Over on Salon.com, food writer Francis Lam, formerly of Gourmet, hosts a weekly food writing and recipe challenge, the Salon Kitchen Challenge. Francis announces a theme, as broad as “a meal for someone you love” or as narrow as “egg salad.” The prize is the honor of being selected by such a talented food writer, as well as publication in the Food section of Salon. I’ve entered weekly since mid-December, believe it or not, and have been lucky enough to have been selected four times. I’ll be posting my upcoming weekly entries here, and reposting some of my older ones, like the Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup in my last post. This week’s challenge, in honor of Mother’s Day, is about mother’s recipes.
When I read that the Salon Kitchen Challenge this week is on the theme of Mother’s Day, I got into a little bit of a panic. Which mother to honor? I certainly don’t want to shortchange or offend my mother, who raised me and whose cooking has infused my memories and inspired many recipes. I also can’t overlook my mother-in-law, who provided me with my husband after all, and who is a versatile and intuitive cook who expresses her love almost entirely through her food.
Well, you can’t please everyone, though I hope I will with the cards and flowers that are on their way to my mom and mother-in-law. Instead, I have decided to pay tribute to the other kind of mother many of us are lucky to have, but who isn’t always remembered on this Hallmark holiday. She is that woman who made a special connection to you, whether or not she was your primary caregiver, whether or not she was related to you, and whether you called her mom, auntie, or whatever else. I’ve been lucky to have several of these, including some of my childhood teachers; friends’ mothers; friends of my mother, especially Auntie Betty, who looked after me when I was in college (fed me, let me do laundry at her house, and cast a suspicious eye at any potential suitors); and my neighbor, Teresa, who still helps me raise my own kids. I have learned a lot about cooking and life from each of these mother figures.
My husband also had many such mother figures growing up. The most significant was Auntie Doll, whose Trinidadian Indian and Creole cooking is legendary in her circle, and beyond compare in my eyes. She’s my husband’s great aunt, and is a striking presence in her vibrant, flowing caftans (pretty groovy). My husband lived with her and her husband, his great uncle Randolph, during the week for several years during elementary school, because his own parents lived too far away from the school. Auntie Doll and Uncle Randolph were unable to have children of their own, and were therefore able to pour all of their love and attention into nurturing my lucky husband. When we were last able to bring Auntie Doll over for the long journey to visit us, after Uncle passed away, I was regaled with stories from my husband’s childhood.
I enjoyed hearing the dirt (which was disappointingly sparse), but I secretly hoped she would also share some of her cooking pearls with me. I needed to learn some basic techniques of Caribbean cooking (what is “browning” anyway? what is “green seasoning?”), plus there were a few recipes I was desperate to learn: pelau, pastelles, sorrel, and her version of curries. Lucky me, she read my mind, and shared a few secrets. “Browning,” when used as a term in Caribbean cooking, is an almost black caramelized sugar used to add color and flavor to meat. It is made by heating brown sugar in a hot pan until smoking and liquefied, just a millimeter short of burned. This can be thinned with water and the resulting smoky, smoky caramel flavored-liquid stored in a bottle for the next time. “Green seasoning” is a mixture of various chopped green herbs, including culantro and cilantro, green onions, as well as garlic and lime juice. It’s an excellent marinade for meat and fish.
The recipe I convinced Auntie Doll to share with me was for pastelles. These are the Caribbean equivalent of tamales, filled with a slightly sweet mince studded with raisins, and are normally wrapped in banana leaf packets. There is a similar dish in Puerto Rico named pasteles. Pastelles are a tasty treat served on special occasions, traditionally during Christmas celebrations. Auntie Doll was enthusiastic about passing this recipe down to me, but as with most mother’s recipes, at least in my experience, she left something out. In this case, the omission was intentional: Auntie Doll didn’t want me to go through the trouble of wrapping the filling in banana leaves, so she invented a casserole version, “baked pastelles,” perfect for me, essentially her American daughter-in-law. If true pastelles are like tamales, these baked pastelles are like tamale pie, or even Shepherd’s Pie. The original recipe has no measurements, like many recipes of excellent home cooks. Auntie Doll was kind enough to create a written recipe for me, including measurements, so I could approximate her version.
I think she did a great job with this recipe- -it tastes almost as good as the real thing (I think she still left something out), but easier to make for a crowd. Connoisseurs of true pastelles might not be satisfied, but should keep an open mind and take a bite– this is pure comfort food, Caribbean- style. Now if only I can convince her to give up her recipe for tamarind sauce…
To my mother, mother-in-law, Auntie Doll, and all the other Mother Figures who have been part of my life: thank you for everything. Lots of love to you on Mother’s Day and every day.
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Trinidadian Baked Pastelles
By Auntie Doll
1 lb ground beef (may also substitute lamb or turkey), seasoned with salt, pepper, chili sauce (ideally habanero), worcestershire sauce or tamarind sauce, and green seasoning if you’ve got it, all to taste
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
1 1/2 cup corn meal
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1/2 pound of margarine (not butter, if you want to be authentic. This sounds like a lot, and it is, but it is needed to moisten and bind the cornmeal)
2 eggs, beaten into the evaporated milk
1 can of cream style corn
2 Tbs each of raisins, capers, olives, sweet bell pepper, and celery, adjust to taste
1. Melt margarine in a pot, then add seasoned ground beef. Stir until cooked well.
2. Add corn meal slowly and stir constantly, so it doesn’t clump.
3. Add in onions, raisins, capers, olives, sweet pepper and celery, and continue to stir and fry.
4. Once onions are slightly translucent, pour in the creamed corn and combine.
5. Remove pot from stove.
6. Blend in the egg/milk mixture.
7. Transfer contents of pot into a greased casserole dish.
8. Bake in a 350 oven for 30 to 35 minutes until golden. Test for doneness with a knife, which should come out clean.
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Auntie Doll would offer you a drink to sip as you enjoy your pastelles. It would likely be ginger beer, Trinidad’s Carib beer, or sorrel, a drink brewed from hibiscus flowers (known as agua de Jamaica in Latin America). Her sorrel is the best there is, so I am including her recipe.
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1-1/2 cups dried hibiscus/sorrel/jamaica flowers (available at Latin and Caribbean markets)
Water, 3 quarts
Sugar, to taste
My secret ingredients: cinnamon stick, star anise
Auntie Doll’s secret ingredient: brandy to taste
1. Place hibiscus flowers, spices, and water into a large pot and bring to a boil.
2. Add sugar to taste.
3. Simmer until you have a beverage the color of cranberry juice.
4. Add brandy to taste, if you like.
5. Strain, and serve over ice.
© 2010 Linda Shiue