Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
A Trio of Caribbean Rum Adventures
It's not just for pirates anymore.

I love rum! White rum, dark rum, spiced rum, any kind of rum. Gimme rum!

For summer drinking, fruity rum cocktails can’t be beat. For cooking, rum is my favorite liquor ingredient in cakes, confections, and especially fruit desserts. So last fall, while cruising the Southern Caribbean, I made sure to explore the local rums of each island we visited.

Rum is everywhere in the Caribbean. Each event and activity seems to offer the ubiquitous complimentary rum punch cocktail. Even the tourist gift shops and liquor stores offer free samples. And the prices are duty free so rums are a bargain. I came home weighed down with eight different bottles of rum.

Here are three of my more interesting rum adventures.

San Juan, Puerto Rico - Bacardi Factory Tour

Darwin and I had some time to spend in San Juan on Sunday before boarding our cruise ship so we explored the streets of Old San Juan in the morning. Around midday it was beginning to get very hot in the sun so we decided to visit the Bacardi Factory.

Here is a great travel tip. To get there, take the ferry across the bay to Catalano ($1) and a taxi from the ferry dock to the Casa De Bacardi ($3 a person). The cruise ships offer bus tours to Bacardi for around $39 per person but you can do it on your own for only $8 a person roundtrip and have a short breezy boat cruise across the bay instead of a long crowded bus ride around it.

Bacardi, the largest rum distiller in the world, has a long history of rum making, and the free tour was informative and fun. It includes coupons for two free drinks in the large open sided pavilion topped with a swooping roof resembling the wings of a bat, their logo. We arrived just as the next tour was starting so we didn’t have time to get our drinks before we hopped on the open-air tour tram. We toured around the beautifully landscaped grounds as the driver described the facility. Unfortunately, as it was Sunday, there was no bottling activity in the factory.

Next, we entered an air-conditioned building through a reproduction of a 19th century Spanish Caribbean colonial courtyard with a beautiful fountain and tiled murals showing the history of rum throughout the islands. Each visitor was given a hand-held tour phone which described all the exhibits throughout the museum. After stopping in the cozy theater to watch a film highlighting Bacardi’s long history, we walked at our own pace throughout the museum, which is a reproduction of the original distillery. There were different interactive displays showing the history of rum, exhibits covering the various steps of rum making, and pieces of original distillery equipment. I found most interesting the section on aging, which allowed you to smell the rum during the different stages of production. The aroma of the aged rum was definitively smoother than that of the raw rum.

Then, in a beautifully appointed Art Deco lounge designed as a replica of Bacardi’s prohibition era executive bar in Cuba, tour guides dressed as old-style waiters discussed the history of rum’s popularity and the story behind the Cuba Libre cocktail.

Next, loud music drew us down a long bright hallway lined chronologically with large Bacardi advertisements from the past century to a tower made of hundreds of Bacardi rum bottles. There we discovered some very clever video email kiosks that allowed you to make a short video of yourself, in front of the rum tower with the music blaring in the background, and, with the push of a button, email it to friends.

Like all free tours, it ended in the gift shop, which sold all Bacardi rum products at very good prices, as well as t-shirts, caps and other souvenirs. We went out to the pavilion and had our free drinks. Bacardi rums are widely available back home, so there was nothing very unusual for us to try. I had the mojito, a refreshing rum and mint drink, and also tried their special rum punch of the day.

Of all the rum tours we tried, this one was the most elaborate and professional, although the rums themselves were not unusual. I highly recommend a visit to the Casa De Bacardi as a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours in San Juan.

Barbados – Mount Gay Distillery and Visitor’s Center

Upon arrival in Barbados we found a licensed taxi driver, Todd, who was willing to take us around the island for the entire day for a set price. If you have at least two people in your party, this is a less expensive option than the bus tours offered by the cruise ship. But more important than the cost savings, you have the flexibility to go where you want, when you want and stay as long as you like.

One of the places we told Todd we wished to visit was the Mount Gay Rum visitor’s center, located just outside of Bridgetown, the port where we docked. He surprised us by first taking us to the actual distillery in the northern part of the island where the rum is made. The Mount Gay visitor’s center is a very popular spot with tourists, but at the distillery we were the only visitors. It was a very interesting tour and unlike any brewery or winery we had ever visited before. We donned hard hats and one of the workers took us around, describing the process of rum making, and answering our questions.

Most modern facilities have stainless steel tanks with tight covers. The Mount Gay distillery starts their rum in huge old wooden vats. The molasses, water, and yeast are mixed and allowed to sit uncovered during the fermentation process. There were several vats at various stages of fermentation. The aroma of the molasses and yeast was very nice and made me think of gingersnap cookies.

Instead of relying on public power utilities, Mount Gay still uses it own steam boilers to generate power. The rum is distilled in their old-fashioned pot stills and then placed in large containers and shipped to their aging facility.

Later in the afternoon, after visiting other Barbados attractions, we stopped at the more popular Mount Gay visitor’s center and took a tour with a group of other tourists. I was very glad we visited the real distillery first. At the visitor’s center they offer a short film and small museum area. At the end of the tour is the tasting bar. The bartender explained how to do rum tasting, which it turns out is very much like wine tasting.

The Mount Gay Extra Old rum, distilled in copper pot stills and aged in special oak barrels, was a treat. What excellent sipping rum! Dark, smooth, toasty and a bit smoky; it is the rum equivalent of good single malt scotch. Mount Gay Extra Old rum is now my favorite rum for drinking straight.

In the gift shop we bought a 1.75 liter bottle for $25.25. Here in Pennsylvania you can only buy 750 ml bottles and they cost $30.99 apiece. In Barbados we got more than twice the rum for about 20% less!

St Lucia - St Lucia Distillers

During my pre-trip reading about St. Lucia I had heard of a local cocktail called Stairway to Heaven, made with a special local rum liqueur of the same name. This liqueur is flavored with ginger and bois bandé, a bark from a local tree that is reputed to have aphrodisiac properties. In addition to this liqueur, the cocktail contains regular rum, coconut cream, and orange juice. I had the opportunity to try this drink at a large open-sided thatched roof bar right on the beach at Anse Chastenet. I don’t know if it was the drink or the atmosphere but it was certainly delicious!

We stopped for free rum tasting at the St. Lucia Distillers. There was no formal tour or education here. Visitors belly up to a large bar area and may taste anything and everything available. They had a very impressive selection of rums, including some unusual ones. We tasted a Rum Cream liqueur which was a lot like eggnog. The peanut flavored rum, which sounds weird, was really delicious! St. Lucia Distillers offered about a dozen different types of rum and of course I tasted most of them. Hic!

Our taxi driver, a native St Lucian, expected me to go for all the sweet, flavored rums. When I tried and preferred the stronger, richer rums, he was first shocked, and then amused. He laughed with glee, because, “Woman, you enjoy the men’s rums!”.

A specialty of St. Lucia is Kwèyòl Spice Rum. Delightfully fragrant, and made with the Bois Bandé aphrodisiac bark, it has the aroma of vanilla and cinnamon but the taste is not as sweet as the aroma suggests. It is very complex, with traces of oak, bitters and nuts. The label is beautiful, too. I bought a bottle to bring home.

Despite this plethora of rum experiences, we left many other Caribbean islands and their rum treasures unexplored…. for next time!

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Fresh Corn Three Ways

When I was growing up on suburban Long Island my parents became avid vegetable gardeners for a few years. Like most kids that age, I didn’t care for vegetables at all. However, I did appreciate the little side business I developed to deal with the surplus vegetables the garden produced. I would load my little red wagon with the extra veggies and pull it through the neighborhood, selling eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and zucchini door to door.

But at that age I would never eat any of those vegetables, not on purpose anyway. About the only vegetables I would allow to pass between my lips were potatoes and corn. That corn, most of the year, came either from a can or the freezer but in the summer time, before my parents caught the gardening bug, we had fresh corn on the cob from local farm stands. The fresh local corn was nothing like the canned or frozen varieties. My mother would boil it in a big pot of boiling water and we would eat it slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt. Even when I was missing my two front teeth I could nibble the kernels from the cob and not leave a single one behind. I would then suck the naked cob like a Popsicle to extract every last drop of that sweet corn flavor.

As good as that local farm corn was, the freshly picked corn from my parents’ garden was even better. Back then I attributed it to my parents’ green thumbs, but now I understand the real reason. From the minute an ear of corn is picked the sugars quickly begin to turn to starch, so even a few hours between picking and eating can made a noticeable difference in sweetness and even texture.

I didn’t understand that back then as a child, but I did know how to cook my parents’ garden corn on the cob. I would put a big pot of water on the stove to boil and toss in a spoonful of salt. Just before it looked it ready to boil I would run out to the garden, pick some ears of corn, quickly strip away the husk and silky hairs and immediately drop the ears into the pot just as the water began to boil hard, After 5 minutes or so, it was ready to eat. Mere minutes old, this was the best corn ever!

As a grown-up food enthusiast I now enjoy all vegetables and I’ve discovered much more interesting ways to cook fresh corn on the cob. My favorite is on the grill. Charcoal grilling offers a bonus smoky flavor but a gas grill works well too. While the grill is preheating remove the husks and silk from the corn. I like to scrub each ear with a soft vegetable brush to remove every little hair. When the grill is hot, oil the grate, and place the ears of corn directly on it. Brush the corn with melted butter and turn butter side down to start cooking. The butter is very important to keep the corn moist, and it adds great flavor. After two minutes or so, take a peek at the underside of the corn. It should be flecked with golden patches. Brush with more melted better and turn to cook the other side. Continue brushing the corn with butter and turning it until the corn is cooked and golden-flecked all the way around.

Now taste the magic that hot fire performs on fresh corn. The natural sugars in the corn actually caramelize, making the corn even sweeter. As it is not waterlogged from boiling, the fresh corn flavor is concentrated and the kernels are crisp tender, not soggy. This cooking method will make even supermarket corn taste better.

Sometimes I want to cook fresh corn, but I can’t grill it. Maybe it is raining outside, or perhaps I want to use the grill for cooking other things and have no room for the corn. In those cases, I make oven-roasted corn.

Fresh corn cooked this way has a wonderful roasted aroma and flavor, and juicy texture. Best of all, it is an incredibly simple way to cook a dozen ears of corn.
Arrange the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Trim the long tassels from the ears of the ears of corn, but don’t husk them! Just place the whole ears of corn directly on the oven rack and cook for 30 – 40 minutes.
The husks will turn golden brown and the kitchen will smell wonderful. The corn is done when it feels soft when you press on it.

These cooked ears of corn are shucked very easily at this point. Strip off the browned husks and most of the corn silk comes right off along with the husks. Then just pass the butter and salt!

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Parisian Inspiration: Fresh Beets with Feta

During a recent week-long visit to Paris I found myself inspired by the amazing array of delicious quality foods I saw in shops and markets as I roamed the city. I was driven by this inspiration to make dinner one night for the six of us who were staying in a large apartment that week.

This simple but absolutely delicious starter/salad came to mind when I discovered that the produce departments in the local grocery stores offered fresh cooked beets, already peeled and sold in shrink wrap sealed packages.

It was only a few years ago that I became enamored with beets. But along with that affection came some disdain because they’re such a messy chore to prepare. Somehow everything in my kitchen - the counters, the cutting board, the sponges, and my hands - always ends up tinted fuchsia. And Seuss’ Cat in the Hat never comes to rescue me. What a treat it was to just open a package and voila, fresh beets, all ready to use.

This is easy to prepare but elegant, with wonderful flavors and colors. The earthy beets, lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, are complemented by creamy tangy feta cheese. The onion adds just the right touch of sweet sharpness.

Fresh Beets with Feta Cheese

4 medium beets, cooked and peeled
½ red onion, peeled, sliced and separated into rings
2 tablespoons olive oil (lemon flavored, if available)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
freshly ground pepper to taste
6 tablespoon crumbled feta cheese

Slice beets into slices about 1/3 inch thick and arrange on four individual serving plates, 3 – 5 slices per plate. Arrange 2 -3 onion rings over each serving.

Whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. Add pepper. Drizzle dressing over beets and allow to sit for about 15 minutes at room temperature.

Just before serving, distribute the crumbled feta cheese over each serving.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The earliest memory of my fascination with cooking involves zeppole. I was very young, probably four years old. My parents and I, from Brooklyn, were visiting my great grandmother in New York’s Little Italy during the Festival of San Gennaro. We left her apartment and went down to the streets to enjoy the celebration.

Befitting an Italian festival, there were crowds in the streets, music in the air, and delicious scents everywhere. A street vendor frying zeppole caught my attention. I stopped to watch him cook his fare while my parents continued to stroll down the street. I was captivated by this amazing process where balls of dough dropped into hot oil instantly turned into golden puffy pillows. What magic in the hot oil caused the pale blobs to metamorphose into those beautiful billowy puffs? I was mesmerized.

After their oily bath, they were drained, dusted with powdered sugar, and sold by the bagful to hungry passersby. I was so engrossed by the cooking process it hadn’t even occurred to me that I should want to taste one. As I continued to gaze at the tawny clouds dancing in the rolling oil, a large hand thrust a freshly cooked zeppola in my face. I looked up into the eyes of the zeppole vendor. He said something to me in Italian and his hand emphasized that I should take this zeppola from him, a gift.

I accepted the warm fritter and took a bite. The crust was thin and delicate and lightly sweetened with fine powdered sugar. The soft interior melted in my mouth. My pleasure must have been obvious because he smiled at me. I suddenly felt very self-conscious and shy and ran away to catch up with my parents, the treasured zeppola clutched in my hand.

My next encounter with zeppole was several years later at a family gathering at my Auntie Antoinette’s house on Long Island. All my cousins and siblings and I had been herded there to watch a major television event, The Wizard of Oz. The broadcast of this movie on television was quite a big deal, VCRs not yet having been invented. While we watched the movie my aunt fried batches of fresh zeppole for us.

As I munched on the warm pillows of fried dough, my mind was focused more on the zeppole than on Dorothy and Toto. I discovered that I preferred the outer crust more than the soft interior. With the next zeppola, I nibbled off only the outside layer, leaving behind a pillow of soft cooked dough. I stared at it, wishing it had more crust, and suddenly had an amazing idea. Emboldened by my brainstorm, I walked into the kitchen, handed the naked zeppola to my aunt and asked her to fry it again for me. Always obliging, Auntie did it. It came out of the pot with a brand new crust! I ate only the crust from it and had her fry it again. I repeated this a few times, each time eating only the newly formed crust, until my zeppola was the size of a large marble. I felt I had made an amazing discovery.

Where my first experience with zeppole had introduced me to the magic of deep frying, this second experience confirmed that I intuitively understood the process of frying and could control it at will, and use it to my advantage. I realized then that cooking was not just a passive process with controlled measures and fixed rules, but an exciting process of experimentation and extrapolation.

Over the years I have encountered many other variations of fried dough: Amish funnel cakes, New Orleans beignets, Hawaiian malassadas, Polish paczki, Navajo fry bread and more. None ever brought me the same satisfaction as those early zeppole.

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