What’s Cooking, Island Chefs?

Question:

“What’s for dinner?”

Answer:

“What do we have?”

In the Land of Plenty, the answer might rather be, “What do you feel like eating?”, but you can forget about that on our island, especially if it’s a Sunday or a Monday. Not much is open on Sundays, and the boats – the “High-Speed Ferry” and the “Mail Boat” – don’t come until Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It’s much better – and safer – to have a flexible palate to work with.

You can also forget about planning out a complete meal in any sort of detail. Even if the boats have come and the food supplies have been unpacked, everything doesn’t always show up – many things may be out of stock, over-priced, or, they may have simply “missed the boat”. But enough of the negativity. We islanders can become quite accomplished at Grocery Complaining if we allow ourselves. Let’s be positive about what we have to work with instead, shall we?

Creative – very creative – cooks are the ones who thrive on an island. Roaches love cookbooks, so the internet is a great starting place to create a meal from whatever’s left!  I have made some amazing meals on my rock using ingredients I might never have paired before in another life had I not been forced to think outside the old recipe box.

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My favorite resourceful cooking advice that I would pass on to any aspiring cook is, “What grows together, goes together!” Some examples we all may be familiar with would be tomatoes and basil, or lamb and rosemary, or even rum and coke (…right?).

One time, having spontaneously invited friends over for afternoon drinks and realizing I had no appetizer-type food in the house, I came up with a concoction I called, “Greek Salad-Bread”. Pine nuts, feta cheese, rosemary, olives, green pepper, onion, garlic, oregano, and our own sea salt, flour, water, yeast, a bit of sugar,  and olive oil.  – we simply tore off chunks and dipped it in olive oil. The result? YUM!

Save your run of the mill veggie cravings for your trips to the states (we all experience that first rush of excitement when we get lost in the produce section of an American supermarket, don’t we?!) On our rock, it’s best to eat locally and seasonally. Local food is realistically priced and is truly fresh, having never been transported more than a few miles to our weekly Farmer’s Market. No, you won’t always find tomatoes, but when you do, buy them all – they are wonderful. Pumpkin and cabbage can usually be counted on and keep forever. Because we are on-island almost year-round, we are the recipients of the refrigerators full of stuff from all the winter residents when they leave. Last spring, I had three half heads of cabbage given to me; soup, cole slaw, stuffed cabbage, and steamed cabbage later, it was all consumed. And local pumpkin? You don’t even have to refrigerate the thing for a month. Once it’s cut, it’s delicious in soups, stews, rice, breads, and you can freeze the rest to be used later. Sweet green peppers are also available all year long and are, most of the time, crunchy, not wrinkly, and used with onion in almost every Bahamian dish.

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As for fruit, same goes. There’s plenty available locally if you can adjust your taste buds to what’s grown in the islands. My partner is an obsessive fruit addict. Last year, our friends left us access to their papaya trees laden with coconut-sized papaya. He would bring home six a day… even the smell got to me after awhile. BUT, now we still have wonderful desserts of pureed papaya, a splash (or two) of coconut rum, an old banana, and a squeeze of lime. It’s better than ice cream, a whole lot cheaper, and healthier too (not to mention that chopping it with a spoon at the dinner table is certainly an eyebrow-raiser). Currently, it’s sapodilla season, and he brings home thirty at a time. They are good but thirty – seriously? They too are pureed with coconut rum, frozen in yogurt containers, and served with a lime wedge. Both the papaya and dillies, pureed and frozen are delicious mixed with plain yogurt.

Save most berries for another country. Strawberries are $6 a quart here and are generally moldy and lack flavor. Though I have to say, blueberries are a worthwhile, occasional treat – at $6 a half pint, they do last.

I also recommend learning lots of ways to serve rice of all kinds. It’s always good with the ends of the onions and the peppers, with fresh coconut, with the rest of the pumpkin, or with a bit of local seafood and makes a hearty meal.

Seafood… that’s another matter. We’re on islands, right? Surrounded by oceans? And yet – no fish markets, no seafood in the grocery store, no seafood when the wind blows, no seafood when the guys are selling crawfish to the fish houses. So we’re right out there with the locals in our little boat, using hand lines, and eating whatever we catch. Even the less desirable creatures make good fishcakes (plenty of local key lime and “peppa” makes anything delicious, right?). We get fresh conch ourselves – not a lot, but enough for us to enjoy some conch salad/ceviche, stewed conch, cracked conch, etc.

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Meat is a luxury because it’s all brought in. Once a year we get a local lamb. I came out of the meat business, so I attempted to cut it up myself. My poor partner was in the driveway with a cutlass trying to help me cut the bones. But I found out that you can’t cook it like a New Zealand rack of lamb (sigh), as these local creatures eat from the wild. The meat is tough but not at all strongly flavored. Someone actually brought us a tagine from Morocco, and the lamb is best cooked up in that (repeat: what grows together, goes together!).

Land crabs…..those things that are all over the road after a rain, are a delicacy ….I’m saving my share for someone who appreciates them ….yuk.

As for desserts, this one is easy – Bahamians LOVE their sweets and do wonders with the ingredients available to them such as coconut, sugar, banana, sugar, guava, sugar, sesame seeds, sugar, peanuts, sugar, pumpkin, and sugar… catch my drift? Benne cakes, coconut cake, banana bread, guava duff, pumpkin roll… the list goes on and on, and they are all good. If you have a sweet tooth, you’re in for a literal treat.

And the rest – flours, sugar, nuts, grains, seeds: KEEP IT ALL IN THE FREEZER or live to deal with infestations, my dears!

My point is, if you’re on a rock, get creative and cook on the bright side and you most certainly won’t go hungry! This morning, we had Long Island hand-ground yellow corn grits and grapefruit and, for lunch, we had our own pizza with fresh-made dough, Italian sausage (a splurge at $9 for five… but pizza only uses two), onions, olives, tomato paste, sweet pepper, and all of our leftover grated cheese. Tonight’s dinner will be a great big salad with romaine, our own homegrown arugula, island avocado, chickpeas, feta cheese, olives, tomato, and onion. I do bake our own bread too – what’s available here is like a sponge.

Eet Smakelijk, en Guete, Bon Appetit… let’s eat! 

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Susan Koster

About Susan Koster

Once upon a time, Susan was working way too hard in her and her husband’s food shop in Florida. She commented to their chef, on an exceptionally bad day, “One day I am going to grow up, live alone, and move to a warm island.” Be careful what you wish for…

She and her husband came to their island by boat, upon which they lived while building their home. Sadly, her husband died, and she had two choices: quit or continue. She continued and has never, ever been sorry – not for one speck of a sand-fly minute!

Having spent her working life with the public, island life suits Susan. There, she met Swiss Hermit and has been happy for many years. Some days she never sees another soul, spending time on beautiful beaches, working with photography, loving cooking, and reading.

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16 thoughts on “What’s Cooking, Island Chefs?

  1. Wonderful post and oh so true! We spent time in the Abacos for our 30th anniversary this past spring and saw for ourselves just how pricey and limited island food supplies were; but that can really bring out your creative side, by necessity, right?!

    I see you are in Long Island. How did you fare in Hurricane Joaquin? I’ve seen some scary photos and videos, but I take the fact that you managed to post this blog as a good sign. Maybe?! Hope all is well after such a terrible storm and that you had plenty of food stores saved up for the aftermath!

    • Thanks for your thoughts of Long Island. the South end of the island, like Acklins and Crooked Island has been decimated. People from all economic situations have lost truly everything. The responses have been amazing, and I pray that it doesn’t end.

      The grocery stores in the South sat under feet of water and the roads were impassable. BEC has been working nonstop under all sorts of adverse conditions. Rescue people are sleeping on chairs.

      True humanitarianism has surfaced!

      • I’m glad to hear you fared alright and it looks like you have internet now. The rest of the country has been all-eyes on your area and it’s amazing to see all the posts on FB about people, communities and private companies jumping in to help! We had a donation tent set up here on Harbour Island and Spanish Wells have sent several fishing boats with supplies down there. Very touching indeed to see the community & nation band together (despite the lack of initiative from our wonderful govt). I hope the water recedes soon and you are all back up on your feet as soon as possible.

        • Actually we are feeling thankful, and helpless, in New Hampshire. Thankfully I have been able to be a communicator from here. The South end of Long Island, Crooked, and Acklins are terrible…and, you’re right, government has come with some “strange…to say the least” comments. Thank you and those around you for all they are doing !

  2. Great ideas. Thank you.
    One surprisingly delicious and amazingly simple idea is to eat frozen bananas. If we buy them mature enough that they will eventually ripen, the last few will ripen before we are ready to eat them. Can’t bear to waste them, so, when they are JUST on the verge of being overripe, I peel them and put them in a plastic bag, whole. I spread them out so they don’t overlap, and put the whole bag in the freezer.
    Then, for a quick dessert, we remove them from the freezer two minutes before we want to eat them. Slice them, and eat the slices while still mostly frozen. With a LITTLE imagination, you can think you are eating ice cream, a much healthier version at that.
    If you really want to splurge, dip the frozen slice in Nutella and put it on a very crisp thin cracker.

    • Fun idea …I use them for drinks and desserts…never thought about just eating them. We do process them with papaya or dillies with lime and coconut rum….another cheap and delicious “Make believe ice cream.”

  3. Ah, so true!

    Maybe we should add an “island girls’ recipes” to this blog…

    When I first started coming to this rock in 1989, about the only thing one could buy in the one small grocery store was canned ( mashed up ,unappetizing type) tuna and good steaks and eggs. Chickens, too, but, no back-up generators in those days to keep food constant so one never knew how many times the chickens had been defrosted and refrozen, or how many docks it had stood in boxes on, letting all those bacteria love their new living room.
    So I started to make my own cookbook for myself which I still look at :Recipes I can make with foods I can (probably ) find here.

    In fact, just 10 minutes ago this “egg salad sandwhich”is what I made for lunch:hard boiled egg, mayo, a very few (left over, anchovies, capers, feta cheese and smoked clams; the latter I brought from the States two months ago). Actually it turned out :YUMMM!!!

    • Gourmet egg salad …YUM. One of my favorite ingredients, which lasts forever, is liquid smoke. Yummy appetizers with leftover fish…and your ingredients.

  4. Living on a rock does really help you think out of the recipe box. Living on a boat in Tonga without refrigeration requires immediate use of all leftovers. One of my husband’s favorite things I made for him was “Jessi’s Patented Cheesy Bird Mess.” It varied wildly, but it was usually a couple of over-easy eggs on top of a Bisquick biscuit (fresh bread doesn’t last long with the humidity), and whatever else was leftover from last night’s dinner, reheated on the stove for safety, of course. It sure doesn’t sound (or look!) like much, but you take what you can get on a rock!

  5. I totally agree. Especially about the seafood part…
    Before we moved to our rock I thought that we would be in abundance of different kinds of seafood and eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was so surprised when I saw that the only place that they were sold was in the back of a fisherman’s car with flies flying over them. Or out in the open in the supermarket with some almost-melted ice over it. Still, to this day most of my non-island friends think that we eat fish everyday.
    With that being said, I totally agree that island life could bring out the creative-cook inside of you that you didn’t even know existed. After all, it is like an episode of Food Network’s show “Chopped” everyday.

    Your idea of what grows together cooks together is GENIUS.
    Cheers!
    Aysegul

    • Thank you ….. Those words are my one lesson to any aspiring cook. …of course, food never used to be transported 🙂

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