There’s a school of thought that if something has been tried, tested and proven to be successful, one should not tamper with it. Well, while that works for some things, some dishes offer a platform to mix, remix, average and substitute all with an aim to creating new tastes, textures and flavour.
The main requirement for such creativity and potential enjoyment is to have an open-mind to try some of your favourites with a twist.
No, I am not saying that you should dare to try some of the wacky creations some chefs make on Iron Chef America like bacon or asparagus ice cream or my brother’s curried corned beef with baked beans. I’m talking about dishes with twists that you can visualise and imagine their tastes based on what you already know about them; dishes that can offer a pleasant surprise at the end of a fork or spoon.
This week, I want to share with you three dishes, one with a substitution, one with an addition and one with an ingredient you may not have had cooked and presented this way before. Let’s get started, shall we.
Sweet-potato salad: The first time I had this salad was at my brother and sister-in-law’s home a few years ago. We had all gathered at their place for one of those family holidays get-together.
When the bowl was brought from the fridge, placed on the counter top, cover removed and declared: “This is sweet-potato salad”, I immediately thought: “How interesting!”
My mind was already at work: “Of course! The sweet-potato is starchy like the regular potatoes; the only thing is that there’ll be an element of sweetness to the salad. Would the sweetness overpower this mayonnaise-dressed salad?”
Without hesitation, I took a heaped serving spoon of the salad on to my plate and took a bite and then another and another. Fantastic! Yes there was the natural sweetness of the sweet-potato but it mingled well with the veggies and mayonnaise. I fell in love with the salad right there and then.
My brother is quite the cook so I asked him how he came up with this one only to learn that it is to my sister-in-law that the credit must go. She’s the one that suggested they substitute the regular potatoes with sweet potatoes just on a whim!
At a wedding reception a couple of years ago at one of the high-end hotels, I had a sweet potato and pineapple salad and I am not afraid to tell you that that was the best tasting thing on the menu!
Macaroni and pumpkin pie: In the staff room (Barbados Community College) last week some of my colleagues and I were discussing how close-minded some people are about food, especially we Caribbean people. We are always trying to one-up each other on our food and arguing about whose food is better. There are not enough of us who are willing to embrace and appreciate the foods of our fellow Caribbean-ites.
When one of my colleagues mentioned that she makes a macaroni and pumpkin pie, I sat up with rapt attention. As she explained, I visualised the orange pumpkin, steamed, mashed and incorporated throughout the dish, resting in and between the pasta, both ingredients in a blend of thick, rich creamy cheese sauce. I came out of my reverie just as she said, “You can mix some grated pumpkin with the cheese and spread it on top to bake.”
I knew right there and then that I’d be making the macaroni and pumpkin pie this weekend. And of course it meant that the dish would appear in a column!
Just to looking at the pie was satisfaction enough, the grated pumpkin and cheese made a topping that was really tasty. The pie was moist, tender and flavourful. The pie helps with the guilt factor too, you know, that’s it not all cheese and milk but lots of pumpkin. You’ve got to try making this pumpkin and macaroni pie.
Sweet potato pie: The first time I ate this pie was in 1998 at the home of a dear Barbadian friend, Alison Stanton. Sunday lunch in Barbados as in most countries is a big cooking affair. The table is laden with lots of food: three types of meat dishes, fried fish, vegetables, pies, rice and salads.
As I approached the table, my eyes were drawn to the Pyrex dish with the baked pineapple rings with cherries as the topping. I enquired and learnt that it was sweet-potato pie. Sure, I’d eaten sweet potatoes before, I’ve had them mashed but not as a savoury pie.
I took just a little of it because I wanted to taste it first, I hate to waste food and I did not want to embarrass my host by taking something and then not eating it. I figured, if I liked it, I’d go back for some. My hesitancy also lay in not knowing how sweet the pie would be. You see, I don’t generally like sweet with my savoury food.
When I set down my plate, I tasted the sweet potato pie first. It was not nearly as sweet as I thought it might be I mean there was no added sweetness apart from the natural sweet of the sweet potato, I also tasted pineapple and there were notes cinnamon, butter, black pepper and salt to taste.
I liked it instantly. Smooth but not mushy, the natural sweet notes of the potatoes balancing perfectly with the savoury and the cinnamon, a presence that could no unnoticed but one that would be missed if it was not in the dish.
Fast forward a few years later and imagine my surprise and disappointment when visiting some American friends up North who offered me sweet potato pie to which I delightfully answered yes, thinking I’d be having the sweet potato pie I gotten accustomed to eating in Barbados.
Instead, I was presented with a pie-pie. In other words, a pie with a crust perfectly sliced and served with a dollop of whipped cream. I stared at it long and hard and then took a dainty forkful, “Ummmm, not bad, it’s really sweet. It’s a sweet sweet-potato pie.” It was a delicious dessert made with the deep, rich orange-colour-fleshed sweet potato. I prefer the savoury sweet-potato pie.
Trying your old favourite dishes with a twist offers you a chance to bring something different to the table. Try making one of these dishes or experimenting on your own. The holidays are coming up and you know that you’ll be looking for ideas to jazz up the table.
It’s not too early, you can start jotting down some ideas from now. So far, I have these three dishes on my list and more will be added before I make a final decision on what’s going to be on the table this year.
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
Book: Amazon (online) Locally: Pages, Cloister’s, and Days Bookstore.