fat, the true sign of a free range hen)
Take a medium sized chicken and cut it up.  If you can get real chicken cut into pieces already then good for you.  If not, take the legs to use for this recipe, set the wings and breasts aside for something else and throw the carcass in a pot with some herbs, ready to boil for stock.  

Since I couldn’t barbecue I rubbed the legs, skin on, down with some smoked paprika and salt, making sure to get under the skin.  Bake them at 375 for about thirty minutes (or til they are good and done, you should be able to pull the meat off the bone). Shred the chicken and set aside.

The Sauce:

The recipe is for a coffee- brown sugar sauce.  I thought that was a good idea so this is what I did…

-2 small onions (or one big), finely chopped
-4 garlic cloves, minced
-big pinch cumin seeds
-big pinch brown mustard seed
-big pinch paprika
-a few grates of local nutmeg
-1/4 of a scotch bonnet, minced
-1/2 cup brewed home roasted Dominican coffee (see How to Roast Coffee Like a Cowboy)
-1/4 cup dark brown sugar
-3-4 medium fresh tomatoes- skinned and chopped (or canned if you don’t live in a tropical climate and are living off your larder)
-dark beer (if you have it), chicken broth, or water

Roast the mustard and cumin seeds in a dry pan til they brown and pop.  Remove them, add a touch of oil, and saute the garlic, onions, and hot pepper til the onions are good and soft.  Add the seeds, paprika (if you have chile powder use some of it- at home I make my own but down here I have to live off of the few spices I brought- excluding nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves), and nutmeg and cook for a few seconds.  Then add the coffee and sugar and stir til the sugar is dissolved.  (this would be a good time to add sorghum if I were in Tennessee).  Throw in the tomatoes and cook til they break down.  If you think you need more liquid add some beer, broth, or water.  After about 10-15 minutes taste for salt and seasoning.  Add whatever you think it needs.  Press through a food mill or blend it up and cook another 10-15 minutes, stirring often.

The Slaw:

-1 large head bok choi, or other chineese cabbage, thinly sliced
-2 small red sweet peppers, thinly sliced
-1/2 small green papaya, grated or sliced thin
-1/2 christophine (chayote), grated or sliced thin
-1 clove garlic, minced
-Juice of 1 lime
-Drizzle of local honey
-Salt (more than you think you need)

Mix everything together and let marinate at least thirty minutes, the longer the better.

The Hoecakes:

I followed the recipe exactly on this:

  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter, melted, plus additional for griddle
  • 3/4 cup coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese

Mix that all together and fry about 1/4 batter in a lightely buttered skillet on both sides til brown- like pancakes kinda.  Keep them warm in a 300 degree oven as you cook them all.

To Finish:

Warm the chicken in enough sauce to make it nice and moist.  Put a dollop of chicken on each cake and some slaw on top of that.     Serve right away.

Ann Keener’s Local Food Letters: Coming to you now from Dominica, soon to return to TN!

Check out Ann’s latest letter: http://annsfoodletters.blogspot.com/

Why I Eat Locally and In Season- or- Why I’m not Just Totally Bananas

When I leave Dominica and get back to Chattanooga I am going to give up bananas .  I have never been a huge banana fan but you know how they are- they’re cheap, they’re easy to eat, they taste good (to some), and they’ve got SO much potassium.  Of course, the more I learn about food and the more I am around people who grow it, I have learned to be suspicious of the first part of the banana campaign- the cheap part.  Cheap food is to be suspected, and looked into.  Every time we eat something that seems “cheap” we should ask ourselves, ‘why exactly is this so cheap?  Is it super easy to grow, nearing the end of it’s season and massively abundant, or is something amiss?”  If you really sit down to think about bananas in Tennessee they seem totally ridiculous.  Don’t even think about all of the moral strings tied to bananas, we’ve all heard about the horrors of the big banana distributors.  Even the Buendias and their village in One Hundred Years Of Solitude know about what banana farming and distributing means.  Think just now of where bananas belong in Tennessee.  For one thing, the whole ‘taste good’ myth is just that- a myth.  Compared to the bananas that grow in tropical countries they are large bright yellow hulking slime machines.  They don’t have the delicate fruity tastes, the varying colors from yellow to red, and the different creaminess that the bananas here do.  It’s like trying to eat a tomato in winter from a big grocery store and expecting to meet the warm juicy sweet acidic flavorful burst of a summer heirloom.    So why do we even try? 

I’ll tell you why I tried and it’s the honest truth.  First off, they were cheap snacks.  If I couldn’t eat anything else for breakfast I would force down a banana (seriously, I have never liked bananas but truly believed they were ‘good for me’.  I thought maybe they were some kind of bright yellow hulking slime machine multi vitamin).   Secondly, I had never had REAL bananas so I had nothing to compare them to.  I didn’t know I was getting fed rock hard red tomatoes.  And the third, and very sad truth, is that although I have been aware of the horrors of banana production pretty much my entire conscious life, I just didn’t really think about it.  It is certainly not that I didn’t care..  I bought fair trade when it was available (not often in Chattanooga, I know a grocery store manager who won’t let her produce manager buy fair-trade bananas because they look “icky” and people won’t buy them ), and always have bought organic.  But as we know, what does ‘organic’ even mean anymore?  If you can’t see they farmer or meet the person who knows the farmer, don’t trust a word.  Of course that sounds terrible and cynical but it is true.   

So why care now?  Of course they grow bananas down here, that is why I know what they actually taste like.  Dominica is not like the South and Central American countries who are ruled by cheap bananas but they are effected.  The way it started was this: Dominica is a very rich and diverse land, they are basically self sufficient, especially in the fruit and veggie world.  When England colonized Dominica they said to themselves, well we love bananas and bananas love Dominica so let’s get the farmers to grow our bananas.  And so many farmers left whatever wonderful sustainable crops they had grown for generations to go full-time into producing England’s bananas.  Which was hunky dory with everyone because England had a steady supply of bananas and Dominica had a steady export.  But then Dominica gained their independence and the WTO (World Trade Org) stepped in and said, hey wait a minute England, you can’t just buy from Dominica, you have to buy from everyone else, meaning the poor Central and South American banana farmers, but actually their massive distributors.  Of course, those bananas are cheaper anyway because of the vast ocean of a market and so Dominica got cold dropped.  As Isoline, our co-worker/housekeeper/boss of the house said about banana farming “A lot of work, no money!” (which was followed by her laughter- a kind of reflex that she seems to have after ever sentence, but in this context it just sounded eerie as though it were echoing around the walls of empty banana storage huts).  Fortunately Dominica ain’t countin too hard on nobody.  They don’t have much of a tourism market and the banana market is nothing that they can’t work out of.  It hasn’t taken over the entire country because the landscape just can’t hold up to it.  Of course, the farmers here have some hard hard times ahead but hopefully someone will suggest to them that they just forget about the western buying powers and continue to putter around this gorgeous relatively untainted island in all it’s splendor.  I don’t see that happening but it is ok to dream I guess.  Really, why I care now has not a whole lot to do with the “lot of work, no money” joke, although that is very important to me and should never be the definition of a farmer.  Why I care is because I now see no reason to eat such a morally charged fruit.  I am pretty sure I am not going to develop a raging potassium deficiency if I give up bananas.  I would assume that the lush lands of Tennessee carries all the nutrients I need if I just know where to look.

I am truly humbled.  I have fallen off the high horse of going around saying things like “how can a person be a vegan for moral reasons concerning the animals and then turn around and drink mass produced soy milk from god knows where and eat conventional or organic lettuce mix potentially grown by neo-slaves?, how can someone KNOW how factory farmed meat is raised and continue to eat at fast food restaurants or order a steak at a fancy hotel?,  how can people eat processed cheese, baloney, margarine, white bread,  da-de-da-de-da and not care it is killing them and their grandchildren a little more every day?, how can people expect their food to be cheap cheap cheap and feel totally fine about paying the hospital and medical bills that come as a result from eating the cheap cheap cheap?”.  I fell right off that horse into a pile of rotting bananas that were cheaper for the farmer to waste than try to harvest and sell and when I stood up I realized- whoa, I am one of those people

The reason is not because I don’t care, as I said, or that I don’t try.  It’s just that after one thing there is another to learn.  I hope I never stop learning til the day I die (and who knows what will happen then).   I will never be ‘right’, I can only strive everyday to learn about my impact on the world around me.  As the butterfly effect says, every tiny movement we make impacts something somewhere.  Every article of clothing we buy, the roofs over our heads, and the bananas we grab as an on-the-run snack mean SOMETHING and someone is affected by it.  In Tennessee there is a whole lot to learn.  Not because it is “backerds Tennessee” but because it is quite the opposite- it is the “civilized” world.  We are constantly being bombarded by huge decisions everyday.   To me of course knowing our farmers is one of the most important.  If we don’t know where the fuel with which we feed ourselves is from- if we don’t REALLY think about it- then we really can’t move forward. 

Just one last thing about bananas.   Because bananas are so cheap it is like free advertising for grocery stores.  People love cheap things, be it food, kitchen ware, clothes, shoes, or toilet paper.  Value packed doesn’t actually mean it has any moral value.  Anyway, the most advertised “sale” items in grocery stores are bananas.  Come right in, step this way, bananas for only 39 cents a pound (you might get a free turkey with that if you hurry)!.  So we have been trained to walk in a store, look at the banana prices that greet us at the front door and judge the entire store by this one display.  The cheaper the bananas the better ‘deals and steals’ you will be getting in the store.  A “steal” is a perfect description, just think of who and what we are stealing from- it‘s not the grocery store, I can tell you that.    But this  free advertising is on who’s dollar, livelihood, and actual living life?   

So, now, in conclusion, I am preparing to march back to Tennessee with a gentler, more thoughtful way of looking at things.  Unfortunately we humans “don’t believe it til we see it” and I am very heavily guilty of that.  But seeing doesn’t have to be the whole reason for believing and believing doesn’t have to all come from what we’re told.  It is important to please pass the bananas with open eyes, but they better at least be fair trade, and we better have a dern good reason.

P.S.  If you are really interested in bananas and what they mean I would suggest looking into the book “Bananas!: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World” by Peter Chapman. Here is an interview with him from NPR, there is also a link that will take you straight to Amazon, where you can buy or at least check out his book.  I would.  I haven’t read it yet but I aim to now….

Recipe- Fish Cakes

At the Saturday Market there is a booth that sells fish cakes and bakes.  I have no idea why bakes are called bakes because they are fried.  Bakes are just a dough of eggs, flour, shortenin, baking powda, and maybe milk or something.   They are alright but the fish cakes at this booth are the best thing to have for breakfast at seven o clock in the morning.  Mike has convinced himself that the fishcake booth and Ray’s Roti’s are the two best ‘restaurants’ on the island (Ray’s Roti’s is a shop that sells fried chicken and rotis (curry chicken or other meat or lentils stuffed in indian flat breads)).  He could be wrong and I don’t eat chickens I’ve never met so I wouldn’t know about the rotis because Ray only makes the chicken kind.  But I am inclined to agree with him on the fish cake stand.  So I tried to make them at home.  These don’t quite make it up to the glorious heights of the Portsmouth Market but they are pretty good.  Maybe we need to start eating them at seven o’clock in the morning….  I found some recipes but I didn’t really think I needed to follow one so this is a combination of all of them and is based on whatever you happen to have in the kitchen at the time.  I think the market women might use some kind of salted fish-cod or something.  I just use fish scraps or fish that I don’t really like a whole lot (we got some teeny red and pink ones that were nothin but bones but made nice cakes)

Fish Cakes for Two People

-Enough cooked fish to make about 3/4 a cup- broken up
-One big potato or a hunk of yam or some tannia- nothing too terribly starchy
-Herbs- parsley is good, thyme is great, I love rosemary in everything, basil kind of works, sage might work if it grows in your yard- maybe a tablespoon, depending on the pungency- chopped
-One egg-beat up
-1/2 a cup or so of diced onion and/or sweet pepper
-A squeeze or so of lime juice, plus the zest of the whole lime
-Maybe some flour or finely ground cornmeal
-Salt and pepper
-Maybe some hot pepper
-oil (coconut, vegetable, or olive) for frying 

If you don’t have cooked fish lying around cook some and shred it up.  Boil the starch (I really love tannias because they are less starchy than yams or dasheen; they are closer to a potato but they taste even better) peeled and cut into bit chunks in salted water.  When it is soft take it out and smash it up.   Fold everything else in with a fork.    If the mixture is way too soft add a little flour or cornmeal to stiffen it up a wee bit.  It is ok if it is not firm enough to pick up and form into a cake- I just let it drop off a spoon into the pan.  But if it is way way too wet it just won’t get dry in the center and that just won’t do.

Heat a little bit of oil (a 1/2 inch or so) in a skillet til super hot.  You can deep fry these just fine, it’s not that I don’t like deep frying, I’m just not set up for it or rich enough.  Too much oil seems like a massive extravagance that even my extravagant self can’t seem to muster up the courage to do.  So pan-frying works just as well as deep.

When the oil is hot just get a spoonful of the ‘batter’ and slide it off the spoon into the pan.  I like to squish it out a bit.  Cook a few minutes on one side and then flip.  If it is not nice and brown and has soaked up all the oil the pan is not hot enough.  Fry all the cakes, drain on paper towels or bags, and serve hot.