Friday, December 24, 2010

Braggin' on Jackie

More of my favorite posts from 2010...

We are still eating pudding around here.  But that gives me a chance to revisit the post which gave me a chance to brag on my wife...


Two Ways to Cook - You will be hearing that phrase soon, all part of a special purpose.  But the 2Ways2Cook announcement is for another day.  Hard to believe, but with the first sentence, I am digressing already.

Digressing from the news of the day... I don't live in the US Virgin Islands any more.  I am a Kansan again.  As you read this, we are flying home (or have already landed).

Fair warning, I am about to get symbolic (was the ship sailing off into the sunset too much on the nose for you to have missed it???), nostalgic, contemplative, introspective, melodramatic, maybe a little morose but ultimately... probably content with a side dish of optimism.

Gonna be a long post.

First up, just a tiny bit of the history we were not allowed to share when we first moved to the island...

I am about to get mellow dramatic.

You know her as my taste tester, my wife with the inconvenient day job (as I like to describe her).  In fact, Jackie is a lifelong employee of the United States Department of Justice.  6 months ago, she was asked to come to the US Virgin Islands to aid in a special project.  What was seen by many as a boondoggle, was in fact a potentially dangerous assignment.  We were asked to keep her job a secret, among not only old friends, but even the fact that she was a federal employee was to be on the Q-T should we happen to befriend anyone local.  Now, I'm not saying Jackie was crawling through the bushes with an assault rifle and a knife between her teeth.  She is (as Julie Powell liked to call her job) a government drone.  An office worker.  But, unlike Julie, my Jackie does not view her life as dead end.  She is loyal, patriotic, faithful, hard working and loves her country.  But, not everyone in the Caribbean appreciates government workers in general and Justice Department workers in specific.

So, while I have had a wonderful time sharing images, recipes and occasional stories of island life with you, Jakie was here for a reason.  The job is not done, in fact, the job can never be done.  But, the US, and because of assignment, this corner of world is just a little better because Jackie served her country.

This is not the first time she has been called.  15 years ago, when the coward Timothy McVeigh chose children, civil servants and defenders of our rights as his targets when he blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Jackie was on sight within 24 hours.  Again, Jackie did not grab a flack jacket and storm the cowards' hide out.  But, she was part of the team that discovered the VIN number on the broken axle from the rental van that McVeigh used to carry the explosives to the side of the building that held the employee day care center.  She dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" that was used for the discovery that had she not done her job 100%, the evidence would not have been able to be used in court.  

For a very long time, she remembered walking by the fence that held the mementos loved ones left.  She talked with and took statements from family members that were still missing their loved ones.  The first couple nights after the building was destroyed, she slept in make shift barracks. She feared that the same people who killed hundreds of federal employees would return to kill those selected to sift through the evidence.  Every year in the middle of April, when the news services do anniversary stories, she cries so hard she shakes.

Now, she has a new set of memories.  She has faces in her mind and friends in harm's way that she will never forget.

If you will excuse a one paragraph rant... Yes, Julie Powell was a government drone with no power or authority.  Funny line in the movie trailer that ran over and over.  She also had a very important job that needed to be done.  She chose not to be empowered by the work she was accomplishing and chose a way to escape.  Seizing your own day as Julie did is a noble thing.  Belittling, even if just for a funny line in a blog (or movie trailer), those that stay behind to do that work  reduces her accomplishments in my eye.   Being a government worker is not a punch line to a joke.  Please remember that when you read news stories, or see the tragedies that TV news loves so much, or watch those scenes in Julie & Julia; real people, with real emotions are there to do the important work that makes our system of justice the envy of the world.  And feared by the worst of mankind.  

Jackie is one of those real people, and I am proud of her.

Now, having said all that, I don't want you to think it was all work and no play.  I had the very important job of making sure Jackie had relaxing weekends and memories that included snorkeling, pina coladas and too much Jimmy Buffet.

Oh, and I fed her too.

 Island cooking was not at all what I thought it would be pre-move.  

And that became a good thing.

From the prices, to the choices, to the quality of the ingredients, to the lack of a grill, the lack of modern cooking tools of the trade (processors, KitchenAids, etc.) to even just the challenge of getting food from the store to our condo; island cooking was a challenge and limiting.  I was forced to either serve pop-tarts every day or rise to the occasion.

I learned to bake bread.

I improved my plating presentations.

I was inspired by island ingredients.

And I cooked everyday meals and special occasion meals all with an eye towards serving the best I could.  This "Year on the Grill" has always been about a learning curve.  I knew just a little about cooking when I started my blog.  The island challenges have given me an opportunity to leap frog the graph of my cooking curve.  I was given an enormous opportunity, and I hope that the differences of where I have been and where I am foodiewise is beginning to show.

Forewarned, I am about to get introspective and contemplative...

I watched a lot of Food Network and Bravo. When did cooking become a timed competitive sport?  Why is cooking with 5 ingredients a goal.  Why does serving meals in 60 minutes (to the second) a quality that implies Top Chef-dom?  In the real world... In my Cul de Sac, if I don't have a plate ready as I envision it, it's just an excuse to refresh drinks.  Those competition cooking shows are gimmicks and give me very little knowledge, inspiration or ideas.  I watch 'em.  I am entertained.  But at the same time, I find it sad that those are the accomplishments that are rewarded.

BUT, turn on one of the many Bobby Flay shows.  Specifically, the Throwdown episodes are the best example of rewarding the concept of 2Ways2Cook.  Not only do they highlight two ways to cook the same dish, but win or lose, everyone celebrates the best of the best.  No one is running, no one is grabbing ingredients before the other cook can get them and no one is 60 seconds late from serving their best.  Just my 2 cents worth, but Top Chef and especially the elimination shows belong more on the Game Show Network (that I watch, High Stakes Poker is the best show on TV) than on the Food Network.  I want to see great dishes, great presentations and food that I could envision making, with real accessible ingredients.  Bobby Flay, Guy Fieri, Alton Brown, Anne Burrell and many more provide wonderful examples of what I mean.  What I enjoy most about the state of TV Cooking.

As an aside, does anyone watch Bobby Flay's "The Main Ingredient" series (reruns are on the Lifetime network) from 1996.  A baby faced young future Top Chef is unpolished, unscripted and has a seat of his pants feel to it.  He also shows real food, great recipes, proper techniques and ends with great presentations.  I wonder how the 1996 Bobby Flay would do on today's Next Food network Star?

But I digress.

So, we are coming home.  Jackie did what she came to do.  At least one very bad guy is in federal custody.

I like to think I made the most of my resources (you all), the ingredients I found and my imagination.

So, I leave the island with renewed respect for my wife.  And I leave with a deeper appreciation for the applications I can do with what I know.

This entire meal was a combination of several recipes I applied to make the whole.  Each of these recipes were part of my island cooking experience...

This was the last meal I cooked on the island.  It screams 2Ways2Cook.  2 ways to cook scallops (braised in rum and pan seared in a local hot sauce).  2 ways to prepare Pesto, A rustic Ohio (walnuts as an ingredient) basil pesto, and a tropical roasted red pepper/pineapple and Cajun boiled peanut pesto.  All served with a symbolic Yin/Yang flat bread presentation.

It's only natural, everyone asks how we are feeling about leaving island living.  Yin and yang is now our answer.  I couldn't be more happy.  I couldn't be more depressed.  It's an ending and a sense of renewal in our life together.  I will never experience anything like this again and I have exciting plans for making the familiar exciting.

And that means I got an awful lot from island life.   

OK, recipe application time...

First, Pesto... 2Ways2Cook -

Do you remember my 

2 cups fresh Basil Leaves

4 cloves Garlic

1/4 cup Walnut pieces

1/2 cup Extra Virgin olive Oil

1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan Cheese

I did not have enough Basil, so I added about 1/4 cup of some amazing locally grown Garlic Chives

Add everything to a food processor or mini chopper and pulse until you have the desired consistency.  I like my pesto thick and chunky.  Another way to serve pesto is in a semi-liquid state.  Just pulse and process till you get the pesto of your dreams.

And do you remember my 

To make the pesto, I roasted 2 red peppers...

Roasting a pepper is easy, and adds an extra layer of sweetness to your pepper.  It draws out the natural sugars in the pepper and makes a normally bland pepper (the bell) a much more full of flavor ingredient.  It is easiest to grill them, but without a grill, I just used the stove top method in a dry skillet.  Put the hot pepper into a plastic ziplock bag and allow the pepper to cool.  The skin will peal easily, leaving just the meat of the pepper and none of the charred skin.

I had bought a fresh pineapple (one of my very favorite fruits).  I took an equal amount of pineapple to the pepper, added a couple cloves of garlic, and a small amount of fresh ginger.  For the nuts in the pesto, I used a local product, 1/4 cup Cajun Boiled Peanuts.  Put all this into a mini chopper (one of the few items I brought from home).  Finally, I added 1 cup of grated Parmesan Cheese and mixed.  Bingo bango bongo... PRESTO, I had Pesto.

Why look, not only 2Ways2Cook, but also 2 ways to write out a recipe.  One is instructional, with a conversational tone, the other more specific, with a classical list of ingredients.  But I digress...

And do you remember my 

I use a wonderful recipe I found for Napoletana Pizza Dough.  On my baking day, I make up a batch (one batch, six balls of pizza dough).  The balls freeze well and I usually find uses for all 6 within a week.

I divided one of the balls (my last island pizza dough ball...sniff), into 4 equal size portions.  And from there, just flatten out to a mini pizza size about 5 inches across.  I then took a sharp knife point and free hand drew and cut the Yin/Yang symbol.  I also did an egg wash.

And do you remember my

The easiest way to cook these tender little beauties.  When cooking scallops, it is vital to cook only till they are opaque throughout.  Overcooking a scallop will lead to nothing but little pretty shoe leather.  By poaching them on a bed of onion rings (keeps them from touching the pan), you are steaming them.  By poaching them in a flavored rum, you are adding the taste of the flavoring to the easily overpowered delicate creatures.

They come out soft, buttery coconut enhanced delicate seafood gems.  They are wonderful this way!

BUT, do you also remember my

Raspberry Chipotle Pan Seared SEA SCALLOPS ?

The cooking method used is very similar.  I used a local island hot sauce to sear the scallops this time.  Be careful to not use too much, just enough to cover the very bottom of the pan.  You can watch, as the scallops cook, the colored sauce will climb the sides of the scallops as they cook. Instead of steaming on a bed of onions, you are pan searing.  Cooking right on the pan and in the sauce.  You will get sear, char marks on the bottoms and tops as they cook.  This is a more difficult cooking process, as the scallops need to be watched much more carefully, as the difference between cooked and overcooked is much narrower due to the direct heating method.


Once we have all these skills and know how.  The actual dish comes together very fast.  The dough is done in advance (just have to know to get it out of the freezer 5 or 6 hours ahead of time to thaw and reach room temp).  The pesto can be made in advance.  And making it in advance gives the cook something to snack on all afternoon.  

Everything tastes better on a Ritz!

Finally, it is time to cook... 

bake the flatbread... Preheated oven, 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.  This gets the bread just slightly cooked.

Pull the bread out and add a layer of pesto.  One color on each half of the Yin (or is it the yang).

Return to the oven and bake for an additional 10 minutes to finish baking the bread and toasting the pesto (and my does your oven smell good and nutty and fresh).

While those are baking, cook the scallops.  You want both versions hot at the same time.  So, two pans (Zen and the art of dishwashing)... again, why is a single pan such a goal.  Good food, interesting presentations are worth all the effort.  If you don't think so, have a pop tart (but I digress).

Pull the pesto/flatbread out of the oven, arrange on a plate, top with the scallops and ...

Ponder the beginnings and ends of your life.  

Getting potty trained (the true beginning of independence and the end of a special bond that only infants and parents share), 

High School graduation (leaving the safety of lifelong friends and learning to embrace new best friends for life in college), 

marriage, parenthood, empty nesting... 

And if you are lucky... 

Getting to cook and learn techniques and applications to serve your wife while she is working a six month detail in St Thomas, of the US Virgin Islands.

My Yin and Yang

See you tomorrow from the Cul de Sac (Remember, it's where it's at)
And my back yard (It's the place to be)...


  1. This is an amazing post dedicated to the heroine your life. The public is not often given insight to what happens behind the scenes, but so much respect and gratitude should be given to people like Jackie - and you for supporting them.

  2. Just wanted to say that this post brought me to tears. God Bless you, Jackie! Thank you for the work you have done and are doing. And thank you, Dave, for posting such a fantastic tribute and sharing your heard-earned kitchen knowledge (esp. your frank and funny observations) with all of us. :) Wishing you both the very best for 2011!