Archive | Caribbean RSS feed for this section

A Lime Cut Three Ways: The Third Cut

20 Jul

Rum Punch

I’ve saved probably my oldest, most reliable “lime” drink for the last cut. Looking back on the three cuts, besides the presence of lime, I’ve noticed that all three use spirits derived from sugar cane.

In the first cut, The Caipirinha, I used cachaca from Brazil. In the second cut, The Mojito , I used a white, neutral Puerto Rican rum, and now here, for the third cut, I am using one of my favorites, a full bodied, dark West Indian rum.

The recipe for a good rum punch, this one put together from many trips to the Caribbean, is a universal one. And here it is in my best patois:

 

1 part sour

2 parts sweet

3 parts strong

4 parts weak

 

The sour, sweet, strong, and the weak. (plus a dash of bitter).

The differences between the rum punches come in what forms those parts take. The first part, however, is standard. The sour must be lime juice, freshly squeezed. I’ve seen recipes that call for lemon juice, but it’s just not the same—and not as good in my opinion.

The two parts sweet offers many variations. Some use grenadine syrup. Others fruit-flavored syrups that are sold in Caribbean markets. I use, as I have in the other two lime drinks in this series, simple brown demerara sugar syrup.

The strong is, of course, the alcohol, and in the Caribbean it is always rum. Mixologists might tweak the cocktail by adding a sweet, colorful liqueur or another type of spirit other than rum. I never get that fancy.

The only variation I’ve included is the addition of overproof rum (or rum with a 60 plus alc/vol) to one of the three “strong” parts. In the past few years, I’ve pretty much ceased that practice. Imbibing a rum punch spiked with overproof rum can be fun, liven a party and provide “memorable” moments. At my age, however, the consequences faced the next day are no longer very pretty to justify adding it to the punch.

So now I just stick to three parts of dark rum; something from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, or one of the other islands once colonized by Great Britain. Don’t go for an “aged” rum or one that comes slickly packaged and advertised as “super premium.” An expensive “sipping” rum will just be wasted amongst all those other ingredients.

The weak in the recipe calls for the most variation. That’s where personal preference really comes into play. I like adding tropical juices; preferably mango and guava. Others add pineapple or orange juice to the punch. You can add whatever type of fruit juice you like.

Adding nectar to the rum.

And for me, four parts of fruit juice, makes the punch just too sweet so for one of the four parts of sweet, I just add ice or water. Don’t worry, your punch will not be watered down and if it seems that way, just balance it out with a little more rum or fruit juice.

Now as far as the parts go, they can be tablespoons, half cups, or more. I just go with each part being a full cup. You’ll end up with a nice jug of punch that will quickly be consumed at a party or, if it’s just for you, store it in your refrigerator. With all that alcohol, it will last for weeks and only get better with age. Just make sure to shake it up before serving.

Store the rum punch in the refrigerator…right next to the milk.

Here are the ingredients and quantities I use in making my version of the rum punch:

1 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice

2 cups of simple sugar syrup

3 cups of dark, West Indian rum

4 cups combined of mango and guava nectar, or 3 cups of juice/nectar, plus one cup of water (or a handful of ice).

Angostura Bitters

Combine the first four ingredients in a punch bowl or jug. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

To serve, pour into ice-filled glasses and top with a splash of Angostura Bitters. If you have fresh nutmeg, grate a little into the glass.

Stir and sip.

How to Eat a Mango

10 Jul

I’ve often wondered,

how to eat this fruit.

It has an odd shape,

kind of like an egg with a loop.

It’s sweet and the flesh is juicy,

and  good for you too.

But how do you eat it

without getting quite messy?

If the fruit is soft and pliant to grope,

like what you might find in a ripe cantaloupe.

That means it is ripe and ready to eat.

The problem is, how to do it neat?

I hear there are over 1,000 varieties of mangoes around.

But where I live only a few types are to be found.

What I see in stores and on street carts,

come from places like Mexico, Salvador, Peru and Brazil.

Warm, tropical lands,

where there is no chill.

They  have names like “champagne,”

“Ataulfo,” “Tommy Atkins,” “Kent,” and more.

I’m sure there is a difference,

though this mango novice can’t tell for sure.

Ataulfo mangoes

On an island far away,

I once ate a Julie,

mango that is.

It was sweet and luscious.

I still can’t believe,

something so delicious,

could come from a tree.

Once peeled, the nectar quickly

flowed from within.

That Julie made such a mess,

a beach towel was needed,

to clean up my chin.

Three Julies

The mangoes from Haiti

are long and light green.

This fruit’s flavor is special,

the taste, a mango fan’s dream.

But there are drawbacks, I’m afraid.

It costs a little more,

and eating it most certainly can be a chore.

The Haitian

You can peel the tough skin with a knife.

Pull it down and try to slice.

Be careful before you start chewing,

The juices might spurt.

Don’t be slow.

Stay alert.

Oh my, how the bright orange flesh stains so.

No doubt, your nice white shirt, will soon be aglow.

Put away the knife,

and give up on the slice.

Just suck through the flesh,

right to the big stone.

This chore is one, you need to handle alone.

The temptations are many.

You might want to bite.

You’ll soon learn, that won’t be right.

Like a thatch of thorns that have you entangled,

your teeth will be riddled with tough fibers at every angle.

To dislodge requires little cost.

All you’ll need is plenty of time,

and two packs of dental floss.

Some say the best way to eat a mango

is one where you cut into the flesh;

a criss cross pattern.

that looks like a mesh.

Turn the skin upside down,

with gentle firmness, you’ll press.

The pieces will fall into a bowl or dish.

Eat with a toothpick, fork or chopstick.

No fuss.

No mess.

The criss cross method.

Like the many varieties of mango,

the choices of how to eat one are plenty.

And while I waste my time,

with these ridiculous rhymes,

I’m sure the list will grow.

Suck, nibble, bite or chew?

Who am I to tell you what to do?

How to eat a mango.

really, is up to you.

Lechonera Encanto

8 Jun

Lechonera La Isla
256 E. 125th Street

Last year, around this time, when I started seeing the Puerto Rican flags streaming from car antennas, out of apartment windows, and draped across uptown streets, I immediately thought of the Cuchy Frito man, specifically, Cal Tjader’s rendition and the celebration of all pig parts fried Cuchy Frito Man.

I am seeing those same flags again now. And this year, instead of Cal Tjader and cuchifritos, I thought I would celebrate La Isla del Encanto by stopping by my local lechonera, Lechonera La Isla, for a taste of pernil, roast pork shoulder.

Plenty of room at the lechonera.

La Lechonera La Isla was quiet when I walked in; the few stools of the small restaurant counter were empty. There was beef stew available along with oxtails and roast chicken. And there were a few slabs of pernil that had been roasted to sweet oblivion.

The day’s remains soon to be devoured.

“When do you close,” I asked the young man who was chopping the pernil into pieces for me.

“When we run out of food,” he replied, his cleaver slamming into the very dense crackling of the pig skin. “Basically, my Mom cooks everything in the morning and when it’s gone, I can go home.”

I was lucky;  he hadn’t gone home.

Trying not to be too bold, I peered into the kitchen hoping to catch a glimpse of Mom at work. But from what I could see, the kitchen was dark and quiet. Apparently Mom had gone home.

Sawing through the good stuff.

He layered a generous portion of pork on top of rice and red beans. An accompaniment of a homemade hot sauce; onions marinated in scotch bonnet peppers and vinegar set my mouth happily on fire while a drizzle of a tangy mojo (garlic sauce) just added to the gathering of fiery flavors now imbedded there.

Roast pork and rice and beans.

The traffic on 125th Street heading towards the Triorough (now known as the RFK) Bridge was bumper to bumper. Instead of Cuban-born Celia Cruz whose picture was adorned on the busy walls of the lechonera, or Tito Puente, who I once saw on 86th Street just after performing at the parade, sitting in the shade being fanned by a group of elderly ladies, the only sounds I heard while gnawing through the delicious cracklings, was that of honking horns. I really didn’t mind, the food provided all the music I needed.

A smile from Celia Cruz to help the pernil go down.

 

A Double(s) Dose of Roti on Liberty Avenue

20 Mar

Singh’s Roti Shop
131-18 Liberty Ave
Richmond Hill

“Is it Jamaica, or Richmond Hill,” Zio asked frantically over the phone while cruising up and down Liberty Avenue looking for Gerry’s pick, Singh’s Roti Shop.

“Richmond Hill,” I said.

“Jamaica or Richmond Hill?” Zio asked again, his hearing aid obviously not functioning up to speed.

“Richmond Hill,” I repeated.

“Okay, I’ll be there soon,” he said.

I was in front of Singh’s when Zio called, after haven taken a brief walk around, peering in at the nearby Guyanese and Caribbean restaurants, the Brown Betty,” and Sybil’s Bakery, where there was a line waiting for Sybil’s offerings. Whatever it was they were waiting for smelled delicious.

There are rotis (Guyanese style) to be had at the Brown Betty.

There was a small line at the brightly lit Singh’s as well, and Gerry and Mike from Yonkers were already in the bar area to the left. Gerry with a plastic cup filled with vodka and Mike from Yonkers with a bottle of Carib beer. Eugene was once again a scratch; his expertise as a timekeeper for a high school basketball game the priority on this particular night.

While I sipped my own Carib, I wandered over to the steam table and tried to get a look at the many dishes that were available. I had my camera and began to take a few pictures. This brought the attention of a man behind the counter who seemed to be in charge of Singh’s intricate operations.

“Take a picture of him,” the man said, pointing to an Asian man who was carrying what looked like a stir fry lo mein-like dish. “He’s the chef.”

I obliged and snapped the chef’s picture who posed without affectation.

The “chef.”

Mr. Singh, the man in charge, then asked what we wanted. Despite the long line to order, he had one of the female servers “take care of us.” Maybe it was the camera. Maybe it was because we were obviously not from the neighborhood. Whatever the reason, Mr. Singh was giving us V.I.P treatment including a sampling of some of the offerings.

The sampling included pepper chicken; a fried, breaded chicken reminiscent of sweet and sour chicken, but with a spice kick that took that Chinese/American classic to a higher level. There was also stewed pork with vegetables, and something else, Chinese-like, with green peppers and onions, we could not identify.

Sweet, sour and spicy.

Singh’s served Caribbean Chinese food along with, what I thought was Guyanese, but after being chastised by Singh, told were Trinidadian specialties.

The Roti, an Indian bread stuffed with whatever you wanted; goat, beef, chicken, potato, was, of course, Singh’s specialty as was something called doubles; kind of a roti sandwich, a layer of roti bread lathered with chick peas and various condiments, and then topped with another flat roti, making a “double.”

Singh’s Doubles.

While we were devouring the sample platter, Rick called to say he was at Sandy’s Roti Shop, also on Liberty Avenue, but in South Richmond Hill.

“It’s Singh’s, Roti Shop,” I said to him.

“Not Sandy’s?”

“Not Sandy’s,” I replied.

“I’ll be right there,” he said. And then I realized I heard those same words from Zio quite awhile ago. And he still wasn’t here.

“Where are you?” I asked over the phone.

“I’m embarrassed to say I got lost,” he murmured sheepishly.

I gave him the address again and told him what Singh’s looked like.

“I’ll be right there,” he sighed.

And within minutes both Zio and Rick arrived. The line had grown while we were waiting for them, and Mike from Yonkers was anxious to get going—fearing Singh’s food supply might run out. Though from what I could see, that was a very slight possibility.

My new friend Singh again summoned one of his workers to put together our platters. I had no idea what was in most of the trays and when I asked, the female server impatiently blurted out what they were as if, in the bustle of the place, I could hear and register what she was telling me from the other side of the counter. So I ended up just pointing to things, more of that Chinese pepper chicken, a few orders of “doubles,” some of the mixed fried rice and the rice and peas, a container of dark green mashed callaloo, and stewed pork.

The “Chinese” side of the steam table.

We plowed through the food effortlessly. All of it, despite the cafeteria-style, seemed fresh and flavorful, in particular, the unique “doubles,” which, at $1 each, a hefty bargain and enough to fortify even our gluttonous appetites. This Trinidadian street snack was no light appetizer and one remained on our table throughout the rest of our dinner; untouched and tightly wrapped in wax paper.

Despite the mounds of food, Rick was not quite fully satisfied. “I think we should try a few more things,” he said.

No one disagreed.

I went with  him to the West Indian/Indian side of the counter where there were curries displayed along with more exotic dishes like conch (spelled “counch” on the menu) goat, and, something we couldn’t identify our server said was “goat belly.”

If goat belly was anything like pork belly, we had to try it.

The “West Indian” side. Note the doubles being prepared in the background.

Rick brought the second round of platters to the table. The stewed goat curry was tender, the meat easily coming off the bone. The conch could have used a couple more hours boiling, but maybe “al dente” is the preferred Trinidadian way. The goat belly, however, upon closer inspection, was a challenge, even for us.

Zio got close to it and sniffed.

“It’s smells like an old bicycle seat,” he said, and then bravely took a forkful.

“It’s trippa!,” he exclaimed.

The goat belly was indeed, tripe. Gerry sampled some. He shook his head. Mike from Yonkers, tried to chew a piece. “Un uh,” he muttered as he forced it down.

Goat belly and “counch.”

Thankfully, Rick had ordered a few pieces of roti bread to help us quash the foul taste of the goat belly.

We were done…almost.

There were a few brightly-colored sweets I was interested in including one that was purple. “Sugar cake,” was what our server barked out when I asked her what it was.

Singh’s sweets’ sampler.

I brought a small sweets’  sampler back to our table; one of the sugar cakes and a bun. Gerry peered at the bun that was speckled with raisins and other candied fruits. “It looks dry,” he said.

He broke off a piece and chewed.  He nodded. “It is dry.”

The desserts pretty much went untouched. We were done. The line at Singh’s was much shorter now. The damage to our wallets was light and our own belly’s full. We couldn’t ask for anything more than that.  Except for Zio, who, before we walked out the door, grabbed the one untouched, still wrapped, “double,” and shoved it into his pocket.

I looked at him.

“What?” He said. “It’ll taste even better tomorrow.”

The End

The Marathon to Malecon.

8 Feb

Malecon Restaurant
4141 Broadway
Washington Heights

It took three attempts for our group to get to Rick’s pick,  Malecon in Washington Heights. The journey to the busy corner of 175th Street and Broadway where Malecon is located had its winding trails and steep inclines, but in the end was worth the effort.

Malecon was touted by Ubie, Rick’s hairdresser/stylist/barber, as the best place for “Dominican” food in New York. And though we don’t know anything about Ubie’s food savvy, Rick’s hair is definitely impressive, so we just had to go on that.

The first detour on our trip to Malecon occurred a couple of months earlier when on the date we were to gather, Rick informed us that there was an event at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg featuring the barbecue of Myron Mixon.

The Brooklyn Brewery: The first leg of our journey.

Though I’ve been through a few barbecue wars myself, I don’t follow them on television. Apparently Myron Mixon is a barbecue celebrity and had just written a book on his expertise. This event was in celebration of that publication and included barbecue prepared by Mixon himself. Rick’s influence got our group invites to the event and he presented us with the option of the “Dominican place” or free barbecue and beer. Our decision was unanimous. We would postpone Rick’s pick to experience the Brooklyn Brewery and Mixon’s renowned barbecue.

After arriving promptly at the Brooklyn Brewery on an empty stomach and quickly downing two very cold and very delicious beers, while waiting (and waiting) for Mixon to lay out his food, I desperately reached for the pickles—the  only thing to eat—in hopes of not passing out in a mound of barbecue. Finally the ribs and brisket were assembled on the steam tables and our group, showing the skill and confidence accumulated by years of experience, positioned ourselves at  the front of the buffet line.

Our plates piled high, we began to dig in. The ribs were worthy of Mixon’s reputation; seasoned perfectly, smoked to moist tenderness topped with a subtle glaze of semi-sweet sauce. The brisket, however, even sliced thin, was like eating shoe leather. How could a barbecue master allow such a debacle? Shouldn’t pride itself prevent one from tarnishing one’s revered status? In other words, if I were Mixon, I would have dumped all the inedible brisket rather than foisting it upon the scavengers lining up for the buffet. But that’s just me.

Myron Mixon displaying his gnawing ability.

A few weeks later, channel surfing, I noticed Mixon’s silver-bearded visage on television. He was on a barbecue competition called “BBQ Pitmasters” on TLC (The Learning Channel). I watched as he competed in the “ribs” category and came in third behind a man named Tuffy Stone and the winning team called “Slap Yo Daddy,” comprised of Asian-Americans from California. When the results were announced, Mixon had the same look on his face that I did when sampling his brisket.

A month later, we tried again to visit the “Dominican place” recommended by Ubie. Late on the afternoon of our scheduled gathering, Rick emailed to say a work crisis had come up and he would have to cancel. I was on my way to a Little League tournament game with my son in the Inwood section of Northern Manhattan. I thought I might be able to get to the dinner in nearby Washington Heights, son in tow, if his game ended promptly. But Eugene was cranky and wanted to meet sooner than later; bitter that when most of the world was sleeping, he would be camped out on the RFK Bridge overseeing construction there. Since this was Rick’s choice, it didn’t make sense to assemble without him, but I was away from my email and deferred the executive decision whether to cancel or not up to Gerry. He, wisely choose to cancel.

Malecon’s cafe con leche receptacle.

We quickly rescheduled and this time there were no cancellations. I admit to not being a stranger to the food of Malecon. Though the Malecon I was familiar with was on the upper west side and known, to me, as “El Malecon.” A visit to Malecon’s website revealed that they were related.

The Malecon in Washington Heights was most definitely the big brother of the two. Not only was it located in the heart of New York’s biggest Dominican community, it was larger than “El Malecon” and its menu was much more extensive.

My experience with El Malecon centered around the monstrous roast chicken dinners they featured that included rice and beans or other starches like yuca, tostones or maduros. That and the restaurant’s addictive café con leche that went perfectly with its “desayuno,” the hearty Dominican breakfast comprised of longaniza (sausage), eggs, mangu (mashed green plantains) and guineo (boiled green bananas).

The self-proclaimed King of Roast Chicken.

The Malecon in Washington Heights had everything El Malecon had on the Upper West Side and much more including a large selection of mofongos, parrilladas (grill combinations) and something called picaderas.

Gerry ordered a pequena (small) picadera plate that was big enough for at least half of our rotund group and included a combination of fried meats; sausage, beef, pork, and chicken along with fried plantains.

Picaderas: the “pequena” plate.

Big brother Malecon, unlike El Malecon, was much more festive with tropical murals, meringue blasting and offering ice buckets of Presidente beer which, without hesitation, we crowded our table with.

There were side dishes and a few appetizers that looked tempting and Rick considered a few. I shook my head. “It will be too much,” I said, recalling my previous El Malecon experiences. And I didn’t get an argument from anyone.

A Presidente to accompany the King of roast chicken.

The vast menu made choosing difficult but I narrowed my choice down to one of that day’s specials—Malecon has a number for each day of the week—thinking I might get the roast pork or the bbq beef ribs. I went with the latter along with gandules (pigeon peas) and rice. Mike from Yonkers was considering a mofongo, but realized he didn’t get rice and beans with it…as if he needed more starch. Instead, he chose the codfish stew.

Bacalao guisado

Along with touting the restaurant, Ubie recommended Malecon’s legendary chicken and Rick ordered a “whole” as opposed to a half, which would have been more than enough. Both Eugene and Zio had the “fish of the day,” which was something fried and filleted and even smothered in an unknown sauce was, according to Zio, “still crispy.”

As I expected, the platters were large, the food densely delicious, though the ribs a tad on the sweet side, and the Presidente the perfect accompaniment. It was no reflection on Malecon’s quality, however, that everyone, excluding Eugene and myself, had leftovers; a first for our group.

Despite being overstuffed, I couldn’t resist sampling the coconut flan while Rick and Mike from Yonkers were easily convinced by our waitress to try the tres leches (three milk) cake. The flan I had was as dense as the rice and gandules, but the tres leches was moist, dripping with sweet milk and so good that it alone would make another journey,  detours and all,  to Washington Heights a high priority.

Tres leches cake.

The Jamaican Beef Patty Gospels

9 Dec

As seen in the People’s Choice Kitchen.

And the beef patties were good too.

The Place Where They Don’t Count the Shrimp

22 Nov

Sabrosura
1200 Castle Hill Ave
Bronx

Zio and I were waiting in front of Sabrosura for Gerry, Mike from Yonkers, and Eugene to arrive. The corner restaurant had a no reservations policy and also one where the full party had to arrive before being seated. The latter policy usually reeks of arrogance and over confidence; the restaurant thinking that holding tables with one or two people of a larger party will slow down the turnover.  But despite the policy, Sabrosura showed no signs of pretension or arrogance and when I first entered, the owner, a pleasant man of Chinese heritage, who, I later learned was born and raised in Santo Domingo, took my name and offered me a very small seat near the busy take-out section of the restaurant where I could wait for the others. The night was mild, however, so Zio and I chose to wait outside.

“The food’s the best around here,” said a man who had exited the restaurant behind me and observed my situation. “It’s worth the wait.”

After our last couple of outings; mediocre African in Harlem and tasteless Fujinese in Chinatown where we struggled through webbed duck feet, fish stomach, and a very spiny eel, I thought we needed to get back to basics. And Chino-Latino, the food offered by Sabrosura, was as basic as it got for me.

One of the first restaurants I dined in after moving into the city was a dingy place on West 72nd Street called La Dinastia. It served Latino specialties like rice and beans, huge plates of roast chicken with platanos or maduras (green or ripe plantains) ropa vieja (shredded beef), picadillo (spiced ground beef) and fried king fish along with Chinese-American staples; wonton soup, barbecued ribs, lo mein, fried rice, and sweet and sour pork. To me, at the time, it was a revelation. It was cheap. It was hearty. And the restaurant’s total lack of atmosphere perfect fodder to my then creatively downscale brain. Friends I brought to La Dinastia didn’t always agree and it was nicknamed by one as “Dinasty”. But that just spurred my loyalty to the place. Even the presence of a dead cockroach floating in the duck sauce one time I dined there did not sour me on the restaurant. That, in a way, was part of its appeal.

La Dinastia, now known as DInastia China

“They don’t count the shrimp or anything,” the man, who was in his early thirties, burly, wearing a tight sport jacket, neck tie loose and collar half turned up, who told us he was Dominican, added. “The other places around here…they only give you a few shrimps in your asopao. This is the place to come in Castle Hill.”

We didn’t have to prod him for information about Sabrosura or the state of dining on Castle Hill Avenue where Sabrosura was located; it flowed from him…until he got the signal that his take-out order was ready.

We spotted Eugene and Gerry in Eugene’s car looking for a parking spot. Zio and I went in the restaurant, but still they were hesitant to seat us. “Looking for a parking spot? Ha, that’s what they all say.”

Upon quickly glancing at the colorful menu filled with photographs of many of the various dishes, Eugene, obviously still stinging from our last inedible experience blurted; “Finally, there’s something we can eat here.”

And he was right, but the menu was vast and offered a number of combinations, some in triplicate, and even including Chino-Latino “Bento Boxes,” so the dilemma for us was to narrow the options down.

One thing La Dinastia, or most of the Chino-Latino restaurants I ever visited never had was that Puerto Rican/Dominican specialty, a mash of twice fried plantains, pork cracklings and garlic called mofongo. Sabrosura had a number of different types available and, as the menu stated “All mofongos normally include garlic and crispy pork skin; if you don’t want either, just let us know!” That was the kind of place Sabrosura was; anything for their customers. But we most definitely wanted garlic and pork skin with our mofongo and we wanted ours with shrimp. Gerry was concerned that one would not be enough until he saw that size of the bowl that was coming our way. The huge bowl was  a hollowed out mofongo filled with shrimp in a tomato-based gravy and topped with a few slices of avocado.

Chinese Chop Suey Soup

Along with the mofongo to start, I couldn’t resist trying the “Chinese chop suey soup.” My experience at Chino-Latino restaurants was that the soups were actually very good; whether they were wonton, or called “Chinese soup,” or “Special Chinese soup,” they were usually in a light chicken broth, brimming with bok choy, cabbage, bean sprouts, noodles and bits of roast pork, ham, and shrimp. At Sabrosura they didn’t care if they used the very old school word “chop suey” to describe their soup and neither did I. What I tasted was reassuringly familiar and after finishing it, left me, predictably, with a slight MSG buzz.

Bourbon boneless ribs and plantains

The feast proceeded from there. Mike from Yonkers slowly devouring a monstrous platter of broiled fish that looked exactly as it did on the menu. Eugene working his way through a combination called the “Mojito;” roast chicken and boneless bourbon barbecued ribs.  Zio experimenting with a Bento Box of fried fish, pork, and anything else that might immediately stop his heart. Gerry digging through a mound of fried rice topped with shrimp and squid called chofan, and I with my old standby, ropa vieja with yellow rice.  No one complained. No one moaned. Everything was eaten.

“old clothes” with yellow rice

After a sampling of the restaurant’s excellent flan, we staggered out onto Castle Hill Avenue all of us very happy that at Sabrosura, they do not count the shrimp.

Saltfish Season

18 Nov

I’m not sure why,  but the chill in the air  and the impending holiday season brings on a distinctive and maybe unnatural craving for the taste of saltfish. Also known to Italians as baccala,(a ditty to that Christmas Eve treat was published in these pages last year titled Baccala Blues )to those of Spanish background as bacalao, and to the Portuguese as bacalhau,  Saltfish is the West Indian name for what we know as salt cod.

Not the most appetizing to look at or, for some, to smell, but after the dry, salted fish is soaked to rehydrate it to a moist tenderness and then simmered,  a man can get very used to the taste.

“Very well I like the  taste
Though the smell, sometimes out of place
It hard to take, but make no mistake
I want you to know, it’s because it extra sweet it smelling so boy it’s

Saltfish”

The words above are from the great Calypsonian, Sparrow’s love song dedicated to saltfish’s wonderfulness named, appropriately, “Saltfish.” He does a much better job articulating the appeal of saltfish than I ever can, so I’ll let him do it for me.

Neckbones’ Rum Diary: The J.M Incident

4 Nov

After boarding the ferry in Dominica, I downed an extra-strength Dramamine. The weather was clear, the waters calm, yet I didn’t want to risk a bout of seasickness before arriving at my destination: the J.M Rum distillery in Martinique.

Keeping my eyes straight ahead and sitting upright, I ignored the young man next to me and the others around me who were retching into plastic bags given out by the ferry’s crew as the boat was pummeled mercilessly in the channel between the two islands, also known, as I found out later as the “Blue Vomit.”

The ferry on the seemingly tranquil “blue vomit.”

With Martinique in sight, I was a bit groggy and wobbly, but my stomach remained intact and, once I exited the ferry onto the streets of Fort-de-France, Martinique’s capital city, a taxi whisked me to the northeast tip of the island to a place known as Macouba. I knew we were close and as the taxi descended down a steep incline, the red copper-tin roofs came into view and I could see the steam from the stills rising from the distillery through the dense greenery of palm fronds.

The distillery in Macouba

As we pulled in front of the old distillery, I smelled the alcohol-tinged cane juice as it was being “cooked” in the stills. Taking a healthy whiff, the vapors immediately restored my equilibrium, still somewhat shaky from the Blue Vomit nightmare.

Passing barrels of rum and ignoring a tour of the facilities, I headed straight to the tasting room/gift shop. A sample of J.M’s velvety white rum improved my situation even further but it wasn’t until I sipped the brand’s  VSOP “rhum vieux”  that I knew I had finally found what I was seeking. The taste was something so pure; so delicately smooth that the horrors of the Blue Vomit were worth the ordeal just to sip this amber nectar.

Stills and barrels of rum

My mission complete, I bought a bottle and returned to Fort-de-France where the next day I was to board a plane to San Juan and then another back to New York.

Keeping my precious cargo close by in my carry on bag, I was instructed by security at the Martinique airport to put the rum in a clear plastic bag. I did as told and was granted access to the plane.

Rushing through San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to make my connection to JFK, I waited on line at security. When it was my turn to pass through the gates, an overzealous customs officer, and most likely a rum aficionado, spied my bottle of J.M.

“You can’t take that on,” he said gruffly.

“But it’s in a clear plastic bag,” I pleaded.

“You could go back and check it in,” he offered, obviously knowing I had no time to do so. “or…I’ll have to take it from you.”

I stared at him. He stared at me and then held out his hand. I had no choice. He took the bottle, hiding a satisfied grin behind his bogus official demeanor.

The shock hit me as I settled into my seat. I was trembling. Once we were in the air and I knew my prized possession was gone, tears came to my eyes.

“Why are you so sad,” the abuela  who was sitting next to me and on her way to visit her daughter and grandchildren in the Bronx,  asked. “Have you left a loved one behind?”

I turned to her, dabbed at my eyes and nodded.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Time will cure your sorrow. Watch the movie. It’s funny.”

I looked up at the small screen. It was something with Adam Sandler. I didn’t laugh.

Even the comedy of Adam Sandler could not penetrate my sorrow.

The wise abuela was right. Time did heal the deep wound of loss. When I first returned to New York, I frantically searched the many liquor stores looking for the J.M VSOP Rhum Vieux, but with no luck. I abandoned my search and resigned myself to settle for other “old” rums.

But then, one evening when dining at a cacophonous, yet delicious high end eatery downtown, my eyes were drawn to the offering of Rhum J.M VSOP on the restaurant’s cocktail menu. My heart pounded. I looked for my waiter and saw him at another table. I waved. I snapped my fingers. I rudely whistled. People were staring. I didn’t care.  I needed him now.

Seeing my frantic state, he rushed over. “I want that!” I pointed to the listing of the J.M VSOP on the menu.

I tried to control my excitement as I waited at my table. I tapped my foot. I chewed on my lower lip. I stroked my cell phone and then it arrived. The beautiful amber fluid, served with just a twist of lime. I sipped. It was exactly how I remembered it. “Where,” I asked my waiter, “can I buy this?”

Liquid gold

He said he would check with the beverage manager. He returned with the name of the liquor store on a business card. I knew the place. I checked my watch. It wouldn’t be open now. I would have to wait until the next day.

I slept little that night, got up early and headed to the store to wait until they opened. As soon as the gates were pulled and the doors unlocked, I rushed in and found the rum section. There it was. The price was astronomical, at least twice what I paid for in Martinique, but I didn’t care. I bought a bottle that came in decorative box.

The rum now sits in a glass cabinet. I have yet to open it. I tried one evening, but I couldn’t do it. If I opened it, I would begin to drink it and eventually, maybe in a month, maybe more, the bottle would be empty. The thought chilled me to the core.

I’ve come now to accept that I will never open it, yet I do not care. It is mine. I possess it. And no one can take it away again…

Mine. All mine.

Harlem’s Sisters

1 Mar

I remember having dual purposes in bringing our group to Sister’s Caribbean Cuisine. It met our criteria as you will read below and I also had been assigned to review it for a weekly New York-based magazine. I felt slightly guilty about reviewing it. Would my coverage of Sister’s in a major glossy destroy the authenticity we seek out for our group? Read my postscript  below to learn the answer.

Sister’s Caribbean Cuisine
47 E. 124th
Harlem

With a few notable exceptions (overpriced Turkish food in remote Sheepshead Bay—thanks Gerry) our group has had little difficulty in meeting our criteria of a $20 per person maximum tab, drinks excluded. Many of our choices have been much less than that; the Old Poland Bakery from earlier this year possibly being the record low. But it’s not only about price with us, it’s also about atmosphere. For our group the ideal atmosphere is no atmosphere. Paper plates and utensils are a good sign. Wobbly tables are encouraging. Friendly waiters and/or owners whom we have to converse with using hand signals due to language difficulties is usually a plus. And, of course, the food must be exciting and genuine. It can’t be dumbed down for a “crossover” clientele. We want what “they” are having; “they” being those who live or work near the establishment usually of the same ethnicity of that particular restaurant.

In many ways, Sister’s Caribbean Cuisine, located in the middle of Harlem across from Marcus Garvey Park, epitomized what we search for. The restaurant was small and much of the business was takeout, but it was sparkling clean and along with a few paintings of Caribbean scenes, curiously and to Eugene’s delight, there was a large photo of the 1980’s Boston Celtics playing on the parquet floor of old Boston Garden. Good R&B from the ‘70’s was playing. Our table was not wobbly, nor did we need sign language to converse with the affable Marlyn, host/owner of Sister’s. But we did eat off paper plates and the menu seemed genuine.

 

 

The food on the menu was primarily Caribbean, though not from one particular island. Marlyn, was from Guyana and her country was represented on the menu by masala curry chicken, chunks of chicken on the bone in a thick, dark brown curry fragrant with Caribbean and East Indian spices, her cooks were from Trinidad and that island’s specialty, roti, curried chicken, beef or vegetables wrapped in an Indian-spiced flatbread was available, as was Jamaican jerk chicken, here minus the smoky flavor from a genuine jerk pit, but tender and fragrant with a mild bite of heat. Salt cod, known as “saltfish” in the Caribbean was stewed in a piquant tomato-based sauce. Marlyn was impressed with our tenacity when we went above and beyond by ordering yet another dish, the oxtail stew, served in the same tomato-based sauce as the codfish.

It wasn’t that the four of us, Zio was absent, back in Glastonbury doing his part in ridding eastern Connecticut of a variety of pests and vermin, could not handle the entrees, it was what came with them. Each entrée was accompanied by a paper plate with two sides that exceeded the size of the entrée. We had piles of rice and peas, the rice speckled with kidney beans and infused with coconut milk. We had callaloo, the Caribbean equivalent of collard greens, here mixed with okra. We had curried chick peas and potatoes, and cabbage and carrots, and string beans, and collard greens, and macaroni and cheese, and corn bread. And, of course, we ate all of it and added three desserts as well; carrot cake, pecan pie, and despite Gerry’s vague “I just don’t like it,” referring to our last choice: red velvet cake. For all that food, and a few drinks, including sweet homemade sorrel and lemonade, our tab was a lowly $45. So, as far as our experience at Sister’s Caribbean Cuisine, in the words of our ignominious commander-in-chief, “mission accomplished.”

 

I now live not far from Sister’s and I am happy to report that despite my review, it remains exactly as it was in 2005. Even the photo of Boston Garden is still on the wall. Though in my recent visit, I chatted with a man working the orders behind the counter. He explained that Marlyn had “retired” but soon her sister (one of the three “Sisters” of Sisters) was about to resume her lead role in running the restaurant. And when she did there might be “some changes.” I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, but I planned on finding out.

%d bloggers like this: