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Witch Finger Grapes, An Unusual Find

Witch Finger Grapes

The best thing about travel is discovering something new, different or unusual. This past weekend in  a small fruit and vegetable shop in Toronto, I stumbled on something both new (to me) and different – witch finger grapes. 

I hadn’t planned on buying when my friend and I stopped into the shop but as soon as I walked in, I felt a powerful urge to buy grapes. I love grapes: they’re tasty and easy to eat.

The store had the usual green and red seedless grapes. Next to them were these purple chilli pepper-looking variety. I hesitated. One of the guys in the store likely saw the puzzled look on my face. Before I could ask, he volunteered, “Those are witch fingers.”

Witch fingers? Where are they from?

I expected him to say somewhere in Ontario but he didn’t. They’re from California, he added.

California? You mean I had to come to Canada to find these California grapes?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy them – not because of the name. I wondered if they’d be sweet.
Try them, he said.

I broke a few off, rubbed them on my pants and popped them into my mouth. The juice that exploded and found its way down the back of my throat was unexpectedly, deliciously sweet. There was no question which ones I’d take.

Witch Finger Grapes are a hybrid variety that, according to specialtyproduce.com, is a cross between an American cultivar and a Mediterranean variety. I’ve been unable to find out how it got its distinctive shape or why it’s called witch fingers.

These little bundle of sweetness didn’t last till Sunday. I should have bought more than a pound.

What unusual foods have you found during your travels?

 

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Coconut Drops

Coconut Drops

At the end of a birthday dinner a few weeks ago, the servers distributed small parcels containing coconut drops. Since we’d already had dessert, I decided to take mine home but having it in my hand, I couldn’t resist breaking off a piece and slipping it into my mouth. It was so delicious – just the right balance of spices and sugar – that pretty soon, the package was empty and I was feeling a bit guilty for finishing it.

Coconut drops or just plain drops are a traditional snack that’s very popular with young and old Jamaicans. The name comes from the way that drops are made – by dropping a hot mixture of diced coconut, ginger, spices and sugar onto a flat surface, traditionally banana leaf, to cool. Of course, if you don’t have a banana leaf, a greased cookie sheet will do just fine and because you spoon the mixture, you can control the size of each drops.

Since its such a simple recipe, coconut drops is one of the snacks almost everyone knows how to make, and did I say how tasty it is? In the days before packaged snacks, like banana or plantain chips, were what students reach for, it’d be one of the treats vendors always had for sale just outside the school gate.

A few years ago, one of my friends made coconut drops but she used only about half the sugar the recipe called for. Surprisingly, less sugar didn’t compromise the flavor.

Here’s a recipe for Coconut Drops from Enid Donaldson’s The Real Taste of Jamaica.

Coconut Drops
Yields 12
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Ingredients
  1. 2 cups diced coconut
  2. 1 tbsp powered ginger or 1 tsp grated root
  3. 1 tsp vanilla
  4. 1 lb brown sugar
  5. 1 pinch salt
Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients adding about ½ to ¾ cup water to cook coconut. Boil about 20-30 minutes. Stir well and drop by spoonfuls onto a greased tin sheet.
Adapted from The Real Taste of Jamaica
Adapted from The Real Taste of Jamaica
InsideJourneys http://insidejourneys.com/
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A Week of Live Music and Restaurant Meals

A Week of Live Music and Restaurant Meals

When it’s as hot as it’s been the past few weeks, restaurants meals and takeout replace home cooked. Usually, it’s take out but last week, I ended up with several more restaurant meals than take out as we celebrated a promotion, friends visiting and a friend  leaving New York City temporarily.

The first part of the week found us at Birdland, a jazz club in midtown. My friend, Lorraine, a singer was visiting and wanted to listen to live jazz. There are several locations to listen to jazz in New York City but Birdland was close to where she was staying. We were chatting so much, I forgot to take photos of the meal when it arrived, and photography was not allowed when the Loston Harris Quartet, with special guest singer, Monica Behan, took the stage.

Later in the week, we celebrated our friend’s Judith’s promotion with a meal at Aba, a Turkish restaurant on Manhattan’s west side. I chose the Doner Kebab. I had read about doner kebabs in a post that Jan at Budget Travel Talk had written a while back. When I saw it on the menu, there was no question what I’d have for my main course.

A Week of Live Music and Restaurant Meals

Doner Kebab, Aba Turkish Restaurant

If you’ve had gyros, you know exactly what doner kebab are and most importantly, how it tastes. Very flavorful, succulent and plain delicious. I ate every slice.

Another friend is due to leave shortly on a fellowship in southern Africa. When she requested Jamaican food, I mentioned a few of my favorite restaurants. I don’t remember exactly how we decided on Ripe Restaurant in Mount Vernon but early Saturday afternoon, we were sitting in their “backyard” – Ripe is a small restaurant with maybe 15 tables so the backyard, which is open during the summer, extends the space – sipping a glass of their rum punch.

I had been salivating over two of my favorite appetizers at Ripe – the Strawberry Hill Codfish Spring Rolls and Cuban Plantain Boat – and undecided which I should order. Honestly, I would have ordered both but I decided on the spring rolls. Not your typical spring rolls, these are bullets stuffed with codfish and served with a vidalia onion mustard sauce.

A Week of Live Music and Restaurant Meals

Strawberry Hill Codfish Spring Rolls, Ripe Restuarant

I always have a difficult time deciding on what to order when I go to Ripe because I like just about everything on their menu. I was tempted to order the curried shrimp but I decided on the Jamaican Beachside Style Fried Fish. Ripe’s fried fish is so crispy, there’s nothing left on the plate when I’m finished. And yes, they leave the head on. I know, some people are squeamish about that but I love a crispy fried fish head.

A Week of Live Music and Restaurant Meals

Jamaican Beachside Style Fried Fish, Ripe Restaurant

My friend chose the “Big Ass” Jerk Rib Eye Steak – yup, that’s exactly what it’s called – and she loved it!

A Week of Live Music and Restaurant Meals

Big Ass Jerk Rib Eye Steak, Ripe Restaurant

We ended the evening in Harlem listening to the New York Flamenco Jazz Project at Silvana.

A Week of Live Music and Restaurant Meals

New York Flamenco Jazz Project at Silvana

What’s your go-to restaurant / food when you have out of town guests?

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Rum Punch

Rum Punch

The rum punch flowed freely at two events I attended last week. And as I sipped my third glass at the most recent – a birthday party for a long time family friend – I got to wondering about the history of this popular concoction.

According to Wikipedia, punch has been around for centuries. Seventeenth-century Royal Navy sailors who were used to receiving daily beer rations brought it back to England from India.

Wine or brandy was used until around 1655, when Jamaican rum became the fashionable spirit and a new flavor of punch was created. (Rum also replaced beer and the daily ration became known as the rum ration. The rum ration continued until the 1970s.)

Rum Punch

Calico Jack Rum Punch

From England, the use of punch expanded to other European countries and eventually, naturally, to the colonies.

Ask most Jamaicans how to make rum punch and you’re likely to be given the following direction: One of sour (lime juice), two of sweet (syrup), three of strong (Wray & Nephew Overproof rum), four of weak (water) – simple enough, right? You’ll also see this direction is the description of Planter’s Punch, a type of rum punch that apparently, was created in Jamaica.

A wine-glass with lemon juice fill, of sugar the same glass fill twice
Then rub them together until
The mixture looks smooth, soft, and nice.
Of rum then three wine glasses add,
And four of cold water please take. A Drink then you’ll have that’s not bad —
At least, so they say in Jamaica.
- From the September 1878 issue of the London magazine, Fun.

Just goes to show, there’s a story behind even the simplest food or drink.

Even with a recipe as simple as this, in my opinion, it takes a certain level of skill, and perhaps experience, to mix these four ingredients, to balance them so one doesn’t dominate the other.

Although it can last for several months after it’s been made (and usually tastes richer), we usually make it from scratch for each occasion, and most people I know wouldn’t even touch the prepared stuff.

I didn’t until my neighbor introduced me to Calico Jack Rum Punch. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the closest there is to the real thing. I served it at a dinner party last Christmas and even my finicky aunt (who knows a thing or two about making rum punch) agreed that it was good. Unfortunately, I have not found it outside Jamaica.

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