Miso-marinated salmon

Our culinary project for the day is miso-marinated salmon. This is a centuries-old Japanese technique for preparing fish. Before the days of refrigeration, salmon was prepared this way for long journeys inland. It was brought to the United States recently by Nobu Matsuhisa, founder of the Nobu restaurant chain.

Basically, you take 1/2 cup of miso paste (I found mine at one of the Asian supermarkets in our town), 1/4 cup of sugar, 3 tablespoons of sake, 3 tablespoons of mirin, whisk it all together in a bowl, place the salmon filets in a bowl face down, and let them marinate for 6 to 24 hours.

We are heading out for the day to play, but will be coming home to a delicious dinner.

Update

This is definitely the way to cook salmon! We did not get home until late last night, so we ended up letting the salmon marinate in the miso mixture for over 24 hours. We took it out of the bowl, scraped the miso mixture off, and broiled it for a few minutes. The results were sublime. The fish gets a flavorful crust on the outside and remains silky on the inside. I topped it off with some tartar sauce, but ended up pushing it off the fish.

We served it with garlicky rice pilaf and asparagus with salt, pepper, and truffle dust.

A Florida version of salad niçoise with fresh local swordfish

I knew a girl in college who loved shoes so much that every morning she’d select a pair of shoes from her hundreds of pairs and then try to construct an outfit.

That’s sort of how we are with cooking living in Florida. We have a constant supply of fresh seafood, where the fishmongers either caught the fish themselves or directly know the person who did. We start by looking at what fish are available and then build a meal around that. For lunch we made a curry out of mutton snapper. For dinner I made a salad niçoise with swordfish. This truly is paradise.

I’d say nothing says summer like salad niçoise and chilled wine, but that’s another great thing about living here…. It is the land of eternal summer. Well, it’s usually great. Going out to get the fish today was the only time anyone left the house. When we are not being thrashed about by the squalls, it is so humid that it feels like you are walking around in a cloud. It wasn’t even nominally hot today, but the moisture in the air gave us a heat index of 110 degrees. Not exactly gardening weather.

Anyway, back to the salad…. This is pretty basic if you love to cook, but someone is going to ask me how to make it, so here you go.

I make a vinaigrette of 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, juice from three or four lemons (just try to get about half a cup), 1 minced shallot, a bunch of fresh basil (finely chopped), fresh oregano, fresh thyme, a couple teaspoons of Dijon mustard, and a pinch or two of kosher salt. (It is important to use fresh herbs, and a lot of them – they really are part of the salad.) Let the vinaigrette sit for a while as you cook the rest, so the flavors have a chance to mingle. This makes a lot of dressing, but trust me…. You are going to want that much.

The salad itself is made of 1 and 1/2 pounds of small red potatoes, quartered and boiled with a pinch of salt until they are just tender (watch them closely so they do not get so tender that they break apart or start to lose their skins); trimmed green beans (boil for three minutes and then transfer them to an ice bath); a few medium tomatoes, cored and sliced; a few hard boiled eggs, sliced; a couple tablespoons of capers; and some anchovies (though you could add a touch of anchovy paste to the vinaigrette for the same effect). And of course, olives (you are supposed to use niçoise, but I use kalamata because they are easily available and I love them) and fish. Traditionally, the fish is tuna, but I often switch it out for swordfish. We eat a ton of tuna here, especially when we go out to eat. Ahi is everywhere along the beach.

There is a fantastic restaurant in Flagler Beach called the Flagler Fish Company that makes an outstanding salad niçoise with ahi. I wish I could replicate their Dijon vinaigrette – it sounds simple, but I’m not sure what I am missing. The taste of potatoes and Dijon mustard that is sublime, so I am always pretty heavy on the Dijon.

(It’s hard to explain to people who have tried Dijon straight and hated it that Dijon subtly improves many foods and often in unpredictable ways. For example, when I make quiche, I coat the crust with a heavy layer of Dijon mustard before filling it and putting it in the oven. This has an absolutely transformative effect on pie crust. It does not come out tasting like mustard, but it an unreal improvement. I’ve gotten to where I don’t tell people my trick until they’ve tasted the final product first. Every Southern woman needs a signature dish that people associate with them specifically. My signature dish is quiche, and the grand secret – lol – is Dijon.)

And of course for dessert… A key lime pie. The perfect summer meal. These are good days.

Banana trees and a new love of Latin

Today has been a rather unusual day in our household. (Do we ever have normal days though?)

This morning, Elise told me that she wanted to spend the entire day working on her Latin, which is suddenly her new favorite subject. In the past, we had done “math only” school days. She’d wake up, put on her “math day” t-shirt (a shirt she bought at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that says B greater than average via a math problem) and hit the books. I could not believe that Latin has replaced math. True to her word, she worked her way through several chapters of Latin and spent the afternoon addressing us in Latin. She says she needs a t-shirt that says something in Latin.

Mandatory “math day” attire.

Since she was occupied and I was in-between work for our clients, I decided to make a Persian feast for lunch, with shawarma, tzatziki, flatbreads, a salad of tomatoes and cucumber, and a mixture of figs and apricots crossed with plums (they just sounded bizarre and fun while we were out shopping). The food filled the house with the most amazing aromas, and honestly it still smells divine now. I used to cook tagines all the time, and I missed the intense combinations of spices.

My first attempt at shawarma (before being shredded).
And my first attempt at tzatziki ever.
Summer fruits.

At the end of the day, Elise and I took a walk along the esplanade in our neighborhood, which follows the Intracoastal Waterway. She devoted herself to catching lizards while I watched the boats returning from the Atlantic Ocean.

Lizard collecting. (Yes, she only studies the lizards for a while and then sets them free. Our only rule on nature walks is that we do not capture any pollinators.)

As we were walking, a woman we did not know beckoned us into her backyard to show us that her four or five banana trees were now loaded with dozens of ripening bananas. (She was very proud of her banana trees she said, and just needed to share the moment with someone. As an obsessive gardener, I can relate.) This was fascinating to both Elise and me, since we had tried to grow a banana tree in a pot on our front porch this summer. It either did not like the pot or its spot or access to water, because it did not flourish. I asked her if the banana trees did well through the Florida “winter,” to which she responded that she had not had any problems with them except through the two recent hurricanes. She said the hurricanes always destroy the banana trees. When I find a new plant in a nursery one of these days, I will plant some in our backyard. The woman told us that the best fertilizer for banana trees was surplus bananas. Elise has been going around explaining this curiosity to everyone who will listen.

An impromptu lesson on cultivating bananas.

Equally interesting is seeing how exactly banana trees develop fruit. The bananas grow along a sort of flower-rope that dangles down toward the ground. Nature is unbelievable sometimes! We have the loveliest neighbors here in Florida.

A close up of the “flower-rope” that bananas grow along.

Walking away, Elise said to me, “imagine how many banana splits that nice lady gets to make now.” Indeed.

A bonus picture of Elise for friends and family.

A game of chess with Dad while waiting for food at our favorite Mexican/Caribbean restaurant.

How did curry end up in the Caribbean?

Lately, I have enjoyed reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s book Curry: A Global History. I love cooking and I really, really love history, so this has been an oddly fascinating topic.

Curry is the rare dish that you can pretty much find anywhere in the world. Where we live in Florida, food from the Caribbean is ubiquitous. And in our town in particular – which has a significant Portuguese population – anything even remotely connected to Portugal is everywhere. This includes food from areas of India that had been occupied by the Portuguese after Vasco da Gama. If you go to a Caribbean restaurant, you can order a goat curry. If you go to the Indian restaurant, you can order a goat curry. If you go to an Asian grocery store here, you see Caribbean food brands.

It might not seem all that interesting on its face that folks in the Caribbean ended up with curry. The Caribbean was (and still is) the crossroads of the world. But it turns out that curry did not exactly end up in the Caribbean via trade routes.

Curry ended up in the former American colonies as relatively wealthy Americans imitated everything the fashionable elites in Britain did. As Britain had taken over much of India, Indian textiles and spices became popular in Britain, and they simultaneously became popular in the United States.

Not so with the Caribbean, however. It was the Indians themselves who brought curry to the Caribbean.

With the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and slavery altogether in 1833, there was suddenly a labor shortage in the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, and South Africa. (The last thing former slaves wanted to do after the abolition of slavery was return to the grueling work of a sugar plantation.) According to Sen, the British government established offices in (then) Calcutta and Madras to recruit Indians as indentured laborers. These laborers would agree to contracts of five to ten years, have their basic needs met, and receive small wages. At the end of their contract, they would receive either free passage home or free land in the region where they were working. Most of them chose free land.

As a result of this arrangement, Caribbean islands that had a British presence now have a lot of people with Indian origin. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, nearly half of the inhabitants have ancestors from India. Ditto for Guyana. A small portion of Jamaica is of Indian origin.

Per Sen:

On their arrival, immigrants received daily rations of rice, dal [lentils, peas, or chickpeas], coconut oil or ghee [clarified butter], sugar and salt, turmeric and sometimes salted or dried fish and onions. Substitution was essential, since ingredients such as curry leaves, fresh coriander and mint were not grown locally. The substitute for coriander is a local herb called shado(w) beni that grows wild in drainage ditches. The chili pepper used in Trinidadian curries it the fiery scotch bonnet, so-called because it looks like a little pleated bonnet. In places of spinach-like greens called ‘sag’ in India, Trinidadians and Jamaicans use callaloo, the leaf of the dasheen plant (a form of taro). Callaloo is also the name of a soup cooked with coconut milk, crab, okra, chilies, and herbs.

Each of these countries vary the meats that are used in their curry. Fish curry is popular in Guyana. Jamaicans love goat curry.

Florida’s incredible farmers markets

I love all farmers markets and seeing what local produce is available where. Nothing, however, compares to the farmers markets on the Florida coast. You can get sacks of fruit and vegetables for a dollar or two, fish fresh off the boat that morning, and all kinds of exotic tropical produce. In many states, it is difficult for people from all economic backgrounds to have access to healthy foods. That is not the case in Florida, and much of this great food is available year-round. Many of these farmers markets have permanent locations, so you don’t have to show up at a particular time or on a particular day. They are always there and always open.

We came home today with these coconuts that weigh two or three pounds each.

We also found loads of plants for our vegetable garden that we did not already have. New varieties of tomatoes and peppers, some fantastic basil, and Cuban oregano. I picked up some small sweet beets that I am looking forward to eating with a pile of feta, sinfully sweet cantaloupe, and a dozen duck eggs.

I am counting down the days until I can pick up figs everywhere. Figs are my all-time favorite thing to eat. We make a divine salad of figs, mâche, strips of prosciutto, and mozzarella chunks, with a dressing of walnut oil, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard (with a pinch of salt). It is the most amazing thing.

One of the wonderful things about homeschooling is that we can take breaks during the middle of the day to run over to the farmers market down the street from us and pick out fresh food for lunch. (No mystery meat in our cafeteria!) Our daughter is exposed to the life skills of deciding what and how to prepare and food from many other cultures, as Florida is a giant melting pot of people from the US, Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. We try to frequent the many international grocers in our town for spices and curries and whatnot. We love the Portuguese folks and Thai communities here in particular and have made a lot of friends among them.