Monday, August 28, 2006

Caribbean Dinner -- Pigeon Peas and Rice

I'm lucky enough to have a good group of friends who cook. Many are more serious -- or at least more adventurous cooks than me. Over the years, I've watched one become an amazing self-taught pastry baker while another is the best researcher of international dishes and spices I've seen. We have an informal dinner group and meet every few weeks to cook and eat together. A few rules apply:

* While the group picks the theme for the upcoming dinner, the host or hostess does the recipe research and assigns recipes to each of the dinner group guests. Since everyone cooks, it's a fair bet that you'll be able to make (or at least improvise) on what you're assigned.
* We try new things -- I would never have made samosas on my own as I did for our Indian dinner or learned to make pate for our French dinner. It certainly made me get over my fear of recipes I'd never tried. I've made some delicious discoveries along the way.
* We learn about spices, regional variations, and traditional dishes for all kinds of cuisines. So far, we've done Moroccan, Indian, French, Japanese, Spanish, Northern Italian, and a few more. We still have loads to try -- North African, Thai, Chinese, and Irish come to mind. Plus, a few of our group are vegetarians, so we're challenged to learn something other than just meat.
* We sit down and eat like grownups. Since our group is fairly small (usually 6-8 regulars with another 4-6 floating guests), we sit at an actual dining table and enjoy a dinner party with free flowing wine, discussion about the food, laughter, and fellowship. Imagine, a real dinner party and not a stand up thing where people all bring a dish and the hostess has to worry that too many people are bringing artichoke dip or one of those blocks of cream cheese with salsa dumped over it. And no one gets nervous about whether or not their stemware measures up. We're all happy to eat anywhere on just about anything.

All in all it's been fantastic fun! While sometimes scheduling can be a challenge, we manage to sort it out. We convened again last Saturday and the theme was Caribbean. A wonderful friend of mine from St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands) hosted and it was the perfect late summer "do" with flare! My recipe? Pigeon Peas and Rice -- an island version of beans and rice.

After a bit of research into pigeon peas and combining the two recipes she sent me (with a little extra online research) I think it turned out well. Probably not as spicy as what natives are used to, but pretty interesting and tasty none the less. Her hints? Use Uncle Ben's converted white rice so it won't come out sticky. Also, always use the canned pigeon peas.

The menu was fantastic and as we each described our dishes, our hostess shed a little light on how it fits in with island cuisine. We started with passion fruit "mimosas" (is it a mimosa if you don't make it with orange juice?) and then moved on to Planter's Punch. There was all kinds of dried fruit to snack on while guests arrived and dishes heated. I'm sure I'll miss something but the menu:

Tamarind chicken; a huge, beautiful rack of jerk pork chops (wow); a family recipe of rice with some kind of curry and possibly currents or other fruit in it; pigeon peas and rice; mango salsa; a green salad with fruit and chicken; curried goat (from Da Blue Lagoon which the hostess swears by); amazing spiced rum carrots (fantastic!); Dum bread (a version of a white, yeasty homemade bread closer to Jamaican hard bread; Johnny cakes (fried round biscuits); patties (or "pah-tay's" as their called outside Jamaica) in beef and vegetarian with jerk sauce; and for dessert, papaya custard; mango sorbet; and banana bread.

Drinks were more simple -- lots of Red Stripe, Planter's Punch, and assorted other fruit drinks although the hostess told of a legendary gin and coconut water which is a staple of the islands made with the clear juice from a young coconut. Now *that* is something I want to research further. All in all, another fantastic meal. Next up? South American/Latin in the fall, followed by Thai in the winter.

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