“…Into the kitchen I went, getting to work: Onions chopped, garlic minced. Sautéed in butter. Curry powder and chile oil, a little more than dusted; a cloud of yellow, rusted. Chicken, cubed. S and P. Potatoes, chopped. Carrots, diced. Broth, poured. Lid secured and chicken curried. In another pot, the rice and beans (red kidney) were cooking with a sauté of onions and garlic, a few sprigs of thyme, salt and pepper, a splash of coconut extract, and a heaping of cilantro. Sim- Simmah! As I cut the carrots and cabbage for a slaw, the scented sensations of curry pervaded the kitchen and the insinuations of Jamaica rose above the pot.…”
Growing up, I have always known a love for food. As I grew responsible, I discovered a love for food preparation. And growing up- maturity- I garnered an appreciation for food, the definition of the diversity of global cultures besides my own. The cuisine of the Caribbean is one that populated the space within the borders of my plate at home rather frequently as compared to the other cuisines.
My father is from Belize, a small country of Central America, wedged between Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. My grandmother is native to Panama, My brother-in-law waves the flag of Jamaica. This triangle broadens to include friends and relatives from Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, the Bahamas, and perhaps we can include Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. From this pyramid of influence. runs such food and drink as ginger and sorrel, carrot juice, and soursop; beef patty and coco bread, brown stew chicken, stew peas with pigtail, pickled peppers, rice and peas (coconut rice and peas is simply implied when talking to those of the heritage) curried goat, curried chicken… Oh! My mouth could babble on as it waters. I don’t know if this is what you think of Caribbean food, but these are the victuals that were swept from my plate, bulging from my stomach and, ultimately, my memories.
Interestingly, this is not the cuisine I am most comfortable cooking, approaching it with caution and a bit of timidity. Because there are so many critics nearby, sniffing and biting, I have for the longest played it safe, avoiding an affront to the cuisine and confrontation with authenticity, or the lack thereof. Offering to help in the kitchen when younger, I was sometimes handed or the dish rag (kind of like in the industry, as many professionals have gotten their start in the dish pit as opposed to the barbecue pit.)
Not too long ago, a friend of the family asked about my proficiency in Caribbean cooking. My pitiful response was that I was waiting for my Jamaican brother-in-law to teach me, afraid to offend the cooking style, more scared to get it wrong. She cajoled beyond the fearful excuses and, now, away from home, and away from the fastidious critics and taste buds, I did move beyond the coward barriers.
One night, I felt like curry, and by the end of the night, my kitchen smelt like it. Invite a Jamaican to the conversation and he or she might disagree but I was satisfied for my first attempt. I know that the ingredients didn’t shout authenticity, but the finished dish wouldn’t tattle. I spoke recently of having to be able to improvise, ” transforming what you have into what you want, adeptly using whatever tools and ingredients you have on hand.” And so rather than taking a trip to the grocery store, I took a shortcut to Jamaica. I used hot garlic chili oil in place of scotch bonnets, coconut extract in for coconut milk and a heap of cilantro for scallions. But it didn’t matter, because upon arrival to the table, all that was seen was curry chicken, rice and peas, and cole slaw.
Into the kitchen I went, getting to work: Onions chopped, garlic minced. Sautéed in butter. Curry powder and chile oil, a little more than dusted; a cloud of yellow, rusted. Chicken, cubed. S and P. Potatoes, chopped. Carrots, diced. Broth, poured. Lid secured and chicken curried. In another pot, the rice and beans (red kidney) were cooking with a sauté of onions and garlic, a few sprigs of thyme, salt and pepper, a splash of coconut extract, and a heaping of cilantro. Sim- Simmah! As I cut the carrots and cabbage for a slaw, the scented sensations of curry pervaded the kitchen and the insinuations of Jamaica rose above the pot.
As dinner was served, so was a fair share of compliments. However, I contained myself, receiving the praises with humble thanks for I realized they didn’t mean as much as a Jamaican saying so. Tasting it myself, I knew something was missing, but I was hungry enough that I’d just work on it next time. It was my first time making curry, but not the last. Forgive me if I speak blasphemy, but I take courage in saying that soon enough, I will perhaps do it better than those who have introduced me to the island fare. It’s throwdown time! :)
“A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music. He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that’s when cuisine is truly exciting.”- Charlie Trotter
As I quietly fumbled on the keys, my fingers timidly stumbling down the lane musical of black and white, a girl who apparently knew her way down this road better than I, sat down beside me and showed me how simply the knowledge of a few notes can easily combine to the amazement of an audience; one chord quickly becomes a composition. My thoughts quickly barged through the swinging doors, headed in the direction of the kitchen as I realized, ”It’s just like cooking: knowing a few basic ingredients and their flavorful contributions, along with a few basic techniques, you can easily build a fascinating dish.” I watched as she magically played, the music merely an echo of the beat of her heart, but she was able to do so based on the knowledge in her head.
Jazz and food are two of my great enjoyments. I would like to think of my culinary career as an indication of my love for food winning over that of jazz, but I don’t believe I ever realized how much of an affinity the two hold for each other. My desire to quickly learn the basics of cooking and later apply my creative expression is what drew me to the Culinary Institute of America. If you know the “what”s and the “why”s of the kitchen’s tools, ingredients, and principles, you learn to work with what you have. If you run out of white wine when making consomme, knowing that it contributes primarily acidity to the recipe, you realize that you can substitute lemon juice if need be. You would realize the precautions necessary when attempting to make a vegetable consomme; its not impossible but you must comprehend the differences between a protein and a vegetable and the resulting qualities, ensuring that all elements are in place. A valuable lesson I’ve learned is that we should never look at lack as poverty, but we ought to look at it as an opportunity for creativity.
Whether it be food or music, or any art or craft for that matter, establish your foundation and build from there. As the young grasshopper must have patience with the trivial tasks of the master…“Wax on. Wax off.”...There’s freedom found in the fundamentals. If you start anywhere but the beginning- jumping to a recipe or a song- never visiting the basis, you remain bound by that limited knowledge, potentially collapsing when endeavoring to do anything greater, missing steps in the staircase. With a firm foundation, you can build in any direction you choose. Find the field of your passion, dig your roots deep, and grow. Bloom your flowers and bear your fruit, occasionally taking a bite. Music and food have their similarities and they have their difference. At the end of the day, one things for sure, though: you can’t substitute music for food.
A grand white plate majestically descends onto the draping white table cloth in the midst of the arrangement of sparkling silverware. As your attention quickly spirals from the bare, broad rim of the plate, it falls into line with a familiarly beautiful composition of a sauteed fillet of sole, a bundle of crisp, yet tender haricot verts and a stroke of a Dijon mustard sauce. Oh what great awe! Plates cleared and thought provoked, your plates to be replaced by a black leather bound booklet bearing a white slip- you know- the check, demanding $75.00 for your plate of fish and green beans. But why? What gives them the right, or even more, the capacity to charge such prices for such a simple plate?
I have for the longest time been perplexed as to why restaurants could survive, sustained by patrons who had no problem paying $75.00 for a near empty plate, completing the course with incomplete satiety. The painting of “gourmet” that hung on the walls of my imagination portrayed, always, an immense, round plate with mere morsels embellishing the plate, only occasionally dressed up in fancy garb (kinda like the expensive canvas of nothing- nothing more than a splash of paint hanging in a museum). Yet it seemed to be something that so many craved.
I sometimes articulated such images with a confounded disdain yet can now approach it with a more understanding reverence. Having spent time training as a culinary professional, beginning with nothing more than the simple (i.e. knife cuts, stock and broth preparation, and maybe a few sauces) I’ve come to realize how complicated doing the simple- I mean doing it well- can be. Sometimes caught up in holding the cutting edge, doing something fancy or out of the box, flipping through the pages of gourmet magazines and cookbooks seeking inspiration, one stumbles across a recipe for a simple dish, like the one previously described, with nothing more than three basic components, whose ingredients actually fit within the one column the recipe is written in. I’ve sometimes embraced such recipes aiming to duplicate them, from the picture to the plate. Regardless of how simple it may be, it is not yet, for me, an easy task.
The amazement with simplicity, once you pull the cover off and pay attention, lies in the details. On a plain white plate, you notice immediately, everything that stands out from plane. There are no flecks of gold, no balsamic pearlsi no frothy foams…no smoke and mirrors to distract or detract from the food on the plate. There are no heavy sauces to drape over the imperfection of a colorless sauteed chicken or to fill the deserts of drought that have formed within. Everything must be done right and to perfection. This requires the knowledge and skill of a meticulous hand and the discernment of the seasoned palate we call a tongue.
One must grasp the depths of importance that lies in salting the boisterous boiling water into which green vegetables will descend. A cook must realize the bite of a nearly green bean, and hear the sizzle and feel the firmness of a proper saute. It takes skill to artfully present simplicity on a plate. But it doesn’t take much to taste imperfection. The less you do, the better you better do it. Some of the very best are those who relinquish the course to becoming the Jack of all trades and works to become the master of a few, if not one- those who toil at a particular selection with an intensifying focus, striving to perfect it.
Hats off to the guy, not who wears the many hats, but who wears the one that fits with no gaps, no holes, and no tears. Cry no more about the boredom of simplicity. Take hold of it and appreciate it. Look with greater scrutiny at the elaborate; blow on it and make sure it doesn’t evaporate, disintegrating to superficiality. This is no bashing of artistic of intricate dishes or plate presentations but a praise to the flawless execution of purity without pretense.
I am an extern at Wegmans Food Market, a large and growing chain of supermarkets. They have been said to have brought the farmer’s market to the supermarket. Loyal customers aren’t the only ones speaking such things. It is heard among the presence of hard to find, gourmet, exotic, and backyard ingredients that you just don’t find in your everyday grocery store- ingredients like Chinese long beans, gray salt, truffles, passion fruit…The list goes on, eventually including red bananas, a stubby, pale maroon variety of banana, responsible for the creative havoc that ruptured within my imagination, only to then overflow into my kitchen.
A customer approached me and the rest of the crew working in the veggie market that day, stationed in close proximity to the produce department. She held a cluster of red bananas in her hand, anxious curiosity on her face, and a question dripping off her tongue. “What’s the difference between red bananas and the regular ones?,”she aked. “Hmm…I’m not sure,” were the words that came to to mind. Another’s worker’s were the first words spoken: “They’re starchier. You would not want to eat them raw. But they are much sweeter than the others when cooked.” Appearing to either have been discouraed or disgusted, the customer slowly turned away, “I’ll stick to my to my regular bananas.”
She left me stuck. I had read before about red bananas; however, I didn’t remember much about them. My co-workers offer of information and the customer’s surrender left me unstatisfied, hungry to know, the next time I was asked, what the real difference between the two bananas is. This time, I wouldn’t just read about it. I took one home and on the way, the ideas began to roll. The story takes a bit of a bounce at this point as did the ideas in my head.
Inspired by a simple recipe seen at work, I decided I would carmelize the bananas, and serve it for dessert. But I didn’t think one banana would go that far, pushing my imagination even farther.Another component would have to be served along with this novelty treat.
I didn’t conduct much research on the banana itself, but in effort to challenge myself, I researched the concept of souffle. (No, a recipe just wouldn’t have been enough.) Souffles are one of those things that tend to impress, simplifyinng the virtue of executing the simple well. There’s quite a collection of conditions and principles governing the inflation of the souffle.I moved forward with the souffle, describing it to a baking and pastry companion from the CIA, something like:
I’m thinking a souffle with the mellow tones of caramel or the brightness of a citrus base, perhaps both…with hints of vanilla and chocolate served with cinnamon sugar grilled banana and a dallop of salted caramel ice cream and the crunch of salted Marcona almonds… Would it be a stretch to bring to life with a sprig of basil?
She coaxed me forward, granting due assurance as I dug myself in deeper. Unable to decide on caramel or citrus, flavors constantly pricking my tongue, I added a brown sugar, pina colada sorbet, using a store bought pina colada flavored juice I had on hand. In the end, after deliberation and a reality check delivered by the pantry, I arrived at a peanut butter souffle, brown sugar pina colada sorbet, swirled with salted caramel ice cream and- the reason it all began- a cinnamon sugar caramelized red banana.
All this, just to comprehend th true flavor and difference of a red banana to the more conventional Cavendish variety. The red banana, raw, is indeed a bit starchier, with some gooeyness nestled immediately beneath the peel. it is not prefered raw but its not intolerable. It does hold up well to cooking though. Though the dessert was thoroughly enjoyed by myself and those I served, the next time I work with one, I’ll have the yellow banana as well, for a more thorough side by side comparison. “On a traffic light green means go and yellow means yield, but on a banana it’s just the opposite. Green means hold on, yellow means go ahead, and red means where the hell did you get that banana at…”(~ Mitch Hedberg quotes) Peel away, revealing the ripe grandeur of discovery!