Thursday, April 26, 2012

ESCAPES: Caribbean Cool -- St. Lucia, Pt. 1

Ahh, the Caribbean. Warm waters and powdery beaches and penetrating sun. The lilting local patois, the reggae and calypso music. The scent of local spices searing on meat and seafood cooking over makeshift beachside grills. And rum punch -- ohhh, the rum punch. All of this can go to a girl's head...particularly if that's exactly why a girl heads to the Caribbean in the first place.

There are so many gorgeous spots to experience in the Caribbean, but until this past Christmas, I hadn't been down to this part of the world in decades. (Living in Italy allowed me to travel to many places proximate to Europe, but I tended to ignore "The Americas," as it were, during that time). Having worked my tuchus off during the holiday season this year, combined with wanting to be anywhere-but-here for the anniversary of my dear friend's passing, my friend Helen and I decided to escape to somewhere warm and wonderful. Helen was coming in from London so our selection of islands was narrowed according to what Sir Richard Branson had on offer for Virgin Airlines miles-holders. And then it was decided: St. Lucia. 

This lush, verdant island closer to Venezuela than Miami, is nestled north of Barbados and south of Martinique along the southern end of the chain of islands in the Caribbean Sea. Its pedigree is multi-ethnic, and though discovered some time soon after 1492 during the time of the Columbus expedition, St. Lucia's first official European colonizers were the French, in 1643. The island then passed between the French and British 14 times before it fell definitively into British hands in 1814. Much later, in 1979, St. Lucia became an independent state of the Commonwealth of Nations (associated with the UK) -- and they've been celebrating ever since. 

The island's topography is different from so many other Caribbean islands, which can be arid and rocky. St. Lucia is incredibly green and lushly tropical. Its "silhouette" is a very-recognizable pair of volcanic mountains called the Pitons, the triangular forms which also grace the island's national flag. These mountains are scalable, though it can be a tough feat. We preferred to view them from out at sea, where you can get some perspective and see the sinking sun cast shadows across the island.

We also loved taking in the Pitons from the beach at Jalousie between the two peaks, one of the most beautiful spots on the island. The pristine white sand beaches here abut waters that provide great snorkeling and allow a glimpse at local colorful underwater life. It's also a prime spot for a sunset cocktail. With the breeze blowing through one's hair and a strong rum drink in hand, it's hard to be anything but content. And things only get better when you follow Jalousie Beach cocktails with a delicious dining experience up above that beach, among the trees with a hilltop view of the valley between the Pitons at the restaurant Dasheene at the Ladera Resort.

Dasheene has a magical feel -- the whole resort does -- as a sort of luxe Robinson Crusoe-meets-Serengeti chic outpost, seemingly suspended on the precipice of a cliff overlooking Jalousie beach and the Pitons. The best tables in the house look directly over the railing down to the water below, and at night it's a twinkling sea of ship lights scattered across an onyx bay. It can be incredibly romantic (I imagine, anyway). But the menu is beautifully eclectic and the food too good to be overlooked by starry-eyed lovers anxious to get beyond the meal and back to their honeymoon suites. 

Both because it was the holiday season, and because being on a tropical vacation makes you feel festive, we accompanied most of our meals with bubbly -- mostly crisp bottles of prosecco. This accompanied our courses, often heavy on the local catch, quite well, from starters through to dessert. Starters we enjoyed included a local fish ceviche, served beautifully on a banana leaf tucked into an iced bowl, and eggplant fritters with a carrot-curry sauce.

We moved on to the next course with a lobster risotto topped with a seared scallop -- a little taste of Italy in the Caribbean, but sauced with spice and fruit that said West Indies. Then we moved on to main courses. I enjoyed a gorgeous mixed grill, which included both meat (local chicken and lamb) and seafood (sugarcane shrimp and fish from the waters we were looking out upon), brought together with a tangy tamarind sauce. There was also a simple, perfectly-cooked grilled Mahi-mahi with a citrus lime butter. All the ingredients at Dasheene are locally sourced, many grown specifically for the resort's use. The servers at the bar and the restaurant itself were beyond charming, the views were breathtaking, and the presentation of the dishes was always artful. And most importantly, the meal was delicious. 
We had to finish it off with something sweet, of course. So we chose some real local flavor in the chocolate rum mousse with a coconut tuile -- all cleverly served in the hollowed-out cocoa pod from the trees we'd viewed earlier in the day (more on that in Part 2). After dinner, the ride back to the far northern side of the island where we were staying, was literally a long and windy road. Our new local friends drove us back and blasted their reggae favorites in the car and we zig-zagged and hugged the cliffs and descended down into the capital port city of Castries, and then back up again. And we laughed and shared stories and made it back in time for a strong rum drink nightcap in Rodney Bay. Then we strolled out into the night, a light rain clearing the way for another sunny day: tomorrow, our island trip by boat awaited us.

To be continued...

Monday, April 9, 2012

QUICK BITE: Spring on a Plate, Pasquetta Perfection

We all know that the almighty egg is the signature food of spring: it symbolizes rebirth and renewal, and it's pretty much a miracle ingredient, for all the forms it can take and things it can do together with other ingredients. 

Think about it: what other single item turns into fluffy scrambled eggs or an omelette or frittata, eggs benedict when poached or deviled eggs or egg salad when hard-boiled? What else helps a souffle rise, makes a cake light and fluffy -- then helps a meatball or a crab cake stay together? What else can top a cocktail and make a meringue? I could go on...

So it makes sense that I feature a simple, humble preparation of an egg in a delicious dish for today, also known as Easter Monday in some places -- and pasquetta, or 'little Easter' in Italy. Yes, it's a national holiday in Italy, a kind of forced picnic day up and down the Italian peninsula. But who's arguing? Everyone packs up leftovers from the Easter meal (lamb sandwiches? frittata squares?) with some fresh salumi and cheese and bread, and heads to the parks and the hills. 

But maybe you want something light, a dish that works for breakfast, lunch, OR dinner. Something that won't fill you up too much during a time of vernal equinox celebratory meals. Something that can be made kosher for Passover. Something that uses the ingredients of spring to their fullest, with the lightest touch and least amount of fuss. Then you want...Asparagi e Uova. Asparagus with egg.

The brilliance is in the pairing: fresh egg with a yolk the color of the sun, and crisp green stalks of asparagus, which taste best at the height of spring. Feel free to play around with the preparation and any other ingredients you may like to add to the pairing. You could scramble or poach the eggs, add some smoked paprika or truffle butter. You could maybe serve the dish with another related spring veggie, the artichoke. If you're a pork lover, add some crisped bacon. It's easy to enhance, refine, play with, and make it your own. Best not to put all your eggs in one basket, as they say. Be flexible and creative.

My way as shown here?

1. I blanched and shocked the asparagus --  that is, boiled the trimmed stalks in a pan of well-salted water, then dumped into ice water when they were bendable but still firm. Dumped the water out of the pan and put back on the burner.

2.  I added a little extra virgin olive oil and a clove of garlic to the pan, warmed it, and added the asparagus to sear it a touch and warm it through. The first cooking helps to lock in the bright green color and crisp texture; this just adds some searing to the outside. Place the asparagus in line on a plate.

3. Crack a fresh, organic egg into the pan with a little melted butter, sprinkle with sea salt and cracked black pepper, and cook until the yolk is firmed up but not cooked through. Slide the egg out of the pan and on top of the asparagus.

4. I sprinkled some fresh shelled peas (also blanched and shocked ahead of time) around the plate, shaved some parmigiano reggiano cheese over top, and added a few slices of bresaola (like lean beef prosciutto -- the kosher version of which you can find in the Jewish ghetto in Rome as well, called carne secca, or "dried meat"). 

5. Break into that oozy egg, magna (pronounced 'MAHN-ya', Roman dialect for "eat").