Please welcome Passionate Cook Jackie Weger to the Cafe!
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Every woman I know has had to turn on a dime and improvise in the kitchen. You’re making hamburgers and your BFF saunters in the back door with three hungry kids into tow, so instead of feeding your family of seven, you’re got to feed eleven. You cook spaghetti instead, slice those eight buns into fingerlings and toast with a little oil and garlic powder. Everyone’s fed and happy.
Then there are those times when you’re craving a particular food. I’m not talking about when you were pregnant. I’m talking about after you’ve watched the late show and a craving for a big wedge of double chocolate cake with hot fudge icing slams into your brain with such intensity you can smell it, taste it and feel your lips sliding it off the fork. You preheat the oven and start rooting around in the pantry—no double chocolate cake mix and no cocoa either. It’s like when you’re all hot and bothered and your guy says, “I gotta get some sleep.” You settle for an Oreo, but it’s not the same–if you get my drift.
That’s about where I was not too long ago with a craving for fresh tuna. I was on the tiny Pacific island of Taboga, two hours by launch from mainland Panama. I couldn’t settle for canned tuna because there wasn’t single can of tuna on the entire island. No grocery stores, either. Only miniscule tiendas. One approached the counter with a list. A twist of salt or pepper cost a nickel. A packet of Panamanian coffee—twenty cents. You boil it. It’s so potent you’re sleepless for forty-eight hours. I also had company coming for supper. My friend Dennis had returned from delivering a yacht to Ecuador. In his absence I’d done him the favor of paddling out to his thirty-one foot sloop every other day to pump out the Papillion’s bilge. He always brought me some small gift from these jaunts and he always expected to be invited to supper.
I was on the verandah of the Hotel Chu, the better to see the entire harbor and beyond, to the ship channel where huge container ships waited to traverse the Canal. If you wanted fresh fish, you had to be nearby when the natives came in with their catch. Tuna are huge and a dollar buys a slab large enough to feed a family of five. When the tide was out the island had a few small sandy beaches separated by masses of volcanic rock. At low tide we went swimming or searched for sea glass. At high tide, the fishermen went out. But I was too late. The last fisherman had hauled his canoe above the high tide mark and every part of the tuna was sold except the head—which made good soup, but I couldn’t negotiate the purchase because he was keeping it for his own dinner.
I was gonna have to improvise. But with what? I couldn’t even buy something out of the kitchen of the Hotel Chu. It only opened on weekends. Like most of the islanders I took the launch to the mainland to buy my staples a couple of times a month, but because I’d been tending to the Papillion for the past ten days, I hadn’t made the trek into the city and my pantry was bare.
Taboga is not a grand island with miles of silky white sand, beach umbrellas and a resort in which you can swim up to the bar and order a pina colada. It had been settled by natives fleeing from the sacking of Panama by Captain Henry Morgan in 1671 and is not a destination for travelers looking for sunny beaches, fancy drinks, mariachi bands, gift shops, or malls. It has an elementary school and a Catholic church, but no priest. No industry, no farms, no plantations either. A clinic is staffed on Tuesdays. Fifty cents to treat a stomach ache, a dollar to get tooth pulled. Twice a day the island has no beach at all and the barkeeps that manned the cantinas had never heard of a Cosmopolitan. You order a beer and they open the bottle. Oh, we did have a bakery. The owner fired the ovens up on Fridays—if he had enough propane to run the ovens. He baked loaves of bread the size of hotdog buns, and charged a nickel for each. I always bought a dozen. Fried in hot oil and dusted with powdered sugar, they made terrific ersatz beignets.
I was really bummed as I hung over the railing of the Hotel Chu and stared down into the water. A head popped up out of the surf. A little native boy, about ten years old. He had been hunting among the barnacle encrusting pilings. He grinned and held up his catch. A mesh bag of pulpo and langoustinos. Pulpo are squid. Langoustinos are rock lobsters—same sweet taste as their larger cousins in the North Atlantic, but it takes a half dozen to make a meal. I bought the langoustinos and he took the pulpo and three dollars home to his mama. And I had the ingredients for a meal that has become a favorite. Those langoustinos became the basis for spicy lobster appetizer in the Passionate Cooks Cook Book. The first time I prepared it I used chopped chayote, a tropical fruit shaped like a pear that subs nicely for apple and celery and spiced it with wild cilantro. I’ve made it with shrimp and lobster, stretched it with surimi, and subbed finely chopped jalapeño for cilantro. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. It makes a great starter for a meal or a meal in itself. Happy eating. Happy reading.
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