It’s Sunday. It’s raining. There’s thunder and lightning and it’s chilly. I have to make lunch and I want to use up what I have in my kitchen so that when I go to the grocery, I make one trip to replenish what we need. We are doing our part to keep ourselves and others healthy by staying home and only going out when we have to and if we want a little fresh air, we sit on our front or back decks or go for a short walk minding to stay 2 metres away from other people. Mind you, the times we choose to walk, barely anyone is around.
So…Sunday lunch. Growing up I remember some variations on Sunday lunch. Typically it is stewed chicken and peas, macaroni pie, callaloo, sometimes rice and a salad. Sometimes Mummy would do stewed beef instead of chicken. Sometimes she would not put pigeon peas in with the meat to stew and she would do red beans as a side. Sometimes you might encounter a potato salad and when Avocado was in season and I mean the real deal big-ass avocados we grow on tall trees in the West Indies, not these dinky, little, pebble avocados from Mexico or California that you can buy a bag of in North America, where half of them are over-ripened and black streaked inside. My point is Sunday lunch is a full meal made with variations of a tradition cooked out of love. There was nothing like smelling Mummy’s pot on a Sunday and very often, when we were riding our bikes in the neighborhood, the wafting smells from everyone’s Mummy’s pot came together to make your belly growl as you played as you made sure you were close enough to home to hear your mother shout “Come inside for lunch!” Those were simpler, purely happy times and as I look in my fridge today to pull together my version of Sunday lunch in this time of pandemic, these memories will keep a smile on my face and the love of my birth land, my mother and my extended family will flow from my heart, to my hands, to the spoon to the pot and to my family this afternoon. I think I will play a little soca too, to transport me mentally to Trinidad and put me in a cooking mood.
Now, I do have callaloo* from a batch I made a couple weeks ago but it is frozen and I really don’t feel like doing the work to thaw it . My beasts will be ready to feast soon, so, time is not quite on my side, plus it isn’t enough callaloo for all four of us. Moving on… I have chicken legs that are thawed and seasoned and I have a can of pigeon peas, so I am going to stew them and I am going to make a macaroni pie as a side. I will also steam some rice as Logan and Adam will want rice, as they say to “suck up” the gravy from the stewed chicken and peas – my “chirren”,oui!
Here, I am browning the chicken by “burning” (caramelizing) a bit of sugar in oil. At the end of me explaining what I have done for this meal, I encourage you to read on as I will tell you the story of the “sweet meat” and why it is so important to brown meat the right way so that it won’t hamper the taste of your dish.
Once I see that nice glowing, rich, brown colour I add my chicken and turn it vigorously in the pot. Next, I add my pigeon peas. If the pot looks a little dry I add a bit of water (because I want enough for gravy) and I put the lid on the pot and reduce the heat, checking on the chicken, stirring occasionally. When the chicken is no longer pink and is tender and seems to look like it could fall off the bone, I know it’s done.
While the chicken is cooking, I boil about 2 1/2 – 3 cups of macaroni. My family loves macaroni pie so I make one where there will be some left overs for teenage fridge raids later. So many cultures have their own recipe for macaroni and cheese. This well known comfort food can be creamy, baked with breadcrumbs, done in a slow cooker … the methods are endless. For us Trinis, if we could solidify it, cut it and share it and make it damn tasty, we certainly will, and so, our macaroni and cheese is a pie without really being a pie but more like a casserole.
While my macaroni is boiling, I whisk together an egg, about a cup of milk salt and black pepper and I shred my cheese. I want to get a real cheddary flavour because there is no point in a bland macaroni pie. I use anything from 2 to 4 year old cheddar from Mapledale, found here in my neck of the woods and i also use a little 2 year old smoked cheddar to well, add a little smokiness to the taste but if I don’t have it, I just use the old cheddar. I have smoked cheese today so I will use both.
Once the macaroni is ready, I drain and I put a layer in my glass baking dish. then I add my cheese and pour a little of the egg mixture on and I keep layering until the ingredients are all in the dish. I top with cheese for a nice crust at the top and like Mummy would say, dot with butter ( today we have vegan butter so that’s what I will use – no real difference in taste) before putting it uncovered in the oven. My oven is at 400 F because my sons are hungry (again and as usual) and I started cooking a little late. Usually I will do 375 F for an hour but today,this pie will bake for about 45 mins, with me keeping an eye on it during that time.
Alright, I’m waiting on my macaroni pie and I promised to tell you the story of the “sweet meat”. My aunts, Ruth (Moye was her Chinese name) and Yvonne were close in age and went to school (SJC Port of Spain) together. Aunty Moye was a fantastic cook. She was also an incredible seamstress who at one time had her own store and had a long reputation of beautifully outfitting women in Trinidad. She was an amazing mother and wife and was a true role model for her younger siblings and eventual matriarch of our family. In a time that shifted from women being successful at home by having “domestic” skills to women having success because of office/business skills, Aunty Moye kept doing what she knew best and was around to see that the benchmarks of success shift again to incorporate all skills of every woman.
Aunty Yvonne was sweet,quiet and super intelligent. She loved to read and acquire knowledge all the time. I remember when she would be at our home after her cancer treatments resting until my uncle picked her up. She was jovial even then and was always content to rest with a good book. She did know how to cook but I think if she didn’t have to she would have much rather spent her time reading, learning and raising her boys. Anyway, I got this story from my mother years ago when she taught me how to brown meat, and in my mom’s clever way, this story was a teaching tool that worked because I remember it every time I brown meat and as you have gathered by now, I cook A LOT!
It was the afternoon of Aunty Moye’s and Aunty Yvonne’s cookery exam. During the school term, they cooked side by side, Aunty Moye right there to lend her younger sister a helping hand. But, all semesters end with exams and for this exam their stations were separated. Aunty Yvonne had to brown stewing beef and while she knew the ingredients and the steps, she had no clue about the timing of cooking and how to generally eyeball the process of cooking food. She put her oil in the pot but put in way too much sugar and added the meat when the sugar just started to get a golden colour. When sugar caramelizes, is a rich brown and is just beginning to smoke is when it looses it’s sweetness. That is when you add your meat. There is a big hiss that kind of sounds like chawahhh and steam and you have to turn the meat over fairly vigorously in order to brown all the pieces before reducing the heat and getting it to a simmer. And what an inviting and delicious smell that screams home – my sweet T&T. Mom said during the exam, Aunty Moye said she could see the uncertainty in Aunty Yvonne’s face and she knew that maybe little sister was in trouble. At the end of the class, the nun marking the exam went about for the taste test. To her credit, Aunty Yvonne’s meat was indeed cooked, though a bit paler than the other girl’s dishes. Sister “Cookery” dug in, and tasted and with an astonished face said ” Oh, my, why is this meat? … but…but this is a sweet meat!”
Needless to say, Aunty Yvonne failed the exam and with the results in hand went home where all the brothers and sisters heard the story at dinner time. In Trinidad, a little heckling (or fatigue as we refer to it) from your brothers and sisters is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a little ribbing in fun, which I imagine hardly anyone today would be able to handle, no matter how playful. After the story, for a little while, one of the brothers would say, “Aye, Sweet Meat, Mummy callin’ you,” Aunty would blush and Mamma, my grandmother would tell the boys that enough was enough. But the positive side to the sweet meat still flows through the generations today. Mamma apparently called Aunty Yvonne into the kitchen by simply telling her, “I want you to help me in the kitchen today, Yvonne,” and my mom says this went on for weeks and eventually, my prefer-books-to-all-else aunt, learned to cook just as well as her brothers and sisters. My mother told me that story when she was teaching me and my sister to brown meat. Since then, I have told it to my husband when I was teaching him and I just told it to Logan who was here watching me make the chicken. It’s a cute funny story that is a major cooking tip and I hope it keeps being told as our younger family members learn to cook.
The dishes are done and ready to serve. This, my version this afternoon of Trinidad Sunday lunch minus Callaloo. It all looks and smells as it should and I feel good inside with my Soca playing and recounting this story of my dear, dear aunties. I also got to thinking what a good job Mamma did making sure all her children learn to cook well. I don’t have an aunt or uncle on my mother’s side who can’t throw down in the kitchen. And I mean THROW DOWN, dish, after dish, after dish. And so, all the cousins know how to cook too. As Logan put it, “I know if I am ever at anyone related to you mom, I will never starve because you all know how to cook what I like to eat. I’m so lucky.” That you are, my boy, that you are.
Please use this time of isolation and social distancing, well. Remember, get creative in the kitchen. Teach your kids to cook and share your recipes. We have a world wide health crisis that needs us to stay home. Please do so and make the most of the time. Stay safe. Stay healthy ~ Daniella and family.