By Nigel Spence
I have often spoke of the fact that December is my most favorite month of the year, mainly due to the holidays and family gatherings and so on. What I have never mentioned is that next to December, August is my second most favorite month of the year. No, I know what you are thinking – it is not the month I was born, though a few members of my family have claimed this month for their special day.
Happy Birthday to my sister, my nieces and nephews as they celebrate the beginning, the middle and the end of this wonderful month!
However, August, with its subtle and quiet charm – rings loudly in the scheme of things with its Summer “Grand Finale”. During this month, everything seems larger, sweeter, brighter, fuller and more abundant as the Summer comes to a close. Kind of like the performance before the final curtain – though all the previous acts throughout were great – the final act is always the best one as the actors give their all for one last dramatic moment.
Take for instance, the fruits and vegetables displayed in the markets and stores at the start of the season – a host of vibrant colors, an abundance of choices, firm textures, thick skins and juicy flavors. But with all that, sometimes the fruit has not matured enough to render the rich, sweet, satisfying taste you expect – instead you experience a little sweet with tart. All that changes magically by August, especially with the plums and oranges.
The plums and grapes turn sugary sweet, the watermelons appear dark red and full of juice, oranges generate more juice per squeeze and even the carrots are fuller, larger and sweeter. Yes, all the trees and vines seem to culminate for one last hurrah before the cooler months set in.
I often choose this time to sample new foods and cuisines only because I feel the ingredients used in the preparation, if procured fresh, would be at the peak of flavor, giving the particular dish its best possible taste. So lookout folks, I may be coming for a sampling in your neck of the woods very soon!
By the way, did you know that August 15th is celebrated annually as National Relaxation Day? The holiday was founded in 1985 by a fourth grader – Sean Moelle. According to Sean, people should not do anything of real value on this day…(I guess I have been celebrating more days than required – ha!).
I am thinking that maybe my obsession with August stemmed from my Jamaican roots. It was always jam-packed with activities and special events. Everywhere, people were hustling and bustling in preparation for our Jamaican Independence holiday which we celebrate on August 6th and the many parties, street dances and cultural programs associated with this most important day in our history.
For my group around the neighborhood, this was the time to escalate all planned antics. It would be our last three weeks off before school resumed on the first Monday of September so we had no time to waste. The group would gather each day in the backyard to formulate the latest adventure much to my Mom’s and the neighbors’ distress. Here is where people would receive an influx of silly crank calls asking if their refrigerator was running. When they answered yes we would tell them to go catch it – Ha!
Oops! May I take this time to apologize to any of you neighbors reading this confession – it was all for fun okay – we meant no harm…I hope your refrigerator is still running – LOL.
Maaaan, we were really something else! We were from the phones to the rooftops, from the mango trees to the swings, from the backyard to the front gate, in and out of the refrigerator. Just thinking about it now, I feel out of breath but it was all good. We survived and all body parts are still functioning.
One of the great things that came out of our “prankIng” days though, at least for me, was being able to create and master the most delicious, “have to go back for seconds” meatless, kinda soup cooked outdoors. We called it running a “boat”. Not sure where the term originated but it basically meant grabbing anything you could find in the yard to add to the pot. On the very lean days with slim pickings the search perimeter may extend to the unsuspecting neighbors yard and an unlucky pigeon or two from their birdcage. Sometimes we were lucky enough to sponge off Mom a little piece of chicken to sweeten the pot, but on the days we could not, scallion and thyme took center stage. Coupled with some cornmeal spinners and boiled potatoes, we had it made.
Nowadays, I still maintain a similar concept when preparing my soups, but of course with a lot more variety of ingredients and I do my best to stay out of my neighbor’s yard. Isn’t it funny how back then you had no idea you were preparing what today would be considered a sumptuous, gourmet, vegetarian dish?
Well, I do miss our little “three-stone” outdoor cooking setup but I think I was able to come close with this offering.
Backyard Vegetable Soup
2 tablespoons Coconut oil
1 yellow Onion, diced
4 cloves Garlic, minced
1/2 cup fresh Tomatoes, medium diced
2 stalks Scallions, chopped
1/2 medium size Pumpkin, peeled seeded and large diced
1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, minced
5 Cups Water
1 pound Callaloo or Collard greens, rough chopped
20 pieces Okra, stem and tip removed, rough chopped
1 small yellow Yam, peeled and cut in large pieces
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, stems removed
1 piece fresh Ginger, thumb size, cut in half lengthwise
Sea salt to taste
2 cups Coconut milk
4 strips “Fakin’ Bacon”, sauteed and crumbled (optional)
Heat the oil in large saucepan over medium heat and sauté the onion, garlic, and scotch bonnet for 2 minutes.
Add the water, callaloo, pumpkin, yam, thyme, ginger and salt and simmer for 25 minutes.
Remove from heat and remove the yam from the broth.
Puree the broth in a food processor and return to the saucepan over low heat.
Add the coconut milk, yam and okra and simmer for 10 minutes, adding more water if its too thick.
Garnish with fakin’ bacon crumbles and diced tomatoes.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cook offs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show , Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.