The Versitile Fruit

I love plantains. It’s a fruit that is in the same family as the banana, but unlike the yellow banana, a plantain can’t be eaten raw. It’s also a fruit that can act like a vegetable, which makes it even more awesome in my book.

Last week, I mentioned that cooking for myself is important. Chances are that if I’m cooking for myself (or a small group of people), it’s almost positively going to involve plantains. I’ve had plantains for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; I’ve had them boiled, baked, fried, and pureed. They can be eaten when they are green and ripe but also when they are practically black and old. They are great with protein (like eggs for breakfast or griot for dinner) or in a soup, but I’m also happy to have them alone. It is without a doubt one of my favorite foods.

I often serve fried pressed plantains as an appetizer, but one of my all-time favorite dishes is plantain porridge (labouyi bannann). I believe this is typically served at dinner in Haiti, but I’m also perfectly happy to have it for breakfast as well. It’s one of the dishes that friends and family will usually make for me when I go back to visit New York as a way to show they’ve missed me and want to share something they know I’ll appreciate.

You might be asking how this fruit can turn in to porridge. I’m not sure that the translation is totally accurate, but once prepared, it sort of has the same consistency as cream of wheat (which is why it probably always seemed more like a breakfast food to me). Although I think of this as one of the ultimate comfort foods, it’s not one that I normally serve to guests, but I love making for myself. It’s filling, fairly fast and easy to make; it’s one of the only foods that I don’t mind having for leftovers; and it’s guaranteed to be worth the time it took to make.

I do have a couple of friends who mentioned that they’d like to try non-party Haitian food, and so I occasionally serve them some of the food I would make for myself (or family) but not for a large crowd. The traditional recipe calls for evaporated milk, but since one of my friends is lactose intolerant, I’ve also tried this with soy and rice milk, so feel free to swap out the milk in the recipe for one that you prefer.

Plantain Porridge

Ingredients:
1 green plantain
1/2 can evaporated milk
1/4 cup finely grated coconut (or coconut milk)
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
Pinch grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon lime zest
1/4 cup sugar (or to taste)

Directions:
1. Peel the plantain and cut into 1/2 inch slices.*
2. Add the plantain and 1 cup of water and blend until smooth.
3. In a small pot, add 1 cup of water, cinnamon stick, coconut, and star anise and bring to a boil on high heat.
4. Lower the heat to medium and stir the plantain puree into the boiling water.
5. Cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent from clumping.
6. Stir in the milk, sugar, lime zest, and vanilla extract and cook for an additional 5 minutes while stirring.

*To peel the plantain, cut off the ends (about an inch on each end) and slice the peel from one end to the other (be sure not to cut in to the plantain itself, but also be sure to cut through the whole peel). Remove the peel by pulling the peel away from the incision you just made from top to bottom (or use a knife). If the peel is not coming away easily, try making another incision on the opposite side and then peeling.

Life’s not Always a Party

dinner for one

My posts so far have been about dinner parties and the food I tend to serve to my guests. Part of me thinks it would be great if life was always that much fun, but the reality is that I can’t have large dinner parties every day (or even every week). So what do I do when I don’t have other people to feed?

My parents (like most Haitian parents I know) were not the biggest fans of eating out. I can’t say I blame them: the food my mom could make at home usually tasted better and was less expensive. Unfortunately, though I am usually pretty selective about what I eat (so at least it tastes good), I’ve adopted the more American mentality of eating out.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who doesn’t like to cook. She says she ends up snacking a lot (rather than eating a proper meal) because it seems easier than having to cook for herself. I’ll admit it, there is something that feels easier about either eating out or eating something that requires no forethought (like a bowl of cereal). But just like I can’t eat party food every day, I know it’s better for me to put some thought in to what I’m eating most of the time.

I wish I loved cooking for just myself as much as I love cooking for others, but the truth is often seems like much more work. I don’t like leftovers most of the time, and there are a lot of fresh ingredients that aren’t scaled to the single-serve audience. I don’t like to waste food unnecessarily, which means I have to get really creative with what I’m making for the everyday meal.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a grocery store that catered to the single person who wanted to cook for themselves (but that wouldn’t charge you double the price for half the product)? While I’m waiting for someone to turn that idea in to reality, I do believe that it is possible to shop (and cook!) for the individual—it just requires more planning.

Eating is generally a social event, and I do love a good crowd. However, there is something particularly satisfying about caring enough for yourself to put in the effort to make a meal that only you will get to enjoy. I’ve also realized it’s better for my budget and my health to stay in more often than I go out.

It’s still a work in progress, but my goal is to be better about treating myself to good home-made food more often. Next week’s post will include a recipe for one of my favorite solo recipes.

 

 

Not Just for Special Occasions

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In last week’s post, I mentioned that I don’t know my wine, and to be fair, I’m not much a connoisseur of alcohol in general. However, there is one special Haitian beverage that I think deserves a post.

It’s called Kremas in Haitian Creole, and it’s a decadent, rich, sweet adult beverage similar to eggnog. When I was younger, it was very rare to see a bottle of Kremas, and maybe because of this, it was doled out in extremely small quantities. At best, you were going to get half a shot glass, and there would be no seconds. It would come out of someone’s fridge (or cupboard) in an unlabeled bottle.

I’d say that Kremas was even rarer than the elusive Haitian cake. The first time I tried it, however, I definitely wanted to be able to go back for more. Why would we be so stingy with such greatness?

I couldn’t find anyone who knew how to make it, personally, but I once again took to the internet to see if I could find a recipe.

The first time I made this, I remember the shock on people’s faces: “Wait, where did you get a bottle???” they cried. When I proudly pronounced that I had made it, the reactions were priceless. Yes, friends, somewhere out there, people are writing these things down, and I have joined their ranks.

It’s a pretty simple recipe, and there are also many variations out there. When I found a recipe that looked promising, my biggest challenge was finding a container large enough to mix it in. As with most Haitian cuisine, the recipe was apparently designed to share. Even for me, this was a little too much, so I’ve scaled it down (and made other slight modifications). If you’re planning on sharing a bottle, this recipe can also be scaled up so that you have more to share. I also highly suggest either purchasing a glass bottle to store it in or using an old wine bottle (those wasted bottles of White Zinfandel did finally come in handy!).

The beauty of learning how to make this is that I no longer have to wait for someone else’s special occasion to bring this out, and it no longer has to be served in thimbles.  Granted, I wouldn’t suggest drinking a whole cup (it is a little rich), but you should at least give your guests an opportunity to really taste and enjoy it.

I usually serve this along with dessert as I think it goes best with Haitian cake, but sometimes I’ll serve it alone if the mood is right.

Kremas (Haitian Eggnog)

Ingredients:
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
½ 15-ounce can cream of coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
3 anise stars
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
½ lime (for zest and juice)
1/3 bottle dark rum (or to taste)

Directions:
1. Mix all ingredients in a large pitcher.
2. Strain and pour into bottles using a funnel.

More to Wine than Manischewitz

red-wine1I have a confession: I don’t know much about wine. This was mostly a non-issue for me before moving to Seattle because most of my friends and family in NY didn’t know about wine, either. When I moved here, I realized how much serving wine was actually a part of the culture; having people over for dinner generally meant having wine to serve them.

In keeping with my philosophy that what goes in my mouth should taste good, I’m mostly a fan of picking up brands that I think I’ll find tasty. We could argue that knowledge gives you a different sense of what tastes good, and maybe once you’ve had a really good wine it’s hard to go back to bad ones, but ultimately it’s still just a matter of preference (of course, with my limited knowledge, I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that wine can be used to enhance the flavor of a meal). My mother’s preference was for Manischewitz.

I know what you’re likely thinking, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I’m sure most wine enthusiasts would be appalled by this, or the fact that it was actually occasionally served to guests at parties (either that or White Zinfandel), but no one ever seemed to be bothered by this. To be fair, wine (or alcohol in general) weren’t standard parts of the meal. They were very occasional and usually precipitated by someone asking if they could bring something. If someone mentioned wine, though, someone was likely breaking out a bottle of Manischewitz.

With that background in mind, I was at a severe disadvantage when I moved. Most of my guests would offer to bring wine, but I like to make sure my guests don’t have to worry about bringing anything which meant I wanted to be the one to buy the wine.

At one of my very first dinner parties here, I did the unthinkable and actually brought out a bottle of White Zinfandel. In my mind, this was the classy wine, and definitely a step up from Manischewitz. The bottle went untouched as several of my guests (who apparently don’t like showing up empty handed) had all decided to bring a bottle of “real” wine. I was thankful (if slightly embarrassed) for the lesson and to my guests for deciding to bring the wine, anyway. I also realized I was going to have to learn a thing or two about wine.

How do you go about picking your wine? I’m betting that most people aren’t taking long wine classes or even doing massive internet searches for how to pair wine with a meal. I still don’t know much, but at least I’m no longer serving the undrinkable. While I’ve also usually got a bottle or two of wine on hand, for the most part, I’ve decided to let my guests bring the wine, and focus on the things that I do know.

The Real Haitian Cake

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Dessert was a rare thing growing up. I’m not sure if it’s just because my mom doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, if it was more that she doesn’t like to bake, or that Haitians in general aren’t very big on dessert. Whatever the reason, we very rarely had dessert with an average meal.

I know of a handful of Haitian desserts, but the most common one seemed to be Haitian cake, and even that seemed to be limited to weddings and graduation parties (I can only assume that it came standard at those events because someone wanted a place to write someone’s name and say congratulations).

I’m a fan of desserts, though, and I’ve kind of adopted the American mentality that a dinner party isn’t complete without something sweet. My mom used to have guests bring the dessert for dinner parties, and I kind of defaulted to that for a while. However, given that I think Haitian food is the best, and that a good number of my friends had never had any Haitian food before meeting me, I wanted to give them a way to experience as much Haitian food as I could possibly dream up, which meant creating a dessert.

Unfortunately, because my baking experience is admittedly limited, and the recipe for Haitian cake seemed to be a well-hidden secret reserved for the one or two bakers in town, I went through a process of trial and error trying to come up with a real Haitian cake.

I scoured the internet looking for the right recipe, but everything always seemed slightly off. I finally found one that came close, but some of the measurements for the ingredients and the instructions resulted in a few disasters. After much trial and error, I’m happy to say that I was finally able to come up with something I think really works.

The recipe calls for rum and vanilla extract. If you can get your hands on some Barbancourt or Haitian Vanilla, you’ll end up with a real authentic cake, but feel free to substitute your favorite brand of rum and/or vanilla extract since those ingredients may be hard to come by.

I should mention that the recipe will make two cakes (or two layers, depending on what you do with it). Also, even when it was available, my mom always made sure we took off the frosting before we ate the cake (which is why I still eat cake without it). Since I’m not a big fan of frosting, I haven’t included a recipe for it below. However, if you feel like you just can’t live without it (or if you, too, need a way to write a name on the cake), I’d recommend a cream cheese frosting.

Vanilla Lime Rum Cake (Haitian Cake)

Ingredients:
1 lime zest
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups of sugar
2 sticks of butter
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 can evaporated milk
pinch of salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons of vanilla extract

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Using an electric mixer, mix sugar, eggs, butter, and lime zest on low speed for about five minutes.
3. Stir in rum, evaporated milk, and flour and turn the mixer to medium-low.
4. Add salt, baking powder, and vanilla extract and mix well for about 25 minutes until the mixture is smooth and fluffy.
5. Grease two 8” baking pans and pour the battered mixture into both pans (fill each only halfway to allow room for the cake to rise).
6. Bake both pans together for about 35 minutes. (To test, insert a knife or toothpick in the center of the cake. It is fully baked if it comes out clean).

P.S. I’ve been adding frosting to this recently. While I still prefer unfrosted, apparently most people disagree. This is a picture of the finished product.

Cream cheese and coconut frosting

Cream cheese and coconut frosting