Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Trinidad in my kitchen, via Virgin America

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My trip home from Kelly Ripa's Cake Off for a Cause last Thursday didn't start well.

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. 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!


Kate @ Savour Fare said...

What a great story! You're totally one of those people who just engages with strangers, and the chicken looks fantastic!

Linda@saltyseattle said...

This is the best thing to come out of that snowstorm! You're so magnetic- I am so happy you met them and it all worked out so well.

Laura said...

That sounds like a superb day spent making some great food. Oh rhubarb! I love thee. Which reminds me I need to finish up whats in the freezer.

megan said...

that is an awesome story! Sounds like a lot of fun - and way to go on speaking up! Just shows that you shouldn't be shy about sharing what your passionate about - it will make you some great friends and great memories!

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic story! And how lucky you are to have met them and been bold enough to invite them over. Good for you!

RecipeGirl said...

That's such a cool story, I love it! I knew there was a reason I love Virgin America so much!

Anonymous said...

You're so good with people! This chicken looks FANTASTIC and the world is a little bit smaller now, right?!

Baking is my Zen...sweet nibbles for the soul said...

I love this story. Isn't great how good can bring people together! Great photos!

I'm having a giveaway...stop by my blog if you're interested.

Jackie said...

Great story, but having met you myself I'm not at all surprised. Looks like you made some good friends.

Jenny said...

Sounds like a perfect end to a messy snowstorm! Congrats on cake decorating in NYC, hope to meet you one of these days!

Baking is my Zen...sweet nibbles for the soul said...

Voted today, 2/19. Good luck with the Cake Off. Great thing you did!

Annie said...

From a Johann fan in New Jersey - I've had his curry and roti - a great treat on any coast! Thank God for air travel, we are becoming One World and sharing our various cuisine. Love this blog, you have a new follower!

Anonymous said...

I hope Johann cooks chicken pelau for you to enjoy, and of course tell him you want Trinidad Black Cake. I enjoyed reading your story.
I'm from Trinidad by the way.

Chris @ Caribbeanpot.com said...

You're representing the islands well with the pics from that meal. Makes me a bit homesick now.

happy cooking


Erika Kerekes said...

Chris, glad you found this post and thanks for leaving a comment! I hadn't read it in a few months, and now I'm craving callaloo....

Anonymous said...

Great story! now some more people know that Trinidad is not a district in Jamaica! keep spreading the word.

Cathy @ She Paused 4 Thought said...

OMG! What a wonderful experience. Thank you so much for sharing.

Francese said...

I'm friends with Johann. In fact I'm his guest right now. His cooking is as sublime as his hosting. Thanks for sharing this post Erika. What a great story. Happy cooking!

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