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Witch Finger Grapes, An Unusual Find

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

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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Curried Goat

I’ve been making curried goat about three to four times a month since January, more than I usually do, after my nutritionist suggested that I add some animal protein to my diet. I’m not complaining – I love curried goat. I could eat it every week.

Until maybe 10 years ago, you’d find curried goat on the menu only on special occasions and large gatherings where lots of food is needed like weddings, parties and funeral. Typically, the host would buy a goat and have it butchered.

He would then hire a chef or someone from the community, usually male, who’s skilled at making curried goat. There’s nothing more disappointing and potentially embarrassing than unpalatable curried goat.

The chef would clean the goat and cook it out in the open. Every part of the animal would be used: the intestines (sometimes with the head and feet) to make a soup (called goat head or mannish water).

The flesh slow cooked in curry, Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, scallions, garlic, ginger, and pimento berries. Some chefs add lime juice and white rum. Chunks of carrots and potatoes would also be added to make it a hearty stew, which typically, is served with white rice, sometimes roti.

Following the abolition of slavery, the government looked abroad for workers. They went as far as India where potential workers were lured by the promise of making a fortune working on sugar plantations. The Indians brought with them their curry and curried goat, roti, and callaloo.

These days, you can find curried goat on the menu of almost every restaurant that sells local foods. It’s still the go-to meal for any occasion where large groups gather.

Curried Goat
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Ingredients
  1. 4 tablespoons Jamaican curry powder
  2. 2 fresh Scotch bonnet peppers, seeded and minced
  3. 3 garlic cloves, minced
  4. 1 large onion, diced
  5. 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  6. 1 bunch scallions, chopped
  7. Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  8. 3 pounds bone-in goat meat (from leg) cut into 1-inch cubes
  9. 2 tablespoons butter
  10. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  11. 1 bay leaf
  12. 4 boiling potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
  13. 2 medium carrots, cut into chunks
  14. Juice of one lime (optional)
  15. White rum (optional)
  16. Water to cover the meat
Instructions
  1. In large bowl, mix curry, peppers, garlic, onion, scallions, thyme, salt and pepper. Add to meat and mix to coat. Refrigerate and marinate at least 1 hour and up to 12.
  2. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add remaining curry, stirring constantly, until it colors the oil. (To make it peppery, fry the pepper in the oil before adding the meat.)
  3. Add meat in batches, brown on all sides. When all the meat is browned, add water, remaining marinade, bay leaf, and optional limejuice and rum. Bring to a simmer, cover and slow cook 1 hour.
  4. Add potatoes and cook until sauce thickens, meat is fork tender and potatoes are cooked, 30 to 40 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
  5. Serve with white rice.
InsideJourneys http://insidejourneys.com/

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Ackee Under Renewed Scrutiny by the US

I was doing research online a few days ago when I saw something that had me almost jump out of my seat: ackee is banned in the US.

How could that be, I wondered. I saw several cans of ackee in the supermarket last weekend.

Ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit, was banned in the US for 27 years until 2000 because of the toxin, Hypoglycin A, which can cause symptoms as mild as vomiting to severe as coma and death.

When the US lifted the ban, only two of the island’s processing plants satisfied the FDA’s food safety requirements and could begin exporting the fruit to the lucrative US market.

Exports to the UK and Canada, estimated then at $10 million annually, were expected to double within two or three years making ackee Jamaica’s largest agricultural export.

According to the FDA’s newly released “guidance,” its district offices may detain, without physical examination, all ackee products offered for import.

Ackee likely came to Jamaica with enslaved people from West Africa. It is here that Captain Bligh (yes, the infamous Bligh of the Bounty) was introduced to the fruit. He took the tree to Kew Gardens in 1793, where it was named Blighia sapida in his honor.

Ackee grows three fruits to a pod. The fruit is yellow (like the color of scrambled eggs), has a hard, glossy black seed and a bright pink membrane. Both the seed and membrane are removed prior to cooking. There are two types of ackee, one that is firm (called cheese) and holds its shape after cooking and another that is softer (called butter) and will break apart if overcooked.

Ackee Under Renewed Scrutiny by the US

Ackee Dip with Fried Plantain from Miss Lily’s Restaurant, NYC

Although ackee is found in other Caribbean islands, it is more popular in Jamaica than anywhere else. Ours is the only country that grows, eats and exports ackee. Usually, it is paired with saltfish, onions, peppers, thyme, and tomatoes but it can also be curried. I’ve even seen a recipe for ackee cheesecake in Rosemary Parkinson’s, Nyam Jamaica.

One local winemaker, who I met a couple years ago, is now producing ackee wine. It wasn’t bad either. And just last night, I had an appetizer of plantain chips and pureed ackee (dip). 

The trunk of the ackee tree is also useful. Hard and immune to termites, it is great for making furniture. The green fruits can produce soap, and the flowers can be used in cosmetics.

According to the FDA, the guidance describes the agency’s current thinking and should be used as recommendation only. But it has created a ‘green list’ of companies that can export fruits to the US.

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