Thursday, June 12, 2008

The use of traditional Caribbean herbs in unorthodox cooking

People are always asking me the best way to incorporate Caribbean herbs into their recipes. I hope this helps to answer those questions. Happy cooking everybody!

*** *** ***

One June, a few years ago, some friends and I were enjoying a lovely evening sailing around the islands of the Caribbean. It was a small party with just myself, my friends Loudin Obnoxious, DaftMonk, Juan, “bringing crystal pepsi back,” Beck, a keg of Killians, and a few chicks we had picked up from St. John’s. Out of nowhere a squall appeared that destroyed our boat and left us stranded on a small, deserted island.

All three women were lost at sea and Loudin and suffered a compound fracture, half of his femur poking through the skin of his leg. Everybody else survived with little more than bruises and small cuts. Luckily, the keg also survived, along with a few other odds and ends from our sailing party.

With careful rationing of the keg, we were able to stay hydrated for a week, even though we didn’t have any food. We lost weight and soon our bodies started eating our own muscles to survive. Juan and Beck tried catching fish with their bare hands, but were more often than not unsuccessful.

By the time the beginning of July rolled around, everybody was three quarters dead. I decided then that I wouldn’t die on that island, so I took things into my own hands. That night I bludgeoned my weak friends with the mostly empty keg, in their sleep. They didn’t have the energy to fight back.

When the morning came around I decided to look around the island to see what I could find. Imagine my surprise when I discovered fresh clumps of local oregano, thyme, basil, nutmeg, some ginger roots, green onions and even some scotch bonnet peppers! I knew that if I could bring all these herbs and peppers together into some kind of meal I would be able to survive my ordeal on the island and even celebrate the Fourth of July the next morning!

Bringing everything back to our camp, I got to work. I was able to pull the visible portion of bone out of Loudin’s leg and sharpened it to a crude edge on a nearby rock. With a serviceable knife in hand, I was able to chop and grind the herbs and roots. When it came to the leaves, I simply crushed them to release their essential oils.

I was also able to use the bone knife to cut up my friends. The key there was to cut at the bone joints for ease in separation. This being my first time eating people, I wasn’t sure which would be the best parts to eat. So I cut a few filets of thigh, a few hunks of pectoral and glutes. Luckily, my friend Juan was a large guy, so there was a lot of meat on him. I also made sure to cut out a few livers for the vitamins and other healthy attributes of that organ.

I then gathered a lot of wood to create a fire and to make a spit on which to cook the meat. With my limited resources, I felt that spit roasting would be the best method of cooking.

I could have instead found large, flat rocks and thrown them into the fire until they were properly heated and then placed the meat on top to let the heat come through from the rock below, but it would have taken much longer to heat the rocks and I wanted the food to cook evenly. Plus, on the healthy side, cooking by spit allows the fat to fall off the meat. The bad thing is that the falling fat can cause fire flare-ups, so you have to keep an eye on that. Using a match I had hidden in my pocket, I started the fire and gave it time to develop a nice bed of coals for cooking.

By this time it was the early afternoon, a perfect time to prepare the meat for cooking!

I started by grinding a handful each of the thyme, basil, oregano (to give it a nice local island flavor) nutmeg and ginger together with a little beer to create a kind of rub/paste that I slathered all over the pectoral and thigh filets and let them sit in the shade under a tree for four hours, so that the meat would absorb all those delicious flavors.

With the hunks of glute, I stuffed them with a few scotch bonnet peppers and green onions and even a little beer to add moisture and texture to spread throughout the meat, from the inside out.

I decided to keep it simple with the livers. I rolled up them up with the wild onions and oregano inside and tied them into a roll with a shoestring. With all of my food prepared, it was time to cook!

To keep the meat from cooking unevenly I decided to use a double-spit. Much like that rotisserie that Ron Popeil talks about on TV. Because I had to insert to sticks into the meat it made more sense to try and keep the meat as flat as possible, so that I could flip it, instead of trying to rotate it. With the livers, I decided to tie them to the spit sticks instead of trying to insert the sticks through the meat.

Based on the type of meat, I decided to cook everything to about a medium level of doneness. This meant about 8 minutes of roasting for each pound of meat. This method worked well, leaving the filets crispy and done on the outside, but slightly pink and moist in the center. The livers were done to a uniform brownish/gray when I took them off, with pink spirals where the shoestrings and wrapped around. The hunks of glute were brown on the inside with a pink center that smelled deliciously of onion. With the food done cooking (after about two hours) I got to eating!

Since everything was an experiment I wasn’t sure how all my friends would taste. Some of my friends were white, some black. Some really thin and some had some muscle from going to the gym. I didn’t know if lifestyle and diet would play a large factor in the meat’s taste. I discovered that my friends who liked to go to the gym had tougher, more stringy meat, while my friends who liked to chill out in front of the TV and drink all day had more tender, fatty meat, kind of like those Kobe cows.

In the end, because I was starving, everything was delicious, though I preferred the pectoral filets the most, and I washed it all down with the left over beer. And while wearing a jaunty party hat, I declared that it was truly a Fourth of July to remember. Though next time I’ll be sure to bring salt.

*** *** ***

So, I’m thinking about sending this article into Cooks Illustrated, for their summer issue. What do you think?

No comments: