Affectionate Food-Based Collaboration..

For people who love people, and also love to cook, there are few greater pleasures than collaborating with friends and family on a meal (or other food-related activity). For example, I recently had the pleasure of attending a co-educational pie-in-a-jar making party which involved the eating of tacos and the production of some pretty fantastic little pies that were prepared and baked into small canning jars. For fans of pie, especially those without multiple mouths to feed, it’s a brilliant idea, because one can make the pie, put a lid on it, and put it in the freezer. When the yearning for pastry and fruit becomes too strong to bear, you simply remove the jar from the freezer, place it in a cold oven, and turn it on. Twenty minutes later… you’ve got yourself a pie.

This past weekend we hosted another non-competitive potluck showdown, or if you will, an affectionate food-based collaboration. But this time, it had a Caribbean theme, and was motivated by the desire to celebrate a couple of friends’ birthdays and bid farewell to the year’s most dire month: February. Though I had planned to spend the hours leading up to the dinner in the solitary preparation of my contributions, some friends decided to come early, armed with their own raw ingredients. The drinks – an unnamed rum-based concoction with ginger-infused simple syrup, fresh lime and mint – began to flow, and the lively conversation that ensued made the production of multiple patties and roti skins much less tedious.

If your ideal social encounter involves sitting and talking – with a little imbibing thrown in for good measure – then you might think me a bit crazy, but there is something quite wonderful about the conversation that ensues when one is otherwise engaged, especially if that engagement involves some sort of physical activity or labour. When you are busy with an activity, your mind becomes free to wander, the imagination is let loose and all sorts of new revelations can be had.

When I was in my early 20s, I paid for my education by working in the kitchen of a hospital. It was a union job with lots of overtime and shift differentials, so the pay was awesome, but I also grew to love my hours on the conveyor belt, scooping lumps of mashed potatoes onto trays with my left hand, a pitcher of gravy standing ready in my right. Sure, there were the multiple times that the pitcher handle got stuck on the lip of my pocket, causing me to accidentally pour hot gravy all over myself, but for the most part, those hours were spent engaged in that free flow of conversation described above. And since my colleague across the belt was as much as master of soup as I was of starch, we were able to cover many topics of interest while still continuing to get the food into the little plastic bowls. Sometimes I miss that job, because not only did I not bring my work home with me – except for the bits of food that inevitably ended up in my hair – it was also a place where one could go inward, allowing the click click of the conveyor belt and repetitive task to lull one into a meditative state, recharging the brain for later use. But I digress…

The Caribbean feast was a celebration of starchy deliciousness, with the emphasis on starchy. Though I enjoyed each and every mouthful of food for the complexity of flavours it imparted, I was so full that I even passed on breakfast the next morning.

We started with the aforementioned patties, which were actually super easy to make, though the recipe I found on the internet, on a site I can no longer remember, drastically underestimated the amount of flour required to make a workable dough. The recipe was as follows:

– 2 cups of flour
– 1 tablespoon turmeric for colour
– pinch salt
– 1 cup of lard or shortening
– 1 cup of water

The first step was to mix the dry ingredients and add the lard, using your fingers to break it down into small crumbs. I did this, and all was well.

The second step was to add the water and form it into a dough, but the water turned the whole thing into a soupy mess, and I had to add two more cups of flour before I had anything workable in front of me. From there, things get easy. You turn it out onto the counter and knead it a bit, until it becomes elastic and firm. Then you put it aside while you prepare the filling.

Though I mostly made up the filling myself, I found a recipe online that clued me into the key ingredient: wet bread. Yes, you take some white bread, add an equal amount of water, and blend it up. Then you mix it with some sauteed onions and jalapenos, and in this case, some canned peas and carrots – which I procured from the Metro store down the street, after spending a good ten minutes assisting a group of seniors who wanted desperately to cash in on the store’s shockingly good price, but could not reach the desired cans as the store’s employees had rather thoughtlessly stacked them on the top shelf.

Once the filling is ready to go, you cut the dough into pieces, roll each piece into a little circle, drop on some filling and fold the thing over into little half-moon pies. Brush them with water or milk or cream, and bake them for about 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Delightful.

The rest of the meal was perfection embodied in meat and starch: a long-cooked stew of bacon, veal and lamb with dumplings, the easiest jerk pork ever from Mark Bittman – who has regained his status as my favorite online recipe ideas man, hand-rolled roti with roasted potato, squash and chickpea curry, shrimp curry, and coleslaw. There was Red Stripe aplenty and some delicious mixed-fruit cupcakes with burnt sugar icing and ginger ice cream. Yum.

As a footnote: there were many many leftovers. The potato, squash and chickpea curry was turned into an amazingly spicy soup, and the jerk pork made an excellent filling for Mark Bittman’s equally easy and fantastic arepas.

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