Can Cook, Must Cook

The food adventures of Franka P, a Trinidadian journalist living in London, UK. I'll write about my forays into all types of food and cooking, particularly Caribbean food. I'll also review books and recipes by the leading food writers and talk about the issues making headlines in the gastronomic world.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Warm food memories

I was looking at a message board on a food site and I came across a thread about 'food that evokes good memories'. Although I've eaten good food at restaurants, some of the most memorable meals I've eaten over the years has been at the homes of friends and family.
The best food in the world is usually simple and cooked with lots of love.

My list of great food memories is in no particular order but I have to put my mom's food at the top of the list, where it belongs. Madge is an exponent of keeing it simple and playing to her strengths and that is what I've taken from her.
These are the things she does best: pelau (which tastes better when it's a day old), ochro and rice, macaroni pie, lentil peas, porridge, red beans, fish broth, stew chicken, stew flying fish, coconut bake, saltfish buljol, wholewheat bread, black cake, black cake, black cake, sweetbread, sweetbread, sweetbread. If I could only make sweetbread like my mother!!
It's all about Aggie's Tofu Nut Balls. Aggie was the first person to cook tofu for me about ten years ago. I'm sure if I didn't have such a pleasant introduction to bean curd, I wouldn't like it at all today.
I think the secret to Aggie's tofu nut balls was the delicate seasoning and a perfect ratio of nuts to tofu.
Auntie Mavis is a great cook but what I love most is her fish balls. Somehow I seem to remember the fish balls being accompanied by lentils, yummy!! I wonder if I could get the recipe from her???
I have a load of adopted aunts and one of my favourites is Auntie Molly. She's a gentle lady who is like an Italian mama in the way she likes to ensure that you're really well fed when you're at her house. Her roti has this melt in your mouth quality that no roti shop could ever top!
Not far behind Auntie Molly in the roti making stakes is Cherrie's mum Nora. That's another homemade roti that melts in your mouth.
One of the simplest and most satisfying things I've ever eaten is cornmeal porridge.
Sally (Auntie Molly's sister) made it for me when I went to drop something at her house one morning. It was supposed to be a flying visit and I was eventually late for work but for that porridge it was well worth it.
If you've followed this blog from the beginning, you'd know that I love oxtail, especially oxtail soup. My friend EJ's oxtail soup is so good, he could sell it to Marks and Spencer or Harrods! EJ's oxtail soup is the perfect comfort food on a grey, sad winter day.
Roast bake is one of my favourite things. It's a staple in the Trini food repertoire and since most people learn to make it by watching their mothers and grandmothers, there's no one recipe and no two homemade roast bakes are ever the same.
For the non-Trinis who might be reading this, let me explain what bake is. It's an unleavened bread and one of its main ingredients is usually finely grated coconut. These days, health conscious bake makers leave out the coconut and use wheatgerm, sesame seeds and the like.
Pearl Eintou Springer is a poet, librarian and cultural activist and I think she should add bake maker extraordinaire to that!
Her bake isn't really 'bready', it's more delicate and the dough comes apart in soft layers in the way that a flaky pastry does. It's difficult to explain but just know that Eintou's bake tastes amazing.
There's also fried bake, also known as float or johnny cakes in different parts of the Caribbean. I think the key to great fried bake is to roll out each bake quite thinly and make sure the oil is really hot so it cooks through quickly and isn't oily.
My father's sister Auntie Doo Doo has this down to a fine art. I had her bake on my first visit to New York, when I was nine. There's a bit of a story behind this. For some strange reason, Daddy thought I didn't like fried bake, so he told Auntie Doo Doo not to make too many because I won't eat them. He was so wrong!
Not a lot people can boast of having friends who are trained chefs. I'm glad to say I have two cheffy friends.
Debbie Sardinha-Metivier is the first woman to become an executive chef in a Hilton in the Americas and she's one of the region's leading chefs.
Debbie did some baked fish for me at her home a few years back and I was totally bowled over. Being fed by Debbie is an honour and it's an opportunity for which a lot of people pay very handsomely these days!
Denise is also a trained chef, at no less a place than the Culinary Institute of America. Unfortunately, she hasn't found a space where she could enjoy cooking for a living and that's a shame.
Denise comes from a Chinese background, so hanging out with her was something of an education in traditional Chinese food. One dish I remember distinctly was tenderly poached chicken with watercress soup. I wasn't only impressed by the taste but also by how so few ingredients could make such a great meal.
For most people, cooking is a necessity not a pleasure. That's the case with Sharon. She's not a dab hand in the kitchen but she loves to eat. She's also a woman with very good taste so even if she's buying in food, it'll be good.
Sharon's favourite is Ragu and pasta, I know it sounds ordinary but it's not as idiotproof a dish as it sounds. To Sharon's credit, she's one of the few people I know who can cook pasta perfectly - al dente. That perfectly cooked pasta and Ragu with extra herbs for more flavour and a bit of cheese was the ideal fast food before heading out to lime.
When I was at university in Trinidad, I had the pleasure of managing the Student Union bar and cafe. It was there that I met Mary Samuel, a very hearty Tobagonian woman who cooks like an angel.
Mary is an extremely versatile cook but she was at her best when doing proper Tobago dishes. Her Curry Crab and Dumpling is the stuff of legend and my Friday evening would not be complete without Mary's Curry Crab and Dumpling and a cold Carib beer.
From Tobago to Barbados and Ma Graham's sumptuous Green Fig Coo Coo. I stayed at Ma Graham's home for a few weeks in 1986 and she was the perfect host. It was also the first time I had mashed green fig (green bananas) that was as soft as mashed potatoes.
She mashed the boiled figs by hand with lots of butter, milk, garlic, salt and white pepper. It was divine served with well-seasoned fried flying fish. Ma Graham passed away a few years ago but she left some indelible food memories behind.

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