The Spice Necklace Blog

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Prince Rupert Bay, Dominica:
May 13, 2010
A Cook-up with Providence

“Tomorrow evening for the cook-up,” Martin announced last night. Martin, a.k.a. “Providence” (the name of his wooden pirogue), is the very knowledgeable Dominican boatman and guide whom we’d first met in Prince Rupert Bay several years ago. Martin is also a very accomplished cook. (In Chapter 5 of The Spice Necklace, I describe the morning he taught me how to make crab and callaloo soup on our boat.). So when Receta sailed back into Prince Rupert Bay a few days ago and he suggested a beach cook-up, we told him to count us in.

He described how we would build a fire on the beach with a tripod of rocks around it to support the pot. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different vision. Though May is traditionally Dominica’s driest month, that’s not the case this year. It has started raining three, four, five, a dozen times a day – not merely cats and dogs, but build-an-ark-type downpours. On the upside, Receta’s water-catching canvas is in place, and our tanks are just about completely topped up. On the downside, a beach cook-up is out of the question. “It has to be on one of the boats,” Martin says. Receta gets the nod.

Martin dropped by first thing this morning with a container of fresh coconut milk he’d just made, and to run through the other ingredients we’d need for the cook-up. Shopping in Portsmouth is challenging midweek – see my April 9th post – but between rain showers (dumps, actually), Steve and I headed to town and knocked off the handful of items on the list.

Around 5:30, Martin and his wife, Florian, arrive at Receta, followed by Chris and Yani from Magus, and Lynn and Ken from Silverheels III. Around 5:45, it starts pissing bigtime – a hard, driving rain – and even though Receta’s deck canvas is up, we have to close all the hatches and ports – the first step towards turning the interior into a steam bath.

Martin and all the women cram below decks in the area around Receta’s one-person galley, and the cooking begins. The dish we’re making is called a “wimen” (pronounced “wee-may”), Creole for “stir up,” a big one-pot stew. Martin first has me heat some olive oil in my largest pot – the one called into service for boiling lobsters – so that he can burn sugar to make browning…which adds ferocious clouds of smoke to the already thick air. After that, he directs (with Florian occasionally correcting) while I add ingredients to the pot. First in are monster-sized chicken drumsticks (seasoned earlier in the afternoon with garlic, onion, seasoning peppers, and bottled green seasoning), which I toss in the hot burnt sugar until they turn a lovely mahogany color. With the legs removed to a side plate, the lentils I’ve been soaking all day (as per Martin’s early-morning instruction) are dumped in the pot to precook. No time for a sip of wine, as Martin is now calling for flour, cornmeal, and salt to start the dumplings. Lynn and Yani are assigned the job of pinching off pieces of dumpling dough and rolling them between their palms to form small cylinders.

On a roll: Making dumplings, with Martin Carrierre as our guide

When the lentils start to burst, the chicken legs go back in the pot, followed in stages by chunks of Irish potato (the local name for ordinary white potatoes) and tannia, a tuber related to dasheen; more water; three of the all-important “Maggi cubes,” the preferred island brand of bouillon; a package of Maggi dehydrated chicken noodle soup, a standard cook’s helper here; the seasoning mixture in which the chicken had marinated; an anise-scented bay leaf; the dumplings; the coconut milk; more seasoning peppers; and more garlic. Martin uses a nifty technique to crush the garlic without a garlic press, holding the clove in his hand and reaming it with the tip of a paring knife.

I lose track of how long the pot has been bubbling (and I have been dripping sweat), but perhaps it’s an hour before Martin calls for a taste. Florian gets the first spoonful. “A little salt,” she says – but, otherwise, perfect.

As everyone climbs from the cabin into the beautifully cool cockpit – the rain has mercifully ceased, at least temporarily – I ladle the “stir up” into bowls, making sure everyone gets some of every ingredient (though when it comes to the white potato and the tannia, it’s more a matter of luck; I can’t tell the white chunks apart at this point) and lots of the lentil-thickened sauce. We all dig in, and I notice the cockpit goes completely silent. No conversation, all focus on the food. Deelish.

In addition to learning a traditional Dominican recipe, Martin’s three galley assistants picked up an important tip from him tonight. He told us about an older local woman renowned for her cooking. “Her crab farci” – stuffed crab backs – “are so good you want to lick your fingers,” he said. The secret to her excellence? Each time before she sets to work in her kitchen, “she says she has to open her eyes first.” And to do that, she has a drink of rum.

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