When I smelled my clothes the day after making this creole marinated red snapper, I was transported back to 1990. I was in art class when a tall, lanky kid about the age of 15 walked in late to class and plopped in his chair. His chair gave a loud screech as he sat up to remove his bulky backpack off his back. He began to peel off layers and layers of clothing starting with scarf, then jacket and sweater, and as per orders of our art instructor, his scully hat, which he removed unwillingly and begrudgingly. Watching him seemed to be never ending…and during this slow dance of a process, I received drifts of unfamiliar scents. In the air there seemed to be ghosts of chili powder, aniseed, and hot oil, all commingling in a swirly dance over my head. If there was a scent for warmth and comfort, that’s exactly what I extracted from this scenario. I will never forget that scent.
Growing up, we never had fish for dinner. I can’t remember any particular instance of any fish dish in the apartment in which I was raised. Okay, that statement is untrue and I’d like to retract it immediately. Now that I remember, we did eat bacalao, a salted dried codfish which was usually accompanied by boiled yucca and barely cooked red onions. I guess what I meant to say was we never ate whole fish. Mainly all of our meals consisted of pork, chicken, or beef with rice, beans, and plantains. Cuchifritos and potato salad was not uncommon, and a basic salad of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers was about as green as we got. Daring to leave out any canned goods like Chef Boyardee would make me a grand liar and, with all that, I’m pretty darn certain my clothes gave off scents just as distinctive as that of my classmate’s.
I think back to those high school days and recall the diverse mix of students my school was attended by. Students with families coming from Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, El Salvador, Trinidad, Africa, Japan, China, India, Russia, and so on. I remember the smell on their clothes. It smelled of food being cooked in a small apartment. I pictured spice-ladened air meandering through a tiny boxed apartment, clinging to hanging clothes, curtains, and upholstered furniture. My naturally inquisitive self captured and mentally recorded the scents of different groups of teenagers. I remember some kids showing up in class creating a strong whiff of cumin and pork fat while another group consistently brought forth ginger and garlic. I was always the quiet, shy one in school. But I was also observant and always curious. Once you broke my shell, you’d find something entirely different than the quiet, shy image I unintentionally portrayed. Engaging in conversation with my peers and hearing their stories of back home, I’d instantly create this imaginary world in my head with them as the main character (I always had a problem with daydreaming). One time one kid talked about eating a whole fried fish for dinner. I thought that was the strangest, yet most exotic, thing in the world. My eyes widened at the humbling notion that at 15 years old I could possibly not know everything there is to know in life. That there was so much to learn on a day to day basis completely boggled my mind. Fast forward just a few years later and I experienced eating a whole fish for the first time ever. I watched my friend cut around and pull away from the fish with fork and spoon and deftly remove the bones in one careful sweep. Again, I was taken and in awe with the idea of gaining so much cultural knowledge simply by listening to and observing the actions of another person.
The vivid memory of a distinctive aroma on this one boy’s clothes. I will never forget that peculiar scent.
How I daydream:
He’s a respectful young man and willingly obeys his parents. He is only allowed to sit for dinner after he has completed his homework. After a long day of school and the latter, he was famished. The smell coming from the kitchen made his mouth water and his stomach grumble. Joining his parents at the table, he sat there surveying the plate of food his mother prepared for him. Without thinking, he cut off a piece of fish with his fork and dragged it across the red oily creole sauce, then scooped up some rice and beans, and before taking a bite, he caught himself and immediately put down the fork, stomach persisting. Sitting straightly forward with hands on his hips, he waited silently and gave a half-hearted effort at joining his mother in prayer. He waited for her gesture suggesting it’s okay to begin eating, and when she did, he grabbed his fork with the perfect bite already resting on it. He took the bite and put the fork down. He chewed blissfully, appreciating the savory chili oil and crispy snapper skin, the rice soft and airy with beans crushing easily under his teeth. He thought to himself how much he loves Fridays.
Now let’s fast forward again to 2013, and you have a married couple living in Brooklyn enjoying the same satisfaction of a delicious meal with a different twist. The kitchen is brightly lit and the windows display a backdrop of greenery with birds flying and hopping from branch to branch. Cool breeze blowing through white lacy curtains, blues music on the record player. We look at each other amidst our mastication and smile at each other with our eyes. We feel lucky and humbled. Brooklyn, EAT your heart out!
A creole marinated red snapper served with rice and beans made the Haitian way. I wanted something crispy but light. A nice light fish with crispy skin and flaky texture. A creole flavor with just the right amount of oil. I wanted rice that did not stick together. My rice separated rather nicely, grains falling off the fork with each bite. Grilled pineapple was my signature twist to this dish, adding a little sweet juiciness to the airy rice and soft red beans.
Grilled Whole Red Snapper (copied from food network website)
1 whole red snapper
2 onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 – 3 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Combine the onions and garlic. Whisk together the remaining ingredients and pour half the marinade over the fish with the onions and garlic. Let fish marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours. Grill fish on both sides for about 7 minutes. Warm remaining marinade and serve over cooked fish.
Red Beans & Rice (with an Haitian influence)
1 cup dried red beans
1 cup long grain rice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 chicken or vegetable bouillon (or 2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock)
2 cups of water (no water if using stock)
salt to taste
Soak dried red beans in water overnight. Boil beans for 30 – 45 minutes. Strain and keep water aside. Let cool. In a deep skillet, saute onions and crushed garlic cloves until soft and slightly caramelized. Add ground cloves and chicken or vegetable bouillon. Stir together creating a paste. Add beans and stir. Add rice and stir, distributing flavor to each grain. Let toast slightly on medium high heat for 1 minute. Add 2 cups of the water that was set aside and allow to boil. Once it starts to boil, give rice one more stir (add salt to taste, if necessary), then turn heat to low and cover skillet. After 15 minutes, check to see if the water has evaporated. When water has evaporated, turn off heat and fluff with a fork and recover until ready to serve.