Thursday, November 17, 2011

Recipes from Antigua and Barbuda

Recipes from Antigua
This week we're doing pork chops with bacon. And bananas.

Yes, bananas. If you think that sounds weird, it is (at least by American standards). But even more weird is, we liked it. It was definitely different, but it was good.

First a few notes about the country that spawned this weird-though-palatable recipe: Antigua and Barbuda, the nation so nice they (apparently) named it twice.

Antigua and Barbuda are twin islands located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. A number of other smaller islands are also included in this "Land of 365 Beaches," which I guess alludes to the idea that you could spend all year there and go to a different beach every day (personally I think I would get sick of beaches). Around 85,000 people live on Antigua, Barbuda or those smaller islands, which are a bit British in culture, language and governance since they were once, like 95% of the world's small nations (OK I exaggerate ... a little ...), a part of the British Empire.

Antigua and Barbuda. Puerto Rico is off there to the left somewhere.

Temperatures on these two islands range from the mid-70s in the winter, and the mid 80s in the summer, which explains why the British were so keen to have them in their empire. Although really, that's way too hot a summer for my freakishly cold-loving British husband, but I don't think he speaks for all Brits.

Like so many other Caribbean nations, the cuisine of Antigua and Barbuda includes a lot of tropical fruits such as mangoes, plantains and papayas. Salt fish, lobster and other types of seafood are also eaten there, but the locals also like many of the same types of meat that Americans do, such as chicken, pork and lamb. The two "national dishes" of Antigua and Barbuda are fungie, which is a little bit like Polenta, and pepperpot, which is a thick vegetable stew. I chose not to do either of these recipes for a couple of reasons--the first was because I was pretty sure they would be rejected not only by my children but by my husband as well--and the second was because I was pretty sure they would be rejected by me. Some of the ingredients--such as taro root--are also scarce enough that I didn't want to spend time tracking them down for something I didn't think I was going to like (vegetable stews aren't really my thing). Also I won't really get into the part about the pig snout.

The three recipes I did settle on had pretty standard ingredients (although in unusual combinations), which was something I needed after all the work I had to put into nailing down the recipes for last week's post (Antarctica). Here they are:

Pork Chops with Bananas and Bacon
(from The Caribbean Forum)
  • 4 pork chops
  • 3/4 tbsp cumin
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp butter, softened
  • 2 bananas
  • 6 strips bacon
  • Beer (optional) 

Black Bean Cakes with Salsa Roja and Cilantro Yogurt
(from Best Cancun Hotel)

For the cakes:
  • 2 cups canned black beans
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 ½ tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped jalapeno 
  • 2 tbsp olive oil  

For the salsa:
(from Cook My Way)

(Note: this will make more than you need for the beans, but the leftovers make a great dip)
  • 1 small serrano pepper
  • 5 Roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 a white onion
  • salt 

For the cilantro yogurt:
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon

And for dessert: Papaya Pie
(from Caribbean Choice)
  • 1 medium pre-baked pie shell
  • 3 ripe papayas (the riper the better)
  • 2 tsp lime juice
  • 1/2 tsp lime zest
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • dash orange extract
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 4 egg whites

The pie needs to be served chilled, so that's where I started. The recipe is actually pretty straightforward until you get to the egg whites.

Start by peeling the papayas and removing the seeds. Then mash them up. I couldn't find any really ripe papayas, which will help you during this part of the process (unripe papayas don't mash very easily). If yours are also less than ripe, you can try cooking them on the stove for a few minutes to soften them up.

Mash the papayas. This is easier if they are ripe.

Now add the lime juice, the lime zest, the cinnamon and the orange extract. Mix well.

Add the zest, juice and spices.

Now fold in the flour and sugar (I doubled the amount of sugar since my papayas weren't very ripe, and since papaya isn't really a super-sweet fruit to begin with. At this point, you might want to taste the mixture and adjust the ingredients according to how you like it).

You of course remember how lazy I am about beating egg whites. Well with this pie you can't really afford to be lazy about this part, so I used my grandma's 1960s era mixer for this. Did I mention how much I love this mixer? They don't make 'em like that any more.

So, beat the eggs until bona-fide stiff peaks form.

Now those are stiff peaks!

Now here's the tricky part. Gently fold the egg whites into the papaya mixture. This is tricky because the papayas are so much heavier than the egg whites, and they tend to sink to the bottom. So don't be overly worried if you don't think it's mixing very evenly--it's much more important not to over-fold because then you may fold out too much of the air from the beaten egg whites.

Your mixture will probably look a bit like this: more egg on the top

Now pour the mixture into the pie crust. Be careful because there's a lot of mix, so to make it all fit you might have to pile it up a little.

Ready for the oven.

Now, the original recipe said to bake for 25 minutes, "or until top is just brown." It neglected to tell me what temperature to bake at, though. Since this recipe is a little bit like a meringue, I figured on a slightly lower temperature and I put it in at 325 degrees. After 25 minutes, though, my pie was most definitely not done. Also, I really had no idea what texture I was going for. The pie was indeed "just brown," but parts were still jiggly and I was pretty sure that's not what my finished product was supposed to be like. So I left my pie in for somewhere on the order of 45 to 50 minutes. At that point it had a few brown spots, some cracks on the surface and a sort of "set" texture--like a mousse, almost. It didn't jiggle anymore but it also came off on my finger when I touched it. I can't vouch for whether or not this was how it was supposed to turn out, but I thought it worked.

My finished pie.

Note: as I've heard you should do with a meringue (though I've admittedly never made one), I turned off the oven and left my pie inside until it was completely cool. This gave it time to firm up a little more before I moved it into the fridge (it should be served chilled).

The next thing you want to prepare is the salsa for the bean cakes, since this takes a little bit of time. It's simple, though, just halve the tomatoes and the chile pepper, and roughly chop the onions. Place them on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil (I actually just use one of those olive oil sprays, since I can get better coverage that way). Place in a hot oven (mine was 500 degrees).

Before ....

I won't tell you how long to roast the vegetables because you really need to watch them. All ovens are a little different and you don't want to end up over-cooking them. Just pull them out when they develop a nice brown color.

After! That serrano at the bottom is a little over-done.

Now put the vegetables in a pot and add just enough water to cover them.  Boil for about 5 minutes, then put the vegetables (and the water) into a blender and puree until smooth. Then put the whole mix back into the pot and cook over a medium high heat until reduced down to a thick sauce-like consistency.

Reducing the salsa,.

You can whip up the cilantro yogurt now too, if you want. Just mix the three ingredients together and set aside.

I did the pork chops next. Here's how:

First combine the butter with the cumin, salt and pepper. Rub the pork chops all over with the mixture. Pork chops are slimy and so is butter, so you'll have to rub pretty vigorously to get the butter to stick to the chops.

Pork chops with butter. Wouldn't Paula Deen be proud!

Now put the pork chops on the grill and cook them over medium heat for about 7 and a half minutes per side.

Meanwhile, prepare the bacon and bananas.

Start by cooking the bacon in a frying pan for just a couple of minutes, long enough for some of the fat to render. Now I have to admit, I'm not sure of the reasoning behind this step--I'm thinking you could just use the bacon as-is without frying it first, since it will be cooked completely through in the next step.

Now cut the bananas into chunks sprinkle them with lemon juice. Wrap the bacon around each chunk. Skewer each wrapped piece through the overlap in the bacon, like so:

Bananas and bacon. Who woulda thunk.

After the chops have been cooking for about 15 minutes, turn the heat down to medium low and put the bacon and bananas on the grill. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the chops aren't cooking too fast. Continue to turn the chops and the bacon/banana skewers. At this point you can also start basting the chops with beer.

The steam is from the beer.

Now while all this is happening, you can work on your bean cakes. Personally, I think the author of this recipe was trying to play a joke on me, or else there are some cooking skills that I have yet to master. Or rather, that I am totally inept at.

So you need to start by rinsing the beans and then putting them in a food processor with the onion, cumin, jalapeno and about a tablespoon of water. Process until you have a nice paste.

Bean paste. At this point Martin walked in and said, "what the hell?"

OK, now is where everything went all downhill. The recipe says to make little cakes using about 2 tablespoons of bean mixture each. Then you're supposed to fry the cakes in the hot olive oil for about three minutes per side, or until the cakes are a "crispy brown."

Here's what happened to mine:

The cakes sucked up all the oil and then stuck to the bottom of the pan. When I tried to flip them, the "crispy brown" bit stayed put and all I got was a pile of mush on my spatula.

It all began with such good intentions ...

So after struggling with my unagreeable bean paste for way more than the recommended three minutes, I finally gave up and just mushed them all together and basically just made refried beans. After I took them out of the pan I put them on a plate and moved them into a warm oven so they dried out a little.

Uh ... yum?

Then guess what I did ... I got out the pastry cutter Martin uses to make scones, and I cut round cakes out of the slightly dried bean mash. Then I topped it with the salsa and yogurt. Suddenly it went from looking like something you may or may not feed your dog to something almost gourmet. Here it is on the plate with the pork chops, bacon and bananas:

Not so bad a food save if I say so myself.

So how was it? Well, when I put the plates on the table I would have bet someone's college savings (which is actually only about 50 bucks right now) that my kids were going to be unanimously grossed out. But I was surprised when Dylan ate everything on his plate--bananas and bacon included! He even liked the beans. Hailey tried everything and disliked most of it (which is Hailey's typical dinnertime routine), Natalie decided not to try any of it and Henry threw most of his on the floor. But the grown-ups both gave the meal a thumbs up. Bacon+banana: a surprisingly tasty combination. But for me the highlight of the meal was actually the beans! That was shocking, since the entire cooking process seemed so headed for disaster. But the little dollops of salsa and yogurt really made them taste good. I just wish I'd gotten the frying part right.

How about dessert? Well the papaya pie was definitely different from the pies my kids usually eat, but with the help of a little spray whipped cream, everyone enjoyed it. So as far as my family goes, the meal was not a disaster ... which is more than I can say for at least a few of these little multi-cultural experiments.

 A slice of papaya pie.

Next week: Argentina.


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