September is Latin American month in our house (oops, on our boat, rather).
We’re going along with the local mood, as September is Patriotic month in Mexico. The big day was Sept 16, Mexico’s Independence Day with fiestas organised everywhere! All shops and houses were decorated with flags and balloons, Playa del Carmen had crowds gathered down the Plaza, not sure if they had fireworks, with all the pouring rain, but that would not have stopped the Mexicans having fun. Even Anne got involved at school, and asked me to buy her some red-white-green earrings for the occasion. The supermarkets were brimming with specials on Mexican food products: tortillas, tomatoes, avocadoes, chili sauces, rice, beans, spices, sugar… heavily hinting that putting on a traditional feast was part of the celebrations (let’s not forget the Corona’s specials too: buy a 6 pack, get another for ½ price!).
I also happen to be writing about Cuba in our other blog, so my head is full of images of roast pork, black bean soup, and pina coladas. Not surprisingly, all this has influenced my cooking lately, and I have found myself trying to either recreate Cuban dishes or experiment with Mexican ones. So far, I have had success with two: black beans and Pork Verde.
“You’re so far away from home!” This is the typical reaction we get when asked where we are from and our response is ”Australia…and France”. Though I always like to think that home is wherever the boat is, we are indeed away from our respective birth countries.
Not to say that we get homesick, but we do like to observe some of our special days and celebrate the way we would at home. Take Father’s Day. The French, Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans all celebrated their Dads back in June (including me). However Australia’s Father Day falls on the first Sunday of September, and there was no way the kids would change that tradition.
So on September 1, Terry was probably the only person waking up to his children’s “Happy Father’s Day”! As per family tradition, he was to spend the day as he pleased and order whatever he wanted to eat. We had intended to go scuba diving , all four of us, but thunderstorms and lightning stuffed up that plan. It ended up being a movie day instead. Personally I didn’t mind, as it meant spending time in the galley which I much preferred rather than trying to climb back on a diving boat in a middle of a storm!
Terry’s request for dinner was a “good old Aussie meat pie”. Now, that doesn’t sound like much, unless you are an expat Aussie! 7 months in Mexico, and this Shire boy is growing tired of empanadas, burritos, and tacos. So, I went to work.
Last month mood was very mellow. August being a holiday month for everyone, we basically “closed the shop”, and retired inside. With most of our friends in Puerto gone on vacation and our kids back to home schooling, life has been quiet: no dinner parties, no trips away, a couple of casual dinners out to patronise the local restaurants but hardly anything to write about. Being in the middle of the hurricane season, we sat thru a couple of storms, too mild to be dangerous, still strong enough to keep us indoors.
Boat bound, and wanting a distraction from Grade 4 assignments and constant rain, I decided it was the perfect occasion to clean out our cold storage, and use up whatever meat and other frozen stuff had accumulated in our freezers over the past year or so. It felt like a Masterchef mystery box challenge: duck breasts, Italian sausages, NZ mussels, , Australian lamb, cookies and cream ice-cream,…what on earth could we do with all this? Looking for new ideas and inspiration, I turned to some of my favourite food blogs: Dinner a love story always makes me smile, 101 Cookbooks has enough recipes to turn me into a vegetarian (one day…) and if you really want to know how to while away a rainy afternoon, grab a nice cup of coffee and browse thru Food 52 ( I dare you not to spend an obscene amount of time looking thru recipes, funny stories and gorgeous Instagrams! I have).
Luckily our fresh fruits and vegetable market is only a short walk from the boat, so with a head full of ideas, working out dinner was a matter of picking what looked best on the day, and play matchmaker in the galley!
That’s how the duck magrets were paired with sweet potato slices, guacamole and fresh tomato salsa,
the Italian sausages found a perfect partner in cheesy polenta,
the mussels happily swam in a Portuguese style stew, thick with tomatoes and chickpeas
and the lamb teamed beautifully with cauliflower “rice” and steamed green beans. As for the ice cream, I finally got around to make ice cream sandwiches, thanks to the half opened packet of coconut cookies the kids had left laying around. What a perfect snack for unexpected guests!
You’d think I would have rushed to re-stock our clean and empty freezers, but I liked the idea of a minimalist pantry (sort of) and thought: why not use some of our dry goods for a while, just buying fresh produce when necessary? Couscous, rice, beans, canned tuna, olives, nuts…all found their way in semi-vegetarian dishes. We ended up eating tons of salads, some fancy like this spinach salad with couscous
that oyster mushrooms and avocado salad
or even my own “everything but the kitchen sink salad” concoction
Staring at the quantities of flour I had purchased in the US, I also obsessed about using it before it reached its use by date, so embarked on a breadmaking experiment. This proved to be the most frustrating and infuriating exercise, as no two breads ever came out the same. Some way worse than others, for which I blamed the high Mexican humidity, but Terry reminded me that I used different recipes each time. Ooops! I could not help it, I had to try: Buttermilk and Maple Syrup bread, Olive oil bread, Simple French loaf,… Ok, the Buttermilk and Maple syrup failed as a bread, however, it made a wonderful base for Bread and Butter pudding (just needed to add lots of cream, butter, extra sugar and a good handful of sultanas). The Olive oil bread was pretty good on its own, but was 10 times better when toasted and filled with left over roast pork (and since I happened to have pickles, swiss cheese and American mustard in the fridge, we ended up with our own version of a Cuban sandwich)
Have I made a dent in my provisions? A little. The freezer is nearly empty (one lonely lobster remaining, waiting for a worthwhile plate companion). So mission is not quite accomplished yet, but I found there is something uplifting about using what is at hand. It forces you to think (and cook) outside the box, try new produce, new techniques, new pairings…. I like to imagine my galley is going thru its own detox! And not to be outdone, Terry joined in the cleansing spirit and has kept the drink fridge empty for the past 4 weeks. Now I wonder how long we could keep going this way?
Lets go back to the days when my cooking skills were inexistent. Actually, I could boil rice, which hardly counts as a gourmet prowess though it goes a long way towards sustenance.
When faced with the task of learning to cook, where do you start? These were the late 1980’s, pre-internet days, so forget googling recipes or join food forums. I had no family and very few friends in Australia, international phone calls cost nearly $2/minute therefor calling Mum for family recipes was out of question. So I bought The Robert Carrier Cookbook, which was perfect for 2 reasons: the blurb on the back cover stated “if you have only one cookery book on your shelf, make it this one”, and even though it was nearly 900 pages, it was the size of a paperback, so would not take space on the boat.
This is the most comprehensive cookbook I could find at the time, it covers everything from Choosing your menu, to How to set up your kitchen, All about beef, and even Christmas fare. His chapter on Souffles alone has 22 pages! Unlike most books nowadays, there is not a single photograph, which at times was unnerving, when I had no idea how the dish was supposed to turn out.
One meal I had no problem picturing though was an omelette. A standard fare in France, I had eaten omelette nature hundreds of time, just never cooked one. Until I read Robert Carrier’s recipe, which not only included the most simple ingredients (eggs, butter) but also described the technique used to produce the perfect basic omelette (it’s in the lifting and the sliding!).
After purchasing a dedicated pan*, I practised and practised for days, using Terry and his daughters as guinea pigs. Then one night, we had unexpected guests, and with nothing in the fridge but eggs, I offered my humble omelettes as an impromptu dinner. It was such a success, my neighbour asked for the recipe! I find it so quick and easy to make, over the years it’s been my go-to dish when pressed for time or ideas. That’s the first thing I taught my kids to cook, when they were old enough to handle a hot pan. An individual omelette is the quintessential fast-food on the boat!
*my omelette pan has followed me from boats to boats. It is a heavy duty non skid pan, 20cm wide with rounded slides, so the omelette can slide easily onto the plate when cooked.
Individual French Omelette Adapted from The Robert Carrier Cookbook
1 tbsp water
1tbsp whipped egg white (optional)
- Beat eggs with water until well mixed. Add salt to taste.
- Heat butter until sizzling in a preheated omelette pan. Remove pan from heat and pour in egg mixture.
- Return to heat and quickly stir eggs for a second or two to assure even cooking.
- As eggs begin to set , lift edges with a fork or spatula so that the liquid can run under. Repeat until liquid is all used up but the eggs are still moist and soft. All the while, shake the pan to keep the eggs from sticking (alternatively, run a thin spatula gently underneath)
- When eggs are set, roll omelette on to a warm plate by tilting the pan starting it away from edge at one side with a fork and letting it roll over itself.
This is a plain omelette. Variations are endless, here are some of suggestions from our crew.
Add between step 4 and 5:
– Grated cheese and chopped ham or fried bacon ( our 10 year old daughter)
– Grated carrots, shallots, bean sprouts, and a splash of soya sauce (from me)
– Buttered mushrooms and garlic (from Terry)
– Left over bacon and potatoes, finely chopped (from our 15 year old son).
So far, August has not been the quiet month I expected for a detox. Too many hot days, children on holidays, cooking experiments leading to impromptu gatherings leading to too many “dates with bottles of wine” as my friend Monica would say. It’s not for lack of trying and in an effort to kick start the day in some virtous kind of way, I have enrolled the assistance of my trusted blender. So every second day or so ( depending on everyone’s mood and the state of the fridge supplies!), I make smoothies for breakfast.
Not only do they taste good, but they’re so healthy you can feel yourself actually coming back to life as you drink it (well, I do, anyway). The blender I use is a monster I acquired in the US, called a Mix n Blend II by Blendtec. It’s a pretty heavy duty machine, a bit of an over kill for blending smoothies, but I wanted an appliance that could also crush ice and also mill/grind grains, in case I fancied making my own flour on the boat ( that hasn’t happened yet, in the 2 years we’ve been at sea!) Oh, and it has a mixing bowl too, so that’s what I use for making bread and cakes. But I digress. The reason I mention this, is that running this blender early in the morning causes such a racket, it wakes up the kids. How is that as an added bonus?
Now for the smoothies. We’ve experimented with fruits and vegetables, and fruits win hands down in the morning. Spinach and celery green power shakes at 7am have never found any takers on this boat I am afraid. Ok, here’s what goes in (for 4 serves):
1 banana, either fresh or frozen. It adds thickness and sweetness to the shake, and if using frozen you don’t need ice cubes. ( Tip: do not throw your overripe bananas, cut them in 1” chunks and freeze them)
1 cup plain yoghurt, unflavoured and unsweetened (in Mexico, look for yogurt natural sin azucar, as yogurt natural comes loaded with sugar)
2 cups of fresh fruits, whatever is on hand. In Mexico, we use mainly tropical items, like mangoes, pineapples, rockmelons. Anywhere else, strawberries, apples, peaches, nectarines…Whole citrus fruits do not work (trust me, they will turn the whole thing in a mushy mess!) And any berries with large seeds (rasperries, blackberries,…) will give a gritty texture to the shake. We don’t like that. Oh, and if you use melons, then skip the bananas, the 2 flavours don’t go so well together in my opinion.
½ cup of orange, lemon or lime juice, my kids like apple juice but that’s too sweet for my liking
100 ml natural sweetener like maple syrup (my favourite), honey or agave syrup
A small handful of mint when we have (it goes beautifully with pineapple or melons)
3 or 4 ice cubes ( any more and you’ll need a spoon to scoop it out)
Blend on the smoothies/shake setting if your blender has one, otherwise at low speed for 10 seconds then high speed for another 10 seconds or so until everything is nice and smooth. Enjoy!