From farm, to market to plate

The mission sounded easy enough:  Go to the Market at the Grounds, buy fresh produce and meats and cook a meal using only local ingredients.

Other than the fact that I found my mission impossible, I think it was a brilliant success.

My biggest problem was cooking a meal in which every ingredient was produced, raised or caught in the Cayman Islands. But once I decided to cheat a little, my mission became fun.

I got to the market at 8am Saturday morning, which was, as I was informed, kind of late for getting to the market. The market crowd is an early crowd, which probably explains why this was my first trip there.

I had no menu in mind because I wasn’t sure what I would buy at the market.  I only had one rule: If it didn’t look fresh, I wasn’t buying it.

The first thing I noticed at the market was the tomatoes at the Hamlin’s Farm booth. They were gorgeous, red-ripe tomatoes that almost screamed “eat me”. And, amazingly enough, they were less expensive than what I pay at the grocery store for things that look like tomatoes and feel like tomatoes, but taste nothing like the tomatoes.

Needless to say, I bought pounds and pounds of tomatoes, even though I had no idea what I was going to do with them yet.

As I walked around the market, I quickly realised there were all kinds of other great looking fruits and vegetables.

Over at Joel Walton’s booth, I picked up eight small eggplants, which were each about the size of an orange.  Joel says they would grow to be the same size as the eggplants sold in the grocery store, but that the small ones are more flavourful.

In the booth next to Joel was Kirkland Nixon, who I learned was adept at growing a lot more than just orchids. Upon hearing about my mission, Kirkland happily donated some small sweet peppers and cherry tomatoes for the cause.

It was then on to East End Garden & Gifts where Pat Panton hooked me up with some arugula that he said Joel Walton called “scotch bonnet rocket” because of the bite.

After purchasing a bundle of callaloo and a bunch of spring onions, I was ready to contemplate what I was going to cook.

Then I realised I had no fat to cook with and since there are no dairy cows on Cayman that I knew of, I needed something other than butter. Zelmalee Ebanks at Willie’s Fresh Fruits and Juices offered two alternatives: her homemade coconut oil and the fat on the salt pork produced at the North Side pig farm. I took both.

After chatting with many of the vendors, I realised what a friendly place the Market at the Grounds was. In times when so many people seem angry, there was nothing but smiles and good will at the market.  To see the faces of the people who will eat the fruits – and vegetables – of their labour, seemed to put a smile on the vendors’ faces. To be able to get such good produce put smiles on the faces of those buying it.

I had intended to make fresh fish the main element of the meal, but buying fresh fish turned out to be tougher than I expected.  The person who usually sells fish at the market wasn’t there that day. Since I planned to grill the fish, I was looking for something with firm flesh, like dolphin or tuna.  It wasn’t easy to find.

I ended going to Foster’s Food Fair later in the day.  “Is the mahi mahi fresh?” I asked the man behind the fish counter after I read the sign saying ‘Fresh Mahi Mahi’.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said.

“Is it from here?” I asked

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said again.

“Was it frozen before?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” the man said.

“Well, if it’s fresh, why was it frozen?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” the man said.

“Are you sure it’s from here?”I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

With it getting late on a Saturday night, against my better judgment I opted for the once-frozen mahi mahi.  I had all the ingredients for my meal… or at least so I thought.

Time to cook
I was cooking the meal on a Sunday, so all the grocery stores were closed.  I had to go with what ingredients I had purchased the day before, with the exception of the fresh herbs I grow myself.

I planned on four dishes: an arugula salad with cherry tomatoes; stuffed eggplant; sautéed callaloo; and grilled dolphin.

Soon after I started cooking, I realised I was in trouble.  I needed some bread crumbs to make eggplant stuffing and some oil and vinegar to make a dressing for the salad.  Since wheat, olives and grapes are not grown in the Cayman Islands. I decided very quickly to change my mission a bit:  I was going to cook a meal using as many local ingredients as possible.

That fiat freed me from the shackles of my original mission and allowed me to concentrate on what was even more important: making the meal taste good, especially since my family was joining me for dinner.

I ended up using a handful of ingredients from my kitchen for the dinner that weren’t produced in Cayman: some black pepper; garlic, breadcrumbs (which did come from rolls baked at Kirk Supermarket); feta cheese; a lime (which might have come from Cayman for all I know); some honey and salt (both of which could have come from Cayman); and some olive oil and vinegar.

I also used some white wine, but not for any of the dishes; that was the beverage that accompanied the meal.

The salad was just arugula with cherry tomatoes and feta cheese chunks, topped with simple basil vinaigrette.  For the callaloo, I first boiled and soaked a bit of salt pork and then fried it to render some of the fat. After sautéing some diced spring onion bulb in the pan, I threw in the washed and stemmed callaloo and just simmered it until it wilted down.

The fish was also very easy; I just grilled it over charcoal with a glaze of honey, lime juice and rosemary.

The stuffed eggplant was more of a challenge. First I had to scoop out the halved egg plants, retaining the scooped-out flesh.  I chopped that flesh, along with seeded tomatoes, peppers, spring onion and garlic.

Joel Walton had given me some curry leaf, so I sautéed the small leaves in a little coconut oil and set them aside.

I then sautéed the eggplant, peppers, onion and garlic in the coconut oil until tender.  I stirred in the chopped tomatoes, chopped fresh basil from my garden, bread crumbs, cubed feta cheese and crumbled curry leave, and stuffed the whole mixture into the scooped-out eggplants.  I baked them, uncovered, for 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

The result, as determined from the panel of three judges that included me was this:  The arugula salad and the stuffed eggplants were unanimous hits. Each individual ingredient shone in the salad, brought together by the simple dressing.  The stuffed eggplant was the opposite; all of the fresh vegetables blended together to form a completely different flavour that was topped off by the feta cheese.  I would make both of those dishes again.

The fish was only fair, mainly because it wasn’t fresh, but one judge – my wife – also found the rosemary flavour overbearing for mild mahi mahi.  Personally, I thought the flavour was fine and I made a mental note to try and block The Food Channel from our satellite package.

Then there was the callaloo.  I don’t know if it was the salt pork or if it was callaloo itself, but it just didn’t make the grade.  It was bad enough that the leftovers went into the bin, rather than into my next day’s lunchbox.

The overall success of the meal, even if it wasn’t exactly my original mission, has inspired me to seek out more produce from the Market at the Grounds because there really is no substitute for fresh. So much for sleeping in on Saturday mornings.