Enough to Feed an Army

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My best friend is in town! In addition to all the fun we’re going to have and sights we’re going to see, it also means an opportunity to feed people. I may have mentioned it a time or two, but it’s worth mentioning again how much I love to feed my friends and I take every opportunity I get to share my cooking.

My mom loves to have people over (although I’m still not sure she likes to cook) and loves it when people enjoy her food. For us, having company meant having food to share; learning to cook my mother’s way meant that I learned to cook with the intent of having something to offer to others.

When people came over to visit (either planned or unplanned), I learned through observing that offering food was a sign of hospitality (not having food to offer didn’t really seem to be an option). We actually weren’t big on leftovers ourselves, but cooking in large batches means you always have food to share. So, it is perhaps because of the constant flow of people that when I learned how to cook, I learned to cook in large batches.

pots

Every Haitian kitchen I’ve ever been in has a lot of rather large pots (kind of like the pots in this picture) and the fridge always appeared really well stocked. There’s something great about having all burners going and the wonderful smells of home cooking. Even better than that is the joy of sitting with your friends, enjoying the company and the food.

Some of my favorite memories are of my mom’s dinner parties. It’s not just the food, it’s the friendship and happiness that comes with it. I love how food can bring a group of people together and how it can help change the mood of a room, and I believe that you really can’t get to know someone until you eat with them. Friends would come over to the house, and we didn’t even have to be doing much; it was just an opportunity for good conversation and to enjoy each other’s company.

I know that not everyone loves to have large groups over for dinner, so I’m trying to scale down the recipes for the blog (because I know that life’s not always a party) but especially for the party foods, they will usually be party sized. If you don’t like leftovers, this will just give you an excuse to invite some friends over to share the joy.

The Importance of a Good Butcher

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One of my all-time favorite party foods is Griot (Haitian fried pork). Not only do I love the flavor, but since it was generally only served at parties, for me it will always be tied to a good time and fond memories.

As I mentioned last week, there were certain things that were so easy to find in most grocery stores, and finding pork shoulder cut in to small pieces (which is what the recipe calls for) was easy to find, much like finding beef for beef stew or chicken drumsticks. Can you even imagine going into a grocery store and not being able to find chicken pre-packaged and ready to go?

Technically, pork shoulder was always available, but it only came in roast form. I tried a few times to ask at the meat department (in multiple grocery stores) if they could just cut it for me, but they looked at me like I was insane. One person even told me they had to go ask their manager about it like it was seriously that big a deal.

In the interest of removing aggravating scenarios from my grocery shopping, I decided to just pick up the whole roast and then go home and cut it myself. It was then that I realized that I’d signed up for a project that I was unequipped to handle. I spent hours trying to cut that roast, and considered giving up halfway through. There were people coming, though, and I had promised a Haitian dish. Since I already had the pork, I persevered, but I vowed that this would be the last time I made this dish in Seattle.

I suppose I could talk about the importance of a good knife as well, but what I quickly decided was that if I wanted to save time, I’d better find a good butcher who would happily cut the pork for me.

The experience was night and day. They didn’t look at me strangely; they didn’t flinch or go for backup when I asked them to cut my pork shoulder as if for a stew. They just cut it, and then asked what I was making and inquired about what made it different. And I vowed always to get my pork from the friendly butchers.

Fair warning about the recipe: it’s definitely party-sized because this is generally a party food. Since it’s made for sharing, be sure to invite your friends to enjoy it with you.

Griot (Haitian Fried Pork)

Ingredients:
5 lbs of Pork Shoulder, cubed (like you would cut for stew)
2 limes
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 teaspoons season salt
3 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoon adobo
5 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon Creole Seasoning
1 teaspoon chicken base
1 teaspoon Mrs. Dash Table Blend
7 cups water
1 quart frying oil

Directions:
1. Clean the pork shoulder with 1 1/2 limes; save the last 1/2 for later.
2. Rinse with cold water and drain.
3. Mix in remaining ingredients (including juice from the 1/2 lime) except for water and oil and toss.
4. Refrigerate overnight (or for at least 4 hours).
5. Cook on high heat with 7 cups of water for one hour (or until tender). Add water as necessary to prevent from drying.
6. Add the oil to a deep pan and heat on high for 5-10 minutes (it should be hot enough to sizzle). Reduce heat to medium.
7. Fry the pork in the oil for 1 minutes or until golden.*

*You may have to do this in batches depending on the size of your pan. The pork should be completely submerged in the oil for even frying. I actually use a deep fryer, which makes to frying more consistent and less messy.

When Life Gives You Limes

Haitian cooking uses a lot of limes. Not lemons; we never used lemons in our house as my mom is a firm believer in the power of the lime. We used it for cleaning, for medicinal purposes, as well as in food. Have a cut or a sore throat? Limes are good for that. Need to clean your meat? That’s what limes are for. How about juice or tea? Then you’re definitely going to need limes. Limes are the one thing I will always consistently have in my kitchen.

You’ll notice most of my recipes use limes for cleaning meat. I’m not sure where this tradition started, but the cleansing process is a very important step in Haitian cooking, and the lime is the traditional method for cleaning. This process was so ordinary to me, I was under the mistaken impression that this was how most people cooked.

It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle that I realized how much of life I took for granted. I ran in to people who had never even met a Haitian before, let alone had any Haitian food. I quickly realized that if I wanted Haitian food, I was probably going to have to make it myself. Unfortunately, in this new place, one of the most interesting challenges I faced was where to get my groceries. There were tons of grocery stores, of course, but not a single one of them seemed to sell all the items I was used to finding easily.

In New York (at least in Spring Valley and the places I lived in Brooklyn), if you walk in to a grocery store, you can expect to find key ingredients for Haitian cooking: plantains, scotch bonnet peppers, beans, rice, spices. Unfortunately, this isn’t the same in Seattle and so I had to find a way to make the best of my surroundings.

The good news is, I’ve been able to find most of the things I need or make substitutions, and what I learned will help me (and you) in finding these things a whole lot faster in the event I’m not in a town without a large Haitian population.

Finding limes was easy enough (although significantly more expensive); finding spices and decent vegetables took a little more work. And then I learned that almost everything I needed could be found at the nearest Asian or Hispanic market.

The food is different, so it never occurred to me that we might be using similar ingredients. Thankfully, I discovered that the basic ingredients were close enough to find exactly what I was looking for (or at least a decent substitution). I still can’t find scotch bonnets, but I can find habaneros; I may not be able to find djon-djon, but at least I can find rice and beans. And the next time I happen to be in a city where there aren’t a lot of Haitians, I know I can go to alternative markets to find what I’m looking for.

Variations on a Theme

Red Beans and Rice

If there was one thing I could count on being a part of most dinners and every dinner party, it was rice and beans. I ate so much of it as a kid that I thought I didn’t like it. As an adult, I realize it’s actually really good (as long as I don’t have to eat it every day).

Rice and beans are a staple of Haitian cuisine. Honestly, it’s such a big part of the culture, a recipe for this probably should have been included in my first post. The reason it wasn’t is because I was having trouble deciding which kind of rice and beans I wanted to post about.

There are so many kinds of Haitian rice and beans: red beans, pinto beans, black beans, peas, djon djon (black rice), as well as a healthy variety of bean sauces. My favorite of these is black rice, but since it’s the hardest to make (given that getting your hands on a key ingredient is difficult), I knew I couldn’t start with that one.

I mentioned in my last post that most recipes are very rarely named, and this is no different. Other than black rice, rice is usually referred to as just rice. Since beans are a given, I very rarely hear anyone mention the fact that the rice includes beans, let alone what type of beans. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I realized that rice came without beans for most people. The first time I ever tried rice pilaf, I was very disappointed. Trust me, that’s not the same experience.

Most of the recipes I post will likely contain the same set of spices with only slight variations on the main ingredients. In other words, if you don’t like the kind of beans or rice I’m posting about, you can likely just switch them out for another type. Also, for my vegetarian or vegan friends, this recipe will work without chicken base; feel free to use a vegetable base or just leave it out entirely.

I will post a recipe for rice and peas, black rice, as well as various bean sauces in the future, but for now, I give you the most basic of basic Haitian recipes.

Before I post the recipe, I did have one favor to ask: if you’re reading this and trying the recipes, I’d love your feedback! Please let me know if you try any of them and how they came out.

Red Beans & Rice

Ingredients:
1 cup dried red beans
6 teaspoons olive oil
3 cups jasmine rice
1 habanero pepper
6 cups water
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoons seasoned salt
1 1/4 teaspoon chicken base
1 teaspoon adobo seasoning
1/2 teaspoon Creole Seasoning
4 large cloves garlic, minced

Directions:
1. Clean the beans (remove any bad beans; rinse with cold water).*
2. In a medium pot, add beans, water, 3 teaspoons of olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and ½ the garlic.
3. Boil the beans on high heat for one hour or until tender. Add water as necessary to keep from drying.
4. While the beans are boiling, clean the rice (remove any bad rice, rinse with cold water, and drain). Set aside.*
5. In another large pot, add the olive oil, black pepper, remaining salt and garlic, chicken base, adobo seasoning, and Creole Seasoning along with two tablespoons of cooked beans and stir on high heat for one minute.
6. Add four cups of water from the cooked beans and the remaining beans. If you don’t have four cups, add hot water.
7. Add the habanero and bring to a boil.
8. Add the rice and stir so that the beans are well mixed with the rice. Be careful not to pop the habanero!
9. Boil until water is mostly evaporated (about 2-3 minutes).
10. Turn the heat to low and cover the rice. Cook for 20 minutes or until rice is tender.

*When cleaning, “bad” rice or beans tend to rise to the top of cold water immediately. Be sure to take these out. Also, look for any overly shriveled beans, rice that isn’t white, or any particles and remove them.