First there was the snowstorm. Technically, that was on Wednesday. But there was lots of anxiety into Thursday about how backed up the flight schedules would be. Thankfully, Virgin America was humming efficiently as usual, and my plane left more or less on time.
But when I got on the plane I realized that I was in the last row, aisle seat - right in front of the bathrooms. The plane was packed, so no opportunity to move. When you're in the aisle in the last row, people waiting for the bathroom end up standing with their asses in your face; there's no way around it, really. But it's not much fun for the person sitting down.
And then, to top it off, my seat-back entertainment system was broken. I could see the TV picture, but the only sound available was loud, unrelated music, which didn't respond to any channel-changing or volume adjustment. What's more, because it wasn't working properly, it wouldn't let me order any food. Sigh. The flight attendants tried to fix it, but no luck. Fortunately I had my laptop, and the in-flight wifi worked fine. But the wifi was also working for the two high-school-age sisters sitting to my right, and they spent the first four hours of the flight trying to engage (admittedly cute) young men in dorm rooms around the country via Skype. Loudly. With much giggling.
I was not in a good mood.
But food blogging came to my rescue. I overheard Bill, one of the flight attendants, say to his colleague Johann, "That chicken you made was terrific!" I butted right into their conversation. "What kind of chicken did you make?" I asked. They looked at me strangely - I guess it might have come across as rude - so I explained about my blog, how I write about other people's recipes, how I'm part of this subculture that loves hearing about what other people are cooking.
Virgin America flight attendants Johann and Julia
We bonded, the flight crew and I. Johann let me taste his chicken - Trinidad stew chicken, a recipe he learned from his mother growing up on his native Caribbean island. It was delicious: dark, sweet and spicy, tender and the tiniest bit smoky. I loved it. I told them about the Cake Off, meeting the Cake Boss, decorating cakes with my fellow food bloggers. (Have you voted today, by the way? Don't forget!) And then, after we'd talked about how much fun it would be to make his native Trinidadian foods together, just when I thought I'd convinced Johann to write down the recipe for me, he threw me a curve ball:
"You know," he said, "we're in town this Saturday on layover. The whole day."
And my instincts kicked in. "You should all come over for lunch!" I heard myself saying.
And, in one of those no-way-you're-kidding-are-you-serious happy endings, they did.
Johann, Jose and Bill in my backyard
Well, two of them came over, anyway - Julia was feeling ill and stayed back at the hotel. I picked up Johann and Bill and Bill's partner Jose at a hotel near LAX in the late morning. We stopped at the grocery store on the way home for chicken breasts and thighs, okra, spinach, herbs, and "smoked bones" (we used pork necks, but ham hocks or smoked turkey necks work too). And then Johann and I made a delicious lunch of Trinidad stew chicken, callaloo, and rice. This was a particular treat because Los Angeles, unlike New York or Washington or much of the Eastern seaboard, has relatively few people with Caribbean backgrounds, and Caribbean food is hard to find here.
Johann at my stove
Johann had planned ahead. From his home in D.C., he'd brought a few essential and hard-to-find Caribbean ingredients:
Browning, a caramel syrup; jerk seasoning; salted, smoky butter
First Johann made a "fresh marinade" for the chicken, filling the food processor with bunches of parsley, cilantro, thyme, green onions, and chives, plus a big knob of ginger, and blending it all up with vinegar. He washed the chicken in lemon water, then added some marinade and let it sit for about half an hour.
Chicken in the fresh marinade
Then Johann did something I'd never seen before: He caramelized sugar in hot oil. If you think sugar syrup on its own gets hot, you should see it bubbling in hot oil. He cooked about 1/3 cup of sugar in 1/4 cup of canola oil until it was brown and foamy:
Caramelizing sugar in hot oil
Then in went the chicken and its marinade, some jerk seasoning, lemon juice, a bit of mustard, and salt and pepper. He brought it to a boil, turned it down, covered the pot, and let it stew about 45 minutes, until the chicken was tender.
Trinidad stew chicken, ready to serve
Meantime, Johann put up the callaloo. Into the pot went frozen okra, frozen spinach, some butternut squash, the smoked meat, coconut milk, salt and pepper, and a hunk of that salted butter, which turns out to be some kind of margarine but is somehow treated so that it smells like a cross between bacon and cheese. This cooked for about 45 minutes, too; Johann removed the meat and blended it smooth with an immersion blender. It had the texture of creamed spinach, but a completely different flavor.
Top, callaloo ingredients go into the pot; above, the finished callaloo
We made some plain rice and served it all up to a hungry crowd of five grownups and five kids. Only one kid (my younger) thought the chicken was too spicy. Everyone else devoured it. One of the eight-year-olds ate three pieces of chicken, or possibly four.
Lunch is served!
It was one of the most fun afternoons I've spent with virtual strangers in a long time. We talked about everything from travel to politics to the state of the American economy. Of course, they're strangers no more; we were planning their next Los Angeles layover around the table as we lingered over the strawberry rhubarb cobbler I made for dessert. Not Caribbean, alas, but certainly emblematic of Los Angeles in the spring. Yes, sorry to rub it in for all you non-Californians: February is spring here in southern California.
So what's on the menu next time? Johann's itching to make us some Trinidad curry. And roti came up in conversation as well. We'll have to see. Meantime, you can bet that next time I'm flying across the country, I'll check with Johann and Bill to see which days they're on duty. I love making new friends - and this time I have food blogging to thank!