Jon and I were coming back from our usual morning walk with Mango and as we approached our house we smelled a wood-fire burning.
Now, I know, I know….most people would be more than a bit un-nerved, seeing that we were out of the house and, when we left, our grown kids were sleeping on a lazy Labor Day morning.
But that’s not how things seem to work in our house.
Anyway…instead of going into the house through the usual front door, we followed the scent–and went into the backyard through the side.
And…low and behold (not surprisingly) there he was!
My son Benjamin was standing in front of a fully fired up grill–
He was roasting a bread fruit over direct flame (no–actually– IN the flames) in our barbecue, using hardwood (at 10 am in the morning!).
When I saw him I remembered that, the day before, Ben brought this–this odd looking thing into the kitchen. I actually took a picture of it because I had never seen it before.
See, my son Ben loves everything about Jamaica–especially their cuisine–so he’s always shopping at West Indian markets so he can cook their native ingredients. To say he loves to cook is an understatement–and his absolute favorite way to cook is using wood, over open flames.
Maybe it’s partly because he evolved in a home where he experienced cooking as anything but a wussy sport! It wasn’t uncommon for my kids to come down the stairs on a random winter day and see me basting chickens as they would roast (in the fireplace!), using a home-made, slow-twirling, string-spit-concoction. SO MUCH FUN!
And here (below) I’m tending the fire in our wood burning oven….(Truly an athletic experience!)
And just this weekend, on Saturday night, Ben helped me maneuver a 2 foot wide paella pan (no joke–the pan covered four burners!).
The next night (Sunday) I cooked polipo (young octopus). I bought them at Randazzo’s my favorite seafood market on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
Aesthetically-speaking (be forwarned) polipo is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but this has never bothered Ben.
Here they are, after cooking at a brisk simmer (covered) in a pot of vegetable broth for 45 minutes–they then were allowed to cool in the broth…Oh, and don’t panic–The poaching liquid is supposed to turn dark purple.
I drained them…
Then I used paper towels to gently pull off the outer skin and fat layer (this takes several paper towels). Expect many of the suction cups to come off, too. (This is good.)
Then I cut up the flesh which is now so tender…
See–it doesn’t look so scary anymore!
Then I added some chopped vegetables…
(Celery, jicama, sweet onion, roasted red pepper, pitted oil-cured olives, chives and jalapeno)
And tossed the whole thing with a perky vinaigrette –and then stuck it in the fridge to chill.
That same day, Ben came into the kitchen and saw that I was about to wrap whole red snappers in leaves from our fig trees.
The fish are seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil, minced garlic, fresh herbs (thyme, oregano, chives and Italian parsley) and Kosher salt and fresh black pepper).
So, Ben requested that I put some chopped scallions, hot finger peppers and a squeeze of fresh lime juice underneath and on top of each fish (before enclosing them in the leaves)…So, I did!
Ben helped me tie the leaves around the fish with kitchen twine. (He rinsed the strings in water first, to keep them from charring on the grill–such a smart young man…) I chilled them –and took them out of the fridge about 30 minutes before they would go onto the grill.
I filled two chimney starters with hard-wood charcoal and stuffed the bottom with crumpled newspapers (I don’t stuff too tight or it becomes too hard for the paper to ignite the coals–there needs to be some air in there to help feed the fire once you light the paper on fire).
Once I saw flames at the top of the starters, I dumped the coals out onto the grill (underneath the grate)–this usually takes 15 to 20 minutes after fully igniting the paper. I put the grate down and allowed it to get good and hot–then I waited for it to calm down a bit (about 30 minutes after lowering the grate over the hot coals, I was ready to sear the fish).
Just before laying the fish on hot grate, using long tongs, I swabbed the grate liberally with a towel dipped in some vegetable oil (I used a towel that I don’t care about–for obvious reasons).
I seared the fish over direct heat (the outsides of the leaves should also be brushed with some of the same seasoning mixture used for the fish).
The fish sear for a few minutes, then they get turned (brush some more of the seasoning mixture on top before turning)…
Then they sear well on the second side, then get moved to a cooler part of the grill (to now be cooked using in-direct heat). Yes, the leaves are supposed to become nice and charred –this is what releases their unique flavor onto the fish (and into the air!).
Once the fish are repositioned, the lid goes down–but not all the way. (I stick a piece of wood under the lid so that it doesn’t close fully–it should have an opening that’s about 2 1/2 inches–
If you have vents, just open them, forget the wood).
This next part is determined by the size of the fish, the intensity of the heat and the internal temperature of the fish when it goes onto the grill…This time, for me, after searing on both sides, was about 15 minutes (covered) –They were perfect…
Beyond delish–At the table, we cut off the strings, divided the fish (each one was between 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 pounds–three fish fed the 5 of us-generously (especially since I also served the polipo salad and some other stuff)–6 would be fed adequately).
We just peeled back the leaves, which revealed the most succulent fish flesh–loaded with flavor! And, Ben was right! The added aromatics made both the taste and texture more savory and diverse.
So, back to Ben in the back yard, cooking a bread fruit over a wood fire (not sure if I need to remind you that it’s 10 am on Labor Day…)
We looked closer to see what he was up to…
He started here…
He nestled the fruit in the fire …and he let it cook.
And cook…The entire cooking process took about 1 1/2 hours–He kept turning it with tongs until completely blackened and the fruit became tender, which is what makes it edible.
I’m talking really BLACKENED!
Once Ben deemed it “done” he took it off the grill and threw it onto the grass until it was just cool enough to handle, then he hacked it in half with this “major” knife.
He brought it into the kitchen and cut it–removing the blackened skin and nudging the flesh off the central pit.
Ben tasted it while still hot….Just look at him work that knife!
I tasted it too–It was really good! The taste is a combination of a potato and a chestnut (delicious)–with a consistency that’s a bit like home-insulation (that last part I could do without).
Here, we’re making pasta together….Dat-sah-my-boy!!
The point: I’ve never pushed cooking on my children. I always trusted that if I cooked and baked from a genuinely loving, playful and curious place–then they would naturally gravitate toward the kitchen; toward the ability to create joy. Now, as a mother, seeing Ben (my eldest) so happily and so deliberately shop, schlep, chop, knead, sear, simmer and bake–my love and gratitude for my kitchen has deepened. This special room has helped my grown children to nurture themselves and those that they bring into their own homes and hearts, as adults. As a parent, there is nothing that could make me happier. (Well…maybe a wedding??…)