When I first moved to my rock, Virgin Gorda, the heart of the foodie beating inside me sank a little bit. Where were my farmer’s markets? Why can’t I count on one grocery store to carry all of the basic items on my list? Seriously – all I’m asking for are some tomatoes. What do you mean I can’t make the recipe I planned because the entire territory doesn’t stock buttermilk?!
This part of my transition to island life was a literal punch to the stomach. I love food. I love to cook – a lot. And not just your average couple of nights a week, but daily. You see, I have a food blog called Foolproof Living. That means that every recipe I make must be – you guessed it – foolproof. To accomplish this, I often make a single recipe at least three different times: the first time, to test it and ensure it is just right before releasing it to the public; the second time, to photograph it from every angle until it ultimately becomes inedible; and the third time, to finally serve the finished foolproof product to my husband, aka my favorite taste-tester. So, as you can imagine, not being able to find what I was looking for in terms of groceries caused some significant snags in my planning. I began to wonder if trying to achieve my massive food blogging goals while living on an island was a recipe for disaster.
But through all of the disappointments in finding ingredients, something unexpected happened. Out of necessity, I developed a new sense of creativity and can-do spirit when it comes to my cooking. And I’ve become a better, more competent, and more flexible cook as a result of it – all thanks to the island and its trademark inconveniences.
So this post goes out to all my fellow islanders who have griped about poor produce quality, lack of variety, and the general scavenger hunting they’ve undergone and still wound up short items on their list. Let’s bring out some island ingenuity and not let the grocery stores defeat us!
When all else fails, here are 9 Work-Arounds for some Common Island Ingredient Issues:
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #1
“I’m craving homemade lasagna, but the only ricotta cheese I can find on my island expired 4 months ago.”
I was shocked to discover just how easy it is to make your own ricotta cheese – and it’s way more delicious than what you can buy at the store. I usually make a batch of it on Sundays and use it throughout the week to make dips, lasagna, pasta sauces, or simply as a spread for bruschetta. Click here for recipe for my easy, creamy (dreamy!) ricotta cheese.
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #2
“The stores don’t carry green onions/scallions consistently and when they do, they’re sad and wilted.”
This is one of my favorite tricks, as it not only guarantees you’ll keep yourself stocked with scallions whenever you need them, it is also a way to get more bang for your buck (and with the cost of island produce, who doesn’t want that?!).
Did you know cut green onions will grow again if placed in water? Next time you’re able to get a bunch of scallions, use the tops, then place the white bottoms (with the roots) into a glass of water. Place it in a spot with some natural light and simply refresh the water once a day. It usually takes about a week for enough length in re-growth to appear to cut them down again. You can often get 3-4 cycles worth of scallions before you need to start with a new batch.
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #3
“I miss the days of quality salad dressings – I’m lucky now if I can even find Hidden Valley!”
Upon discovering that my favorite Caesar dressing wasn’t available on island, I set to work to find a suitable replacement. And come to find out, it’s so much easier, healthier, and cheaper to make your own salad dressings. Even when I go back to the states in the future, I doubt I’ll be buying pre-made dressings again; ever since I made my own Caesar salad dressing, I’ve never looked back. Here is how I make it: A Foolproof Caesar Salad.
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #4
“It seems like every healthy recipe these days uses yogurt, but my island never seems to carry it.”
As someone who grew up in Turkey, I cannot imagine my life without yogurt. When the stores didn’t have any here, I quickly learned that it was actually quite simple to make – and homemade is WAY better than store bought. Bonus: the consistently warm, tropical climate makes islands the perfect place for yogurt making.
4 Steps to Make Yogurt at Home: 1) Warm 1/2 gallon of milk in a medium saucepan until it reaches 108°F (42°C), then place it in a large bowl with a lid. 2) Add 3 Tbsp yogurt starter (available online, easy to ship in, last a long time, and cheap!) – do not mix and cover with the lid. 3) Cover it tightly with a dark cloth (a heavy beach towel works) and place it out in the sun for 5-7 hours. 4) Uncover and place in the fridge (with lid still on) and allow it to sit overnight. By morning, you’ll have fresh yogurt in your house!
Note: If you’d like your yogurt thicker like Greek yogurt, simply place 2 layers of cheesecloth over a medium strainer and pour the yogurt over it, cover, and return it to the fridge. Allow it to sit for 2-4 hours – the longer it sits, the thicker it gets. Then just strain and serve.
You can keep this yogurt in an airtight container fresh for up to a week. Bonus – you can use 3 Tbsp of this same batch of yogurt to start your next batch when you’re running out.
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #5
“The stores only sell Jiffy peanut butter with the bad-for-you hydrogenated oils. I miss being able to get almond butter as a healthy option.”
Finding almond butter on island can be difficult and even when you do spot a jar, it’s often way overpriced (we’re talking $22 a jar and up!). But if you have a food processor, you can easily make your own at home.
To make a medium jar of almond butter, place 2 cups of unsalted raw almonds in your food processor fitted with the “S” blade. Process for 5 minutes non-stop. Scrape down the bowl and continue to process for 20 more minutes, stopping every 5 minutes to scrape down the bowl. It will be ready when all of the oils are released by the heat of the processing, giving you a smooth texture.
You can also add in some fun additions to vary the flavor – a spicy version made by adding some cayenne pepper makes for great afternoon snacking.
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #6
“The entire island doesn’t stock buttermilk. And every single one of my favorite baking recipes calls for it.”
Surprisingly, making your own buttermilk is almost effortless. All you have to do is mix 1 cup of whole milk (low-fat will also work) with 1 Tbsp of lemon juice or 1 Tbsp of white vinegar. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes and voila! – you have buttermilk.
Note: This buttermilk is good for baking. If you’re looking for buttermilk for salad dressings, this version doesn’t work as well and I’d recommend you try a recipe that doesn’t require buttermilk (you can always try my Caesar recipe above).
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #7
“The only tomatoes I can ever find at the store are pink and flavorless. Am I supposed to just stop eating tomatoes?”
No worries – we can fix this! For tomatoes that are perfect for salads, pizzas, and other recipes, you can infuse them with flavor by:
1) Preheat over to 375°F. 2) In a small bowl, mix 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, and 1/2 tsp light brown sugar. 3) Slice tomatoes into 1/3″ thick rounds and arrange on a single layer on a sheet pan. 4) Drizzle tomatoes with 1 Tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with your salt/pepper/sugar mixture. 5) Roast until tender, about 20-25 minutes. 6) Cool to room temperature prior to using.
To store, place tomatoes in an airtight container. They will keep fresh for 2-3 days in the fridge.
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #8
“The stores rarely carry fresh herbs and whenever they do happen to have them, it’s always at a time when I can’t use them before they spoil.”
Buy the herbs – you CAN save them for later by freezing them.
Chop fresh herbs and place cuttings into ice cube trays, fill about 2/3 full. Pour extra virgin olive oil or melted butter over herbs, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze overnight. You can also freeze them in water, but oil helps to prevent freezer burn and browning.
Now you have perfectly portioned cubes of fresh herbs for the next time you need them. Once frozen, I store my cubes in separate ziplock bags – don’t forget to label them!
ISLAND INGREDIENT ISSUE #9
“Hot island days call for ice cream. But the ice cream in our stores has been thawed and re-frozen so many times it’s icy, un-creamy, and unappetizing.”
I recently treated myself to an ice cream maker, but even if you don’t have one, you can still make a deliciously creamy ice cream with some frozen bananas and your food processor alone. Check out this simple recipe for Crunchy Banana Ice Cream.
If you do happen to have your own ice cream maker, here are a couple of other recipes you might enjoy trying:
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I hope this post gives you some hope and inspiration for your island kitchen! And worse comes to worse, one last piece of advice: Figure out who the person in charge of ordering is at your rock’s main markets. Making friends, offering tasty treat bribes, and good old-fashioned begging can often get them to bring in what you need. Speaking from experience, I’ve shamelessly pleaded for months for kale and I’m pleased to report that the squeaky wheel does get the grease! 😉
What tricks have you discovered to make your island kitchen work for you? Share your tips in the comments below!