Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Week Eighteen: A Journey to Haiti

My favorite thing about living in Miami is the diversity of cultures.  At last year’s company holiday pot-luck, that very ideal was illustrated by a quick glance at the spread: yucca in garlic sauce, Cuban-style pork, turkey and dressing, empanadas, and mac & cheese.  Just as we were filling up, my friend Lisy brought in a huge pan of Griot.  I had no idea what it was, but I discovered quickly that this is a dish I wouldn’t mind tasting again and again.  As I began my preparations for cooking Haitian cuisine this week, Griot served as the center point of my planning.

Despite the fact that I live in a city with a rather large Haitian-American community, I have not spent a significant amount of time visiting the markets and restaurants committed to Haitian cuisine.  After reading a few recipes online, I immediately recognized the influence of French, African, and Spanish cuisines imbedded in Haitian cuisine’s ingredients and its cooking methods.  Interestingly, I’ve always heard how about the extreme spiciness of Haitian food, but I’m not sure this is a fair assessment.  While almost every recipe includes Scotch Bonnet peppers, the use of this spicy pepper is actually more as a flavoring agent than as a fiery component.  Onion, shallots, scallions, garlic, cloves, and thyme appear in recipes just as frequently as Scotch Bonnet peppers, and those ingredients seem to round out the actual flavor profile of the cuisine.  Sour Oranges are often used in marinades for stewed meats and seafood, which are almost always served with rice and beans.  Practically every meal is accompanied by a pickled slaw called Pickliz, which includes a vinegar base, cabbage, onions, carrots, peas, scotch bonnet peppers, cloves, and peppercorns.  Fried green plantains and malanga fritters are also popular side items and appetizers.  With this bit of knowledge, some online recipes, and multiple conversations with Lisy, I mapped out my plan for Haitian menus at home over the weekend.

Thursday Night: Prep the Pikliz
After reading only a few blog postings, I quickly understood that Pikliz is a core component of Haitian meals.  Not only is it used as a condiment, its vinegar is added to sauces and main dishes in order to brighten their flavors.  A Haitian refrigerator is never without pikliz.  This pickled slaw was simple to make.  The most important component is time as it needs at least 24-48 hours to pickle.

Saturday Night:  Akra (Malanga Fritters) served with Pikliz, Lambi a la Creole (Stewed Conch in Creole Sauce), Diri Kole Ak Pwa Rouj (Red Beans and Rice), and Prestige Beer

Akra fritters are often served at important events, such as christenings and weddings.  Grated malanga is mixed with a binder of pureed black-eyed peas, shallot, scallions, garlic, bell pepper, and scotch bonnet pepper.  The fritters are flavorful and interesting on their own, but when eaten with pikliz, the flavors sing.  The brightness of the pikliz is the perfect balance to the rich, warm flavors of the fritter.  Without a doubt, this dish was the best part of Saturday night’s dinner.

I had to have beer with fritters, so I picked up some Haitian Prestige Beer.  Nothing to write home about, but I can see how it would be refreshing in the hot island sun. 

In all honesty, I have been trying to love conch since I moved to Miami, and I still haven’t found a special place in my heart for it.  Knowing that conch is an integral part of Haitian cuisine, I set out to make Lambi a la Creole and hopefully change my mind forever.  I thought I covered all of the bases.  At the fish market, I enthusiastically said “yes” when they offered to tenderize the conch for me.  I brought it home and beat it with my rolling pin some more.  I marinated it in onion and sour oranges, and I stewed it in a creole sauce for over an hour on low heat.  As I removed the lid from the pot, the aromas imparted to me a feeling that I had finally succeeded in finding a conch dish I would love.  Alas, I grabbed a spoon and sampled a bite only to discover that even the tenderest conch is still too chewy for my taste.  The flavors of the conch and its Creole sauce were amazing though.  The conch had a sweet flavor, and the sauce provided both depth of flavor from the tomato paste, onion, and garlic, and brightness from the fresh thyme and Scotch bonnet pepper.  I served it alongside Red Beans and Rice seasoned with onion, garlic, scallion, cloves, Scotch bonnets, and sprigs of fresh thyme.

Sunday Dinner: Griot (Fried Pork), Riz Djon-Djon (Black Mushroom Rice), Banan Pese (Fried Plantains), and Sos ti Malis (Haitian Sauce)

While none of these components is difficult to make, figuring out how to deliver them all to the table at the same time proved a bit of a challenge, but I put my planning skills together and figured out a way.  Everything about this meal was delicious!

For the Griot, I marinated chunks of pork shoulder in sour orange juice, onions, shallots, and garlic for a little over 24 hours.  Then, I began stewing the pork, its marinade, and some additional water over low heat for an hour covered and then another thirty minutes uncovered until the liquids evaporated.  Just before I assembled the platter for our dinner, I fried the pork chunks until the edges crisped.  The resulting dish was a moist tender morsel of pork sealed in by the quick fry process.

When I started planning my Haitian menus, my friend Lisy said that Riz Djon Djon is an absolute must.  The rice’s color is derived from a broth made with black djon djon mushrooms native to Haiti.  (When I asked where I could buy djon djon mushrooms, she told me that most people use the Djon Djon Maggi cubes and offered to purchase some for me when she was in Little Haiti later that week.  Although my normal response would have been to decline and forage local markets for the djon djon mushrooms, I decided to take her up on that offer and follow the lead of someone who knew better than me.)  To make the dish, I sautéed garlic, onion, and shallots for a few minutes.  Then, I added the rice to firm its texture and allow it to soak up those flavors.  Next, I added mushroom broth, cloves, and pigeon peas to the pot and cooked it until the liquids evaporated.  I turned the heat to low, added fresh thyme and a scotch bonnet pepper, put a lid on it, and moved on to another dish.

When I read the folktale explaining Sos ti Malis in Taste of Haiti by Mirta Yurnet-Thomas, I knew I had to make this sauce.  Here is her account: 

"Two men, Ti-Malice and Bouki, are good friends. Bouki is gullible, while Ti-Malice is a prankster and more astute. Ti-Malice has meat for lunch everyday and Bouki just so happens to show up at Ti-Malice's house every day around lunch time. Haitians, being good natured, offer whatever they are eating to their guests. So Bouki winds up sharing Ti-Malice's meat every day.
One day, Ti-Malice decides to trick Bouki and prepares a very hot sauce for the meat, hoping to deter Bouki from coming back at lunchtime to eat his food. Bouki tastes the meat with the hot sauce on it and runs all over town shouting to everyone 'Come taste the sauce Ti-Malice made for me'; and that's how Sauce Ti-Malice got its name."

This delicious sauce includes onion, garlic, shallots, bell peppers, tomato paste, pikliz vinegar, and fresh lime juice.  It is served warm and drizzled over meats.  It also serves as a condiment for fried plantains.

Interestingly, the recipes I found for Haitian Fried Plantains differed slightly from most “tostones” recipes.  Instead of frying pieces, smashing, and then refrying them, the Haitian recipes called for an extra step of soaking the smashing discs in salted vinegar water before refrying them.  I only soaked them for a few seconds, but I must say this additional step resulted in a more flavorful, seasoned and crispy fried plantain.

This Sunday menu was the highlight of the week.  All of the components came together in a way that complemented each other.  I will definitely save this menu for another night with friends.  Saturday’s akra fritters and pikliz stood out as an amazing stand-alone dish, as well.  All in all, we had another week of inspired dishes.

No comments:

Post a Comment