Thursday, May 24, 2012

Recipes from the British Virgin Islands

This week's recipes come from yet another land of tropical beaches, warm weather and resort hotels, otherwise known as Places I Can Only Dream of Visiting Because I Have Four Kids who Would Destroy the Experience For Me. Don't misinterpret that, I actually love traveling with my kids, but I'm not deluded enough to think that they would get as much out of a tropical getaway as the average adult. So until they're old enough, it's Disneyland and Pirate Adventure for us, and in the meantime I'll just pretend like I'm enjoying a tropical vacation by eating from Caribbean menus, which I've actually been doing a lot of, since this is my sixth Caribbean entry.

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) has a bit of a dull history, which means that apart from some 15th century violence between Caribbean tribes, the islands have been blissfully free from war and other major carnage--though as is the case with many Caribbean islands, the African slave trade helped populate the region. In the early years of settlement, the BVI's economy depended primarily on agriculture--namely sugarcane-- but today the island's ideal sailing conditions make it such a popular tourist destination that its economy is primarily driven by tourism dollars.

The British Virgin Islands are a Caribbean territory of the United Kingdom.

Food-wise, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of outside influence (even from the UK, the country that presides over this tropical territory). Most of the traditional favorites are some variation of seafood and local fruits like (you guessed it) mango and papaya. Upscale restaurants tend to serve dishes that are more Americanized, with a Caribbean twist.

Fish and fungi with fried plantains.

So I spent quite a lot of time in frustrated research but finally decided on a menu, and just as I was about to get the meal on the table my husband informed me that he was tired of "reading about how you couldn't find any recipes on the Internet." So I won't say anything more about how hard it was to find BVI recipes on the Internet, and instead I will just leave you thinking that my choices were boring and uninspired. Because they kind of were. On the upside, I consider this edict of Martin's to be as good as permission to buy a new cookbook every week, though that does seem strange coming from a guy who's always complaining that we have too much stuff in our house.

Anyway, the dish I chose was called "Fish and Fungi," which is evidently the national dish of the British Virgin Islands. Which seems sad really, because it's basically just boiled fish and polenta. Yawn. Here's the recipe:

Fish and Fungi

For the fish:

  • 2 1/4 pounds fish, scaled and gutted
  • 1/2 tsp Accent*
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp margarine
  • 1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
  • 1 small tomato, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp vinegar
  • 4 1/2 tsp lemon or lime juice
  • 1 lime, sliced
For the fungi:

  • 5 ounces package frozen cut okra
  • 3/4 cup fine yellow cornmeal
  • 1 1/4 cups boiling water
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • Pepper to taste
* Ingredient note: Accent is MSG. If you would rather not use MSG, you can probably substitute salt.

I actually settled on fish and fungi after struggling with that all-too common conundrum—do I go with a chef recipe from a local restaurant, or do I stick with traditional favorites. Because chef recipes don't really seem like they can do justice to traditional cuisine (and they may not even have any shades of traditional cuisine in them at all). You wouldn't go to Australia and eat at Outback Steakhouse, then say you've had Australian food, so I really don't think you can do the same thing at an upscale restaurant in the Caribbean. But fish and fungi was So. Boring.

So I compromised, and I started the meal with a crab cakes recipe that came from The Sugar Mill, a resort hotel on the BVI island of Tortola.

Crab Cakes with Shrimp Sauce

For the shrimp sauce:

  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 2 oz raw shrimp, deveined, shells removed and reserved
  • 1 1/2 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp dry sherry
  • 2 tbsp heavy cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste
For the crab cakes:

  • 1/2 cup red and yellow bell peppers, finely diced
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 small eggs, separated
  • 1 cup soft bread crumbs
  • 4-5 oz, cooked crab meat
  • 1 1/2 tsp Caribbean seasoning
  • Flour, for dusting
  • Dash of Worchestershire sauce
  • Dash of Tabasco sauce
  • Salt and pepper to taste
And then I finished the meal with a fresh lime pie, which is another recipe that came from The Sugar Mill. I actually tweaked it a little by using a crust that came from a recipe for Coconut Cloud Tart, another Sugar Mill dessert that I didn't sound as tasty as the lime pie. So here's my amalgamated version:

Fresh Lime Pie

  • 1 1/4 cups vanilla wafer crumbs
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons sugar 
  • 3 eggs, separated 
  • 1 small can sweetened condensed milk  
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice  
  • Lime zest from 1 lime
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
I also did some fried plantains, not because I particularly wanted to but because after my disastrous encounter with plantains as a dessert I wanted to give them another chance as a savory dish. Here's that recipe:

Fried Plantains

  • 1 ripe plantain, sliced lengthwise and cut into four pieces
  • Olive oil for frying
  • Salt to taste
None of these recipes was particularly challenging, but I started with the dessert since that can be made in advance. Here's how it's done:

First heat your oven to 350 degrees. Mix the crust ingredients and press down into the bottom of a pie pan. Bake in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the crust is just starting to brown. Let cool.

This crust is made from crushed vanilla wafer cookies and butter.

Now put the eggs into a small mixing bowl and beat until they are thick and pale yellow. Stir the eggs into the condensed milk.

Beat the egg until it is thick and pale yellow, then add the condensed milk.

Add the lime juice and rind and pour over the crust. Set aside.

Pour the mixture over the crumb crust.

Now beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until the whites begin to thicken. Slowly add the sugar and continue to beat until you get stiff peaks. Spread gently over the lime filling.

Spread the meringue over the top of the lime mix.

Bake at 350 for 15 minutes, or until the meringue begins to brown (this took more like 22 minutes in my oven).

The meringue should be lightly browned on its peaks.

After I was finished with the desert, I pre-made the crab cakes:

If I did this again, I would definitely dice my shimp finer than this.

First dice the shrimp and set aside. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, then sauté the shrimp shells with the garlic and shallots.

Saute the shallots with the garlic and the shrimp shells.

When the shells turn pink, add the paprika and the sherry. Continue to cook until the sherry has reduced by half (this won't take very long).

After the sherry reduces, strain the mixture and return to the pan with the shrimp and the cream.

Now strain the mixture, and return the liquid to the pan. Add the diced shrimp and the heavy cream. Keep cooking until the sauce thickens (it should coat the back of your spoon). Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

Now sauté the peppers in 1 tbsp of the butter. When they are soft, take them off the heat and set aside.

Put the breadcrumbs and crab meat into a medium sized bowl. With your mixer, beat the egg whites until you get stiff peaks, then fold into the crab mixture.

Fold the egg whites into the crumb and crab mixture.

Gently add the peppers, yolks, Caribbean seasoning , Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces.

Now add the cooked diced peppers and the seasonings.

Form the crab mixture into small cakes (you should get six to eight from this recipe) and dust with flour.

Shape into patties and dust with flour.

Fry in the remaining 1 tbsp butter. When they are golden brown, flip and continue to fry until the other side is also golden brown.

To serve, pour the shrimp sauce over.

Fry on both sides and serve with the shrimp sauce.

Then the fish:

Put all the ingredients into a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat, simmering for 20 to 30 minutes or until the fish flakes with a fork. Garnish with sliced lime.

The fish and fungi was so boring, I only took one picture while it was cooking. And the picture is boring.

Then the fungi:

Bring the water to a boil and add the frozen okra.

In a separate bowl, blend 2 tbsp of the cornmeal with about 6 tbsp water. Pour into the pot with the boiling water and okra and let cook for one minute.

Slowly pour the rest of the cornmeal into the pan, stirring constantly. Add the butter and salt and pepper, continuing to cook for 5 minutes. Serve hot.

This is the fungi, which is basically just polenta with okra.

And finally the plantains:

Heat the oil and fry the plantains on both sides until golden. Salt and serve hot.

Plantains: Potatoes without the thing that makes potatoes taste good.

So if you read this blog you've probably already guessed that I didn't give any of this food to my kids. And based on the howls, moaning and tragic cries of "it smells horrible in here!" I'm thinking I made the right choice. So it was just me and Martin, and here's what we thought:

The crab cakes were good. For me, they were probably the best part of the meal. If I had it to do again though I would finely mince the shrimp instead of just chopping it. The sauce would have been better if it had been more like a sauce and less like cooked chunks of shrimp in a sauce.

The fish and fungi was just as boring as I thought it would be. I made pretty liberal use of the lime slices, because the fish itself lacked flavor. The fungi was bland and I can't say I'm crazy about okra, though that is really just personal preference. I don't really like polenta either—it's edible, but lacks interest. Since fungi is really just a variation of polenta my dislike is, again, just a matter of personal preference.

Martin was a huge fan of the pie but I thought it was just OK. I do like meringue, but I prefer it when it's crispy and this meringue didn't cook long enough to get to that point. And the lime filling was good but I really didn't like the texture. Again, that's just me though. And I'm not picky generally, it's just that a lot of these BVI recipes fell right in line with those things I'm just not that fond of.

And yes, this is the last time I will eat plantains. It's not that they're unpleasant tasting, in fact it's just the opposite: they have no flavor at all. As Martin described them: "plantains are like potatoes only without the thing that makes potatoes actually taste good." So yeah, definitely not as a dessert, and probably not as a side dish either unless there is suddenly a global shortage on potatoes.

So as far as that simulated tropical vacation is concerned, well, I guess I'd probably rather go to another Caribbean nation, even if I'm only doing it virtually. I'm sure BVI is beautiful, but since food is the only way I get to experience the Caribbean during the child-rearing phase of my life, I'll just have to keep looking. At least until I get to the Cayman Islands, anyway.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. Plantains have to be almost black to be ripe. When you fry them (or microwave them) they are sweet and delicious - to the extreme!! If they had no taste, they were def not ripe.

  2. Maybe that's what I need to do ... buy them a week or two before I actually make them! I've never seen them in the grocery store black, so I don't doubt I've been cooking under-ripe ones. To me, they just taste like a bland potato.

  3. Yes, they're very starchy when green and are quite bland. It's that starch that turns to sugar when ripe that makes them so delicious:) They can be eaten both ways, but when ripe is the most common. I am so impressed with your adventurousness though! I think your blog is fab, and the concept is amazing... you're a good role model for your kids methinks!

  4. Thank you and I hope you keep reading!! :)


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