September is a good time to cook at home. Many restaurants in the Virgin Islands cut back hours or close altogether. The doldrums of the tourist season and the height of the hurricane threat are a good time to for many in the industry to take a much-needed break.
But we still have to eat, so on a recent weekend I settled down to a project: prepare a three-course meal at home from St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, a new cookbook by Jane Watkins.
The 120-page soft-bound book is a celebration of the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, a week-long food fete that takes place on St. Croix each spring. The beautifully illustrated cookbook features 100 recipes by island and celebrity chefs, plus a guide to wine pairings in the tropics and snippets of island information.
I like to cook, and I cook a lot—nearly every day. So settling down to cook a meal was not in, in and of itself, that remarkable a thing. But many of the recipes in Food & Wine are, well, a bit sophisticated for the average home cook. Seared Foie Gras with foie gras soup dumplings; Morel Chawan Mushi with sea urchin and fried morel; Duck Confit with raspberry brandy demi; Ancho Chile Chocolate Cake with almond brittle and salted almond ice cream— with hard-to-find ingredients, multi-step recipes, and fussy details and presentation these are precisely the types of dishes I go to restaurants for.
But the cookbook has recipes for the rest of us as well, and I settled on four options which seemed within my reach. (I initially planned on preparing one recipe for each chapter of the book – cocktails, appetizers, soups and stews, entrees, vegetarian and desserts. But that was a bit ambitious, I decided.)
I started with a cocktail, which is not something I would normally prepare at home. I chose The Spirit Tree, by Bartender Jesse Card of Salud! Bistro on St. Croix. After making a simple syrup infused with ginger, lime and tamarind the mixing was extremely easy. I topped our glasses with a slice of lime and, clink, we enjoyed. I have left-over syrup in the fridge which I found can also be mixed with club soda alone for a refreshing non-alcoholic drink. (Well, almost non-alcoholic: the syrup recipe calls for ¼ ounce of 151-proof rum as a preservative.)
For an appetizer I turned to the vegetarian pages of the cookbook, and Chef Jane Lansiquot’s (Annie’s Catering, St.Croix) Vegetarian Meatballs, a Taste of St. Croix winner. The recipe was dead easy, especially with a food processor. After 30 minutes in the oven the meatballs were nicely browned and smelled delicious. The recipe didn’t give any ideas about how to serve them, so I mixed up a quick Russian-style dressing and we dipped away: they didn’t taste anything like meat, but were nicely seasoned and the cheese and nuts gave them substance. (Later on during the week I used leftover meatballs in a tomato sauce over spaghetti and they stood up nicely in the sauce.)
Our entree came from Chef Patrick O. James of the Galleon Restaurant on St. Croix. Grilled Mahi-Mahi with roasted butternut squash mash and lemon herb vinaigrette. What a delicious choice! After roasting the squash for more than an hour it was tender and sweet. I mixed it with butter, salt, pepper and minced scallions and decided to throw in a cup of left-over mashed potatoes, which gave the mash a bit more body. The vinaigrette was easy and fresh, flavoured with fresh lemon juice and a medley of herbs. For the fish I substituted fresh snapper fillets and pan-fried rather than grilled. This was served over top a handful of watercress (the recipe calls for arugula or spicy baby greens and watercress was the closest I could find). The finished plate was a real winner: complementary flavours and textures, and perfectly balanced seasonings.
Because I believe you can never have too many vegetables I also prepared Papaya & Cilantro Salad from Chef Elvet Carty of Herve Restaurant on St. Thomas. Meant to be served with seared scallops as an appetizer, the salad of papaya, peppers, onion and balsamic vinegar made a nice addition to our plates (Though I am curious how it would have tasted with the called-for white balsamic vinegar – I never knew such a thing existed, and clearly the food purveyors of the British Virgin Islands are also in the dark.)
The final hurrah was dessert, and here the choice was extremely easy. Tropical Carrot Cake Cheesecake with gingersnap cookie crust was the winner among desserts at Taste of St. Croix and was developed by students in Central High School’s Culinary Arts Class, 2009, under the leadership of professional chef and teacher Camisha Lynch. The cake is a triumvirate of layers: crumbly cookie crust of crushed gingersnaps and graham crackers; cheesecake flavoured with lemon and almond; and carrot cake enhanced with crushed pineapple and toasted coconut.
If I’d read the recipe a bit more carefully I would have realized that 96 pieces of cake was about 94 more than I really needed: I would have been wise to cut the recipe way down. But I didn’t and once I’d mixed up my three parts I needed a very large pan for them. The recipe does not provide any guidance about how large a pan to use and while my 10×13 inch pan held everything, in retrospect two such size pans would have been better suited to the task. My cake baked more than twice as long as advised and was not particularly attractive when cut and served, but it sure tasted good. The recipe called for the cake to be served with frosting (but didn’t specify what type) and strawberries. I whipped up some cream and added a few berries but with such a rich dessert this seemed like overkill.
Can you freeze leftover cake? With most of a pan still in my fridge, I’m about to find out.
Now that I’ve completed my St. Croix Food & Wine marathon I am excited to dip into the cookbook again. Several more recipes have caught my eye. I need to give soups a try, and Cafe Christine’s Vichyssoise looks like a perfect place to start. The Mango Rum Pulled Pork looks like an excellent project for a cold, rainy day and I the next time I have an abundance of ripe mango I will try Mango Rum Granita by Chef Keith Weitzman of Bernie’s Beach Cafe. Other recipes are interesting to read (Pig Foot Cake, anyone?) but to my mind are too complicated for all but the most advanced home cooks. In the final analysis, the cookbook is a nice, attractive addition to my kitchen bookshelf, and I am sure I will bring it out again and again when I am looking for an island-inspired dish for a special occasion.
St. Croix Food & Wine Experience was written by Jane Watkins with Steve Bennett and Katherine Pugliese. It was published by JWatkins Publishing in 2011 and is available from bookshops in St. Croix and on Amazon for $20. You can also find the cookbook on Facebook.
The 2012 St. Croix Food & Wine Experience will take place from April 17-22, 2012. For more information visit www.stcroixfoodandwine.com.