My (No Longer) Secret Formula

There’s a tradition in Haitian cooking to basically create a homemade rub based on spices that are commonly used. I suppose it makes sense given that more often than not, the cooks are using the same set of spices on all of their meat. I have not adopted this habit for a couple of reasons: 1) It’s usually made in large batches, and I never get around to using the whole batch so it feels wasteful, and 2) I’ve never really quite gotten the hang of what all is going in there.

Technically, you can put whatever you want in there. My mom liked to use parsley, garlic, cloves, and bell peppers. She would take these ingredients (in unspecified amounts), blend them all together, and then store them until she was ready to marinate her meat. Although there were more ingredients included in her marinade (adobo, creole seasoning, salt, chicken base), she wouldn’t include these in her rub (probably because she reserved the right to adjust the seasoning as she saw fit).

While I never got the hang of creating the rub, there is something nice about knowing the base of ingredients I’m going to need. When I learned how to cook, I basically learned how to cook by feel rather than by recipe. In some ways I think that’s better as it allows room for creativity and variance in tastes. However, there’s always room for a baseline, a general idea of where to start from so that at least you know you’re on the right track.

I started this blog for a few reasons, but one of the most important reasons to me was a way to capture real Haitian recipes to share with the world. In forcing myself to measure things out and explain the process, I was hoping for a way to simplify the mystery behind creating a Haitian dish, and I think I’ve discovered a working seasoning recipe that appears to work on chicken, turkey, beef, and pork. I finally figured out my baseline.

Obviously, your tastes and mine may not be the same, but if the goal is to learn to make food the Haitian way, this will at least give you a starting place. So here’s my base formula.

For every pound of meat, I use:
1 teaspoon adobo seasoning
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Creole Seasoning
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon chicken base
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
2 large garlic cloves, minced

I tend to scale up the salt and pepper if adding the meat to a stew, but at it’s core, this is the base for all my meat. I suspect that the larger your amount of meat, the more the scale will change on the seasoning, but I’ve tried this on up to five pounds, and it seems to work perfectly. So, from this point forward, I’ll redirect everyone back to this post when referencing seasoning meat.

The scale may be different, but it’s the same set of seasonings that I’m using for vegetables and rice as well. Is it the only way to do things? No. As my sister mentioned in one of her comments, I don’t think all Haitians use the same spices, but there does seem to be a certain base (that includes garlic, salt, and chicken base) that I think makes it feel authentic.

I’d love feedback on the merits of using a homemade rub (in addition to other spices) versus sticking to my standard set. What do you think?

Everything’s better with flavor

I’ve always wished that I could get excited about eating plain veggies. Wouldn’t it be great if eating a bag of carrot sticks could delight as much as a strawberry or a banana? I’m sure there are people out there who believe this, I’m just not fortunate to be one of them.

It’s not that I’m anti-vegetables, and I don’t go out of my way to avoid them (I know some who do). In fact, there are quite a few vegetables that I love: spinach, broccoli, carrots; I just think they taste better with other things. Technically I feel the same way about meat, but it seems to be expected that you would season meat, but not necessarily so with vegetables.

I once had a conversation with a friend who was attempting to convince me that once he stopped eating meat, he’d been able to discover the real flavor of vegetables and that they were great all by themselves, unlike meat (which all taste the same to him). Sorry, but I’m not a believer. In my opinion, seasoning is used to enhance the flavor of whatever you’re seasoning; with out seasoning, the world would be a sad, bland place.

You may have noticed from my recipes that I have a favorite few: basil, garlic, salt, and black pepper. There are many others, but I feel a meal just can’t go wrong if I add those four ingredients. What are some of your favorites? Whatever they are, I hope you’re including them often and, of course, enjoying a flavorful meal always.

Something for Everyone

When I’m cooking, it’s true that I am usually making Haitian food. That’s not to say I don’t like other cuisines or that I only make Haitian food. For me, it’s usually about sharing the food with people who might otherwise never have it (and it reminds me of home). I will be sharing a few of my American recipes in the next few weeks, but wanted to share some of the American influences on my Haitian cooking.

I should probably note that I’m not keeping the recipes strictly traditional. Don’t get me wrong, they are still very Haitian, but in some cases i’ve added my own flair. For example, a friend of mine asked me last week if I used MSG at all. The answer is no, although traditional Haitian food might have MSG as a lot of Haitians use Maggi Chicken Bouillon, which does contain MSG.

Where it makes sense to me, I’ve made substitutions for products I don’t care to use. Instead of Maggi, I use a product called Better than Bouillon. You can feel free to use any chicken soup base that you like, but look for one that has a pretty good flavor.

I also use a lot of basil, which also isn’t very traditional. My mom makes her own spice rub (for which I will provide a recipe at a later date), but it has a parsley base. Basil has a distinct taste, so you could say it maybe changes the flavor, but the other elements are what is keeping it a Haitian recipe.

The great thing about cooking is you can make substitutions if something doesn’t suit your needs. I know many people who have food allergies or preferences that the original recipe may not accommodate. It doesn’t work for every recipe, but for the most part, I can find something that you can eat if you’re coming to my house for dinner.

If you’ve hesitated to try any of the recipes because the ingredients aren’t to your liking, feel free to swap the seasonings for brands that you like better.

I’d also love your feedback! If you have tried something, do let me know how it came out, or let me know if you have questions about specific substitutions.

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.