Friday, 5 February 2010

Armchair Traveler - The Spice Necklace

The Spice Necklace
A Food-Lover's Caribbean Adventure

Written by Ann Vanderhoof
Hardcover, 480 pages

I have to admit, I really enjoyed this book.
It certainly hasn't been the worst of Canadian winters this year, but the cold stretches out so long that most of us become skeptical that warm weather will ever truly return. We have vague recollections of summer, but it seems so far away. So when I was offered the chance to review a book about one Canadian couple's two year sailing trip and exploration of the Caribbean and West Indies, I knew this was the armchair vacation I needed.

It certainly takes bravery and talent to put your professional life on hold and sail your own boat to the Caribbean, and even more to share such close quarters with your spouse. Ann weaves her adventures as well as her frustrations with humour and grace. Their love of local foods and spices leads them far from the tourist traps and the reader enjoys a taste of each island as they go.
Reading this book I realized that I didn't actually know a lot about the Caribbean and West Indies. Each island stands alone as far as custom and culture goes, and we get to experience that with bits of history and local patois woven into the prose.

The true sign that I loved this book? I ended up talking about it on and on to my husband, my kids, and some of hubby's co-workers. (Sorry 'bout that!)
This is a travel book first, they travel through Grenada, The Dominican Republic, St. Martin, Saba, Dominica, St. Kitts, Carriacou, Petite Martinique, Trinidad, Tobago, The Grenadines, St. Lucia, St. Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe & The Islands of the Saints. Some they stay at for a long time, some they visit briefly, and some they return to. Each one is an opportunity to discover new people, foods, spices, and recipes.
There are recipes at the end of each chapter of the book, so that the reader might have a taste of the Caribbean at home. What more could an armchair-traveling foodie ask for?

Of course I like to whip up a few goodies from each book I read, so I made Ann's Tostones with Garlic–Cilantro Aïoli Dip and Mango Chow.
Generally I don't publish recipes from brand new review books, but these three are already publicly available on the publisher's website. (Thus I chose them)
Yes, technically they are all starters, but together they made a darned fine Caribbean dinner. I almost forgot about winter. Almost.

Tostones (twice-fried green plantains) with Garlic–Cilantro Aïoli Dip
I couldn’t resist buying a tostonera in the DR, a cute, hinged gizmo designed expressly for smashing plantains for tostones. A special tool isn’t really necessary, though: the flat side of a cleaver or other broad knife, a pounder for tenderizing meat, or the bottom of a small heavy saucepan will do the job perfectly well. Eat the tostones while they’re still warm. They don’t keep well— but there likely won’t be any left to worry about. AV

3 to 4 unripe (green) plantains
Oil for shallow frying
Sea salt

Serve with: Garlic–Cilantro Aïoli Dip
(recipe follows)

1. Peel plantains: Cut off both ends and cut each plantain in half crosswise. On each half, make three slits down the length of the peel all the way through to the flesh. Remove the sections of skin with your fingers.

2. Slice the plantains crosswise about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick.

3. Heat about 1/4 inch (5 mm) of oil in a large heavy frying pan on medium heat and fry plantain slices until lightly browned on the flat sides.

4. As they brown, remove slices to paper towel to drain. Reserve oil in frying pan.

5. Cool a couple of minutes, then put slices in cold salted water (about 1 tbsp [15 mL] salt per cup [250 mL] of water) for about 5 minutes.

6. Drain. Place slices between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap, and pound to flatten. Slices should be about double the diameter, and a scant 1/2 inch (1 cm) thick.

7. Reheat oil in frying pan, and fry slices again on both sides, about 1 1/2 minutes per side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately with Garlic–Cilantro Aïoli for dipping.

Makes 4 to 6 snack-size servings

I am totally addicted to these. If you haven't tried them - do it! Plantains are sort of potato-bananas. Starchy and sweet at the same time. N

Mango Chow
This is probably the all-time favorite snack on Receta. It’s quick to make, requires only five ingredients, and can be adapted to whatever fruit is in season. The recipe is meant to be only a general guideline: “Make it to your taste,” the Trinis say. AV

2 unripe or half-ripe mangoes, peeled and sliced (see Tips, below)
1/4 cup finely chopped chadon beni or cilantro 50 mL
1/4 to 1/2 Scotch bonnet or other finely chopped hot pepper (preferably red, for color)
2 tsp coarse kosher or sea salt 10 mL
1/2 lime

1. Place mangoes in a serving bowl. Add some of each of the remaining ingredients and toss well.

2. Taste and adjust balance of hot/tart/salty/sweet by adding more of the ingredients as you please. Serve with toothpicks to accompany drinks.

Makes 4 to 6 snack-size servings.

• While an authentic Trini chow uses completely unripe fruit, we like it with just a hint of sweetness and use mangoes that are about half ripe.

• Try the same technique with cucumbers, wedges of mandarin orange (the Trinis use a similar fruit called “portugals” in season), pomme cytheres (also called golden apples) or any half-ripe crisp fruit such as pineapple, guavas, or even unripe peaches or tart green apples.

Mmm, tastes like summer! I love the heat from the peppers against the sour/sweet mangoes.

Garlic–Cilantro Aïoli Dip
Put 2 garlic cloves, cut into slivers, in 2 tbsp (25 mL) olive oil and set aside at room temperature to steep for about 30 minutes. Remove garlic, and combine the oil with 1 tbsp (15 mL) fresh lime juice, 1 tbsp (15 mL) finely chopped cilantro, and 1/2 cup (125 mL) mayonnaise. Add salt to taste. AV

• For a curry aïoli: Heat the garlic oil in a small frying pan and stir in about 1 tbsp (15 mL) of curry powder. Continue to cook for a few minutes to remove the raw taste of the curry. Allow to cool, then mix with enough of the mayonnaise to thin to dipping consistency. Add salt to taste.

• Both dips can be made ahead.

That marinating the garlic in the oil and then draining it trick works amazing! This was perfect for dipping the crunchy tostones in, and also for topping a couple of avocados. No such thing as too much of a good thing!

More information at