28 January 2011

sapphires and caramels: more than the sum of their parts

"My mother was a very strong character and she dominated us completely," says one of our guests as she leans companiably over my galley counter, "Oh, we grew up poor, really—we didn't have very much, and had to learn to make do. But. Every time my father was in the doghouse with my mom, he would come home with a five-pound box of chocolates for her. My brother and I always got to taste some as a treat. But after the first day, the box would mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again!"

There is laughter all around. On request, we've stocked up the boat with bars of dark Belgian chocolate, but a large box of See's candy also sits on the salon table, a generously shared gift from one of the ladies.

"I grew up in Japan—we were a military family," says another guest, her delicately featured face crinkled into a smile. "I remember these caramels wrapped in rice paper—edible rice paper. We weren't supposed to have them! My mother was worried about, you know, sanitation; she didn't want us to get sick from eating something... but we loved those caramels, and somehow talked our nanny into bringing them for us!"

I've no doubt they tasted all the better for being a forbidden treat...

In my mind's palate, I can taste the soft creamy bonbons from the peace offering given by one man to his strong-minded wife; I can taste the first crispness of the fragile rice paper, melting almost instantly into the caramel chewiness of a furtive gift.

This is one of my favourite times of the night on this charter—dinner service is over, and people often stop to chat, their last glass of wine in hand, as we finish washing up the dishes. In this last week, we've had the pleasure of hearing stories about living in Russia and Malaysia and Nashville and Montana, of hunting elk and deer, how to use a paper guide for quilting, a stay in a Tuscan villa with a wonderful chef. Stories of running a friends' culinary club at home, of the most awesome intro to a live Rolling Stones concert ever (a man strolled casually onto the stage without fanfare and launched into a rousing and joyfully strident guitar solo... that man turned out to be Keith Richards). We've heard what it is like to facet a sapphire for the first time. 

I didn't know that sapphires come in so many colours. Like jewelled confectionery—gleaming citrus lime and orange, a deep violet that flashes green, a startling hot pink, as well as the blue that I associate with sapphire itself. The stone is called corundum, says our guest as she shows me her handcrafted ring of Montana sapphires, it comes in all these colours. Except when it's red—then it's a true ruby, not called a sapphire.

Later, I find out that the word corundum comes from "kuruntam", a Tamil word meaning "ruby".

"The first sapphire I ever faceted... oh I was nervous," she says. "It was given me by a friend of my father—it was he who taught me how to cut gems. Well, it turned out smaller than it should have!"

"But you did it," I tell her, fascinated and admiring. "It must require such precision—a meticulous eye."

When I first saw the preference sheet for this charter, my heart sank. I imagined seven long days and nights of rigidly planned logistics designed to accommodate each and every one of their listed preferences. I imagined arduous hours in the galley, hunched over a tightly regimented series of separate chopping boards, utensils, pans; I imagined a constant fight against time to get the separate meals plated and ready.

Well, I was right about the fight against time... but I had forgotten something important: that our guests are so much more than the boxes they have ticked off on their preference sheets. Chicken? Check. Beef? Check. Pork? Seven yes, one no. Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray? Dewars or JWB? Water consumption-high. Soda consumption- moderate to low. All this tells me nothing of the real people with whom we will share seven days and nights exploring this lovely little string of islands called the BVI.

And now I find the charter I thought I would remember solely for the intensive planning and the logistics, is a charter I remember for the people. For their stories. For their generous sharing of moments that gave us vivid, beguiling glimpses into other histories, other lives.

16 January 2011

Deep breath

In about four hours and twenty minutes, The Captain and I begin the first of a series of five back-to-back charters, all on 24-hour-turnaround—that means forty-two days straight of work.

That seems like a great deal, until one considers that last season, we did a solid seventeen consecutive weeks on-charter with only one full day off in that seventeen weeks. To this day, we are not sure how we pulled that one off without going insane (although going to Venezuela instead of insane would have been my preferred choice at the time). Forty-two days suddenly seems lightweight in comparison, especially if we keep reminding ourselves of the perks of the job...

Foam on the sea

I'm so happy—I think I've cracked the solution to presenting a stabler foam with my lobster bisque. It could still do with a some refinement, but I think I'm finally understanding the principles of structure.

The whole idea of intense pure flavour in floating lightly on the dish as an evanescent foam appeals to me, it is so appropriate for our sultry Caribbean weather.

This is a lobster and mango salad presentation: whole Maine lobster tails poached lightly in coconut milk, shallots, fennel, celery, ginger and dry vermouth. I eased each fat tail out of its shell, cooled them and sliced them into medallions for the salad. Then I returned the shells to the poaching liquid and continued the stockmaking till the liquid could absorb no more flavour.

The base is the lobster stock from the shells, infused with fresh ginger. I reduced that to half the volume and added some creamy coconut milk and the barest hint of lime. It is as pale as foam on the sea without the addition of saffron threads or tomato!

The first treatment I tried: no stabiliser, just 250 mls of reduction in the ISI whip charged with one nitrous oxide capsule.

lobster espuma | sans stabliser I

The dense mousse-like texture degraded quickly into a more open foam as we served it, as seen below.

lobster espuma | sans stabiliser II

For my second try, I used the same base but this time I whirred 1/2 teaspoon of lecithin granules with 250 mls of the base using an stick immersion blender in place of the ISI whip.

lobster espuma | immersion lobster espuma | lecithin

The foam that collected on the surface was light, with large frothy open bubbles that remained stable for presentation. I did notice that halfway through consumption, the foam had begun to dissolve back into liquid at the bottom of the martini glasses.

lobster espuma | plus stabliser I
Salade d'homard et sa ècume

This time, I presented the Maine lobster tails as retro-kitsch 1970s avocado cocktail salad.

lobster espuma | plus stabliser II

I may try next time to thicken the reduction a little with a liaision to see if the yolks and cream might give a little more protein structure, and compare that to thickening with a standard roux.

I am having so much fun playing around with this! Next stop—xanthan gum...

11 January 2011

Views from the office

I ought to add that considering my current 'office views' fore and aft this morning, I've absolutely no cause for either wailing or repining about my lot in life. 

Office View, aft
my office view, aft: The Captain getting ready to pick up our guests from their island idyll
Oyé mire—¡una isla encantadora!
Office View, fore
office view, fore: our lovely guests meeting their private 'water taxi'!

Today's date is 01•11•11. This makes me happy (yes, I am easily amused).

Charter Challenge #1 for 2011

The preference sheet I received for our upcoming charter reads, in part:
  • 1 x lactose-free diet
  • 2 x gluten-free diet
  • 1 x low-salt, low fat diet
  • 2 x seafood allergy (one of whom also does not eat pork)
  • 2 x allergy to the Capsicum family (so no bell peppers or chillies of any sort)
  • 1 x allergy to walnuts
  • 2 x no garlic
... out of a full group of eight.

The preference sheet is one of the charter chef's best friends. This invaluable document is the one sent out to all the clients, in which they tick off boxes and/or detail their likes and dislikes, preferred wines, spirits, mixers, preferred breakfast style, favourite flavours, any allergies etc.

When your crew receives this document, we follow it up by emailing and/or phoning you to confirm the information—we want to make sure that we stock up the boat with as many as your favourites as possible, and that we plan our menus to accommodate each group's particular idiosyncrasies. It's all about personalising the trip for you—we want you to enjoy yourself thoroughly!

We've had a remarkably easy run lately—both our NYE group (a charming Louisiana family) and our current guests (a lovely genial group from Buenos Aires) have been incredibly easy-going omnivores. So I suppose I've been about due for more of a challenge!

Although I've dealt with all of these specialised preferences in the past (and perversely—or so my friends tell me—have enjoyed the fun of having to be creative with the dishes) this will be the first time I deal with ALL of these on the one charter. This is going to be an interesting challenge for me—unless they are having chicken, every meal will have to be customised.

Time to switch on the charterbot's Ingenuity and Logistics panels...

05 January 2011

Whip It! [whip it good!]

Whip It!
When a problem comes along, you must whip it
Before the cream sits out too long, you must whip it
...ah, Devo. To think I am old enough to remember them...

Rather late in the day for the culinary zeitgeist, nevertheless, contemporaneity be damned... I am having far too much fun making espumas and 'air' with my ISI Gourmet Whip (a lovely thoughtful gift from The Captain, who spotted me gazing yearningly at it in the manner of a lovesick sheep while we were in Sint Maarten).

So much fun, in fact, that I've spritzed my merry way through my original supply of nitrous oxide capsules with alarming rapidity... lobster espuma, chocolate chilli velvet and mango foam are the top three so far (not on the same plate, mind. Well, not yet. Ha). Fortunately, a kind friend brought me back another two boxes of nitrous oxide from Naco in St Thomas—thanks, Admiral!

The kitsch retro packaging makes me even happier than the possession of the actual capsules. Seriously, is this not all sorts of adorable? I am in love with the go-go boots, the 1960s backcombing and best of all... the girl on the package is actually wearing a semblance of the amazing 1965 YSL 'Mondrian' shift dress!


I went speed-shopping yesterday and treated myself to a tin of lecithin granules and a packet of xanthan gum... I'm keen to learn how to stabilise some of my foams now. 
I am loving my fun ride on the late [foam] train... stay tuned for updates and tales of  
s p l a t t e r (o, the horror).

03 January 2011

the charterbot in All At Sea magazine

The January edition of All At Sea magazine's coverage of the CYS Boat Show culinary competition includes the charterbot, who counts herself so lucky to be featured alongside the likes of the amazing Lisa Mead (chef and artist) of motor yacht Viaggio, and Lori Cady on the beautiful catamaran Saboré.

Thank you so much for the interview, Captain Jan!

02 January 2011

Hello, new year

Anegada morning
early morning, one of my work views

A menu for the end of 2010

The final meal of 2010 for our current charter guests, before we greeted the new year—

:: miso-seared hamachi with a ruby grapefruit and avocado salad dressed in rice wine vinegar and chilli oil, garnished with crisped nori sheet

:: prawns flash-fried dry in the wok with sel gris de Guerande aux cristaux and crushed fragrant Szechuan peppercorns, served on a swirl of butternut squash 'pasta' ribbons and julienned snap peas, drizzled with black rice wine vinegar

:: lobster à trois: classic bisque served with housemade crème fraîche and white truffle oil,  handmade ravioli of lobster seasoned with ginger oil and scallions topped with an espuma  (thanks for the whip-it capsules, Admiral!) of intense lobster & coconut milk reduction infused with saffron and vanilla bean and lemongrass

:: palate cleanser: shotglasses of honeydew melon, mint and jalapeño granita

:: slow-roasted spice-crusted Kurobota pork belly on a sautéed mélange of mougrabieh (pearled couscous), celery dice, chestnuts and Spanish onion, with a tamarind balsamic glaze

:: dark chocolate chilli velvet accompanied by raspberry and Cointreau sorbet and a warm ganache smear
(I forgot to serve the espresso parfait, oh the shame... ah well, The Captain will eat it)

I was especially happy with my lobster trio—although I do think I might dial back a little on the vanilla bean in the espuma reduction next time.

Only a few hasty pics (and not even garnished yet!), because the timing of service was just too tight for me to photograph the finished plates. We are only a two-person crew!

NYE palate cleanser: honeydew melon, mint & jalapeño granita
palate cleanser, before garnish

NYE Szechuan Prawns
Szechuan prawns, before garnish

01 January 2011

the Old Year's Night, the New Year's Eve

Here in the BVI, the night of the 31st of December is called Old Year's Night rather than New Year's Eve—a charming tribute to the year just lived, instead of our unseemly hastening (before the old year has even breathed its last) to pay homage to the year unborn.

When I look at this last year, laid out in its finery for the end, so many bright moments of pleasure shine. Even during some of the more difficult passages, the music that filled our heads and spoke to us was the richly sonorous composition of Philip Glass for Geoffrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi. It is named for the Hopi Indian word that means, among other things, life in turmoil or life out of balance. It can also mean a state of life that calls for another way of living. Every so often, we played the music for each other, and its slow alien consonances and dissonances both soothed us and gave us the energy to create the changes we needed. And here we are at the year's end, content with our work and eager with our hopes.

As Samuel Pepys wrote three hundred and forty-three years ago on this very same night—Old Year's Night or New Year's Eve as you please—I am thankful that I too can write,

Thus ends the year, with great happiness to myself and family as to health and good condition in the world.
~ from The Diary of Samuel Pepys (via the good offices of Phil Gyford)

about this blog

Occasional vignettes from the life of a charter chef who loves simply messing about on boats.

"I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brains and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world."
MFK Fisher


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