Thursday, November 15, 2012

Recipes from the Coral Sea Islands

OK, these recipes are not really from the Coral Sea Islands. Right now, at this very moment, there are only four people in the whole world who are qualified to talk about Coral Sea Islands food, and I can't find email addresses for any of them. So I'm going to post this entry in the vain hope that, like Bouvet Island, someone who actually possesses genuine knowledge of this subject might find me through Google and send me a message.

In the meantime, I'm using cruise ship recipes.

Let me back up. The small group of uninhabited tropical islands and reefs known as the Coral Sea Islands is one of those places that made it onto my list despite it not really being a country containing, you know, actual people. With four exceptions.

Located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Coral Sea Islands includes about 485,000 miles of islands and reef/island groups and stretches southeast from the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The group consists of about 30 reefs and atolls, about half of which only count during low tide because the ocean completely covers them the rest of the time. Only one of them is inhabited: Willis Island. Willis Island is a nesting area for various species of birds and turtles but lacks any real natural resources. It doesn't have a port or a harbor; if you want to visit Willis Island you need to anchor offshore and then come in on a smaller boat. Willis Island's total land area is about 1,600 ft x 490 ft, or approximately 19 acres.

Willis Island has a weather monitoring station, which means it needs a small staff to stay operational. So there are usually four people living on the island: three weather observers and one technical officer, who handles the electronic engineering. The station has all the comforts of home and, if you can stand the people you're living with, actually sounds pretty idyllic. It has a rec room with a pool table, ping-pong and darts. It has a library, two satellite TV systems, a DVD library and a workout room. The staff can entertain themselves outdoors by swimming or snorkeling or tending to their vegetable garden. Every now and then, the Royal Australian Air Force flies over and drops supplies.

But as you might imagine, there doesn't seem to be any way easy way to get in touch with the four people on the island, or even to find their names. Not that I made any long distance calls or anything, which might have given up more information. Sadly, I'm a low-budget operation.

Anyway, back to the cruise ship recipes. As it turns out, Willis Island is a popular cruise ship destination. Actually it's more distination-ish, because passengers can't really disembark there. Instead (as near as I can tell, anyway) the ships anchor offshore and everyone just looks at the island.

So for this entry I actually purchased a cookbook from the Royal Caribbean Cruise lines, which is one of the cruise ship lines that visits Willis. I have to say, my decision to use these recipes did make for some pretty danged tasty food, even though I really had no way to verify whether or not these recipes were actually used on actual voyages to the actual region. But there you go. By the way, the book is called the "Royal Caribbean International Cookbook ," and the author is Rudi Sodamin, who at the time of the book's publication (2001) was the chef in charge of fifteen ship's kitchens on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.

The first recipe:

Grilled Island Strip Steak

  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 medium shallots, minced
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup dark rum
  • 3 cups beef stock
  • 2 tbsp molasses
  • 4 8-oz strip steaks
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
On the side:

Garlic Roasted Mashed Potatoes

  • 1 large head garlic
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 1/2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 3/4 cup whole milk, gently heated
And also on the side:

Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Red Onions

  • 20 oz Brussels sprouts (I used frozen)
  • 10 oz red pearl onions
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Starting with the steak:

First melt the butter in over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, onion and garlic and saute until translucent. Add the rum and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the liquid is reduced by about 2/3rds.

Now add the beef stock and return to a boil. Reduce heat and add the molasses, whisking until well-incorporated. Keep simmering, uncovered, until you have about 2 cups of liquid (I actually reduced mine a bit more because I prefer a thicker sauce).

Season the steaks with salt and pepper and grill on both sides until they reach the desired doneness. Now place them on warm plates and top with the sauce. Serve at once.

Now on to the potatoes.

Start by roasting the garlic. If you haven't done this before, it's easy. Just pull off the excess husk and then cut off the top of the head to expose the cloves. Pour a little olive oil over the garlic and add some salt and pepper.

Place the garlic in a small ovenproof dish with the rosemary. Add a little bit of water and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 325 degrees for 30 or 40 minutes, until the garlic is soft.

Let cool and then squeeze the soft pulp from the garlic skins into a small bowl. Yes, it's messy. Mash and set aside.

Now put the peeled potatoes in a large saucepan and add just enough cold water to cover. Add 1 tsp salt. This is actually a totally different way of boiling potatoes than my usual method (I typically boil some salted water first, then I add the potatoes when the water comes to a rolling boil. My way takes forever.) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain and then return to the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring continuously (this will evaporate off the remaining water).

Now mash the potatoes, adding the garlic and the warm milk. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

And finally, the Brussels sprouts. Now, my father-in-law (who I never had a chance to meet) used to say that Brussels sprouts aren't any good until after the first frost, because freezing tempers some of their natural bitter flavor. We discovered that just buying them frozen has the same effect. So though I'm generally against frozen vegetables of any kind (can you say "mush," blech) I almost never buy fresh Brussels sprouts. I think they're better frozen, but that's just my opinion.


Bring about 1 1/2 inches of salted water to a boil in a large suacepan. Pull off the outer leaves (if using fresh sprouts) and trim the stem ends to remove any brown coloring. With a small knife, cut a shallow X at the stem, then rinse and drain.

Put the sprouts in the boiling water and reduce the heat to a low boil. Cook for about 8 minutes or until tender. Drain and run cold water over them so they don't overcook. Set aside.

I know, it's not much of a photo.

Meanwhile, bring a different pot of salted water to a boil. Make a shallow X in each pearl onion with your small knife, then add to the boiling water. Replace the lid so that the pot is partially covered and boil for 4 to 6 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and run cold water over them until they are easy to handle, then remove the skins.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over a medium hot flame. Add the sprouts and cook until they start to brown (but don't stir). After about 3 or 4 minutes, start stirring and add the onions. Cook until the onions are hot, then season with salt and pepper and serve.

So I don't have to tell you that this meal was delicious. People pay a lot of money to go on cruises where they can eat this kind of food, so I would be really shocked if anything in this cookbook wasn't at least four-star restaurant quality.

Of course, Martin wasn't crazy about the steak. It wasn't because the sauce wasn't delicious (it was), it was because the meat was on the bone and there was some fat on it. Sigh. Normally he can cut around the evil fat and bone, but the sauce made it too hard to tell what was fat and what was meat. So the steak lost points.

The potatoes were great. Not so different from the garlic mash I've made in the past, but I liked the cooking technique. It was faster and the potatoes really did come out perfectly.

As for the sprouts, they were probably the best I've ever eaten. Caramelizing them was a stroke of genius, and the little pearl onions complimented them really well.

So there you go, a cruise ship experience. While you're eating, just close your eyes and pretend you're looking at that little weather station on Willis Island from the deck of a gigantic cruise ship.

Next week: Costa Rica

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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