Cravings: Romance, and a bit of Belize, in the 'Burgh
Thursday, May 25, 2006
By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An anniversary is such a loaded date. You have the feeling you're supposed to make a big deal about it, maybe eat out at a fancy restaurant or book a lavish weekend at a bed and breakfast to celebrate such an important milestone -- even if, as in my case, it's only the second one.
My husband and I, however, decided that the best way to celebrate our anniversary on May 15 was to do as little as possible. No cards, no presents. Just a housework-free afternoon of peacefulness, and a partial re-creation of our honeymoon in Belize, a former British colony, where our favorite food mostly came from beach-front shacks rather than fine restaurants.
So we mixed up a pitcher of rum punch, read our books on the porch for most of the afternoon, and then for dinner made some of our favorite easy dishes from Belize. And tried to obey what had seemed like the country's motto, spelled out as a reminder on every road sign: Slow down.
When we went down there two years ago, to Ambergris Caye, we splurged on a quiet colonial-style hotel overlooking the ocean, where you could go barefoot in the white sand all day long and where all the rooms had a view of palm trees and turquoise water. There was no TV, no telephone, not even a radio in the room, so we went to sleep soon after it got dark. In the morning, we woke up at dawn and padded in our bare feet down to the terrace by the pool to eat fresh fruit and huevos rancheros and drink strong Belizean coffee and watch the sun come up.
We went off exploring -- snorkeling among the rainbow-colored reef fish and giant sea turtles one day, poking around in the shops in town or fishing or horseback riding on others -- most mornings. By 11 o'clock, though, the sun was so high and hot that the best place to be was by the pool or on the beach, in the dappled palm tree shade, sipping pina coladas.
For lunch, we'd devour tortillas loaded with ceviche, an addictive lime-pepper-seafood dish served as a free appetizer at practically every restaurant in San Pedro, the largest and most developed -- but still unpaved -- city on the island, or grab burritos at a little luncheonette on the road to town.
I can't remember the name of that restaurant, but we ate there a lot. Calling it a restaurant is kind of an overstatement, actually -- it was a 20-by-20-foot shack made of particle board that once upon a time had been painted blue. It had little stools perched beneath a pass-through window, where you could sit and drink bottles of chilled orange Fanta and watch the lady behind the counter make your burrito.
There were other dishes available -- empanadas and breakfast egg dishes, among others -- but we never tried any of them. The chicken burritos were too delicious for us to stray. We never figured out exactly what she put in them, except that it involved chicken and Marie Sharp's hot sauce, a locally produced pepper sauce that seemed to be on every restaurant table.
We ate at the burrito shack several times for lunch, braving the searing, blinding noontime sun to bike the half-mile to the luncheonette, where we'd sit at the counter or on the plastic picnic tables inside the screened-in, sand-floored porch and watch the Belizean families eat their lunches, too.
Then, after we tried a few of the limp, spiritless "high-end" restaurants in San Pedro -- given the fact that I had seen actual tuna and sharks while snorkeling, I'd expected magnificent Caribbean-spiced seafood, not bland British-style fillet of sole in lemon butter -- we decided that shacks were the way to go for supper, too.
There was the row of booths, with just two or three stools each, next to the playground. Their chicken was very good, but not as good as the tender, fiery jerk chicken we ate across the street, on an open-air deck above a local bar. Jerk meat is a Jamaican dish, not a Belizean one, but it fit the mood. And then back to the burrito shack a few more times, of course.
The shacks didn't serve dessert, however, so we indulged in plenty the few times we ate in our hotel's restaurant, which turned out to be one of the better ones on the island.
I can't say much for the main course -- it was a small shark that had been chasing away the bone fish we were trying to catch, so I caught him instead and delivered him to the hotel's chef for cooking. The preparation was fine -- the chef had sprinkled the shark fillet with blackening spices, then pan-seared it -- but the flesh itself was tough and muscle-y.
Dave and I did our best, but it was our dessert that made the meal: A miniature molten chocolate cake served on a split banana with a few scoops of coconut ice cream. The molten chocolate inside the cakes was still steaming hot when we dug in, and when it mixed with that ice cream, it was tropical molten chocolate heaven.
Not every night was a dessert night, though. Other times, heaven was as simple as sitting on the balcony outside our room, sipping rum punch as we listened to the evening breeze rustle the palm trees, and watching the moon rise over an ocean that turned from turquoise to purple and, finally, to black.
1/4 cup coconut rum
1 1/2 cup light rum
2 1/2 cups pineapple juice
2 1/2 cups orange juice
1/4 cup lime juice
3 tablespoons grenadine syrup
Mix all ingredients together in a punch bowl or pitcher. Serves 4 to 6.
-- Amy McConnell Schaarsmith
This dish, which originated in Peru but now is popular throughout Latin America, pickles seafood such as conch, scallops or white fish by marinating it in lime juice. The acidity of the lime juice effectively cooks the fish without heat; you can watch the flesh turn from translucent to opaque, just as it would be if sauteed or baked. A great dish for hot summer days when you can't bear the idea of turning on a stove, although if you leave it in the marinade for too long -- overnight, for instance -- the lime taste can become too strong. Serve it as an appetizer with tortilla chips or as a light meal, rolled up in warm tortillas with lettuce and salsa.
1 pound extremely fresh scallops, shrimp, conch (available in the Caribbean during certain seasons but difficult to find locally), Ahi tuna, flounder or other white fish
1 cup fresh lime juice
Large pinch of salt
1 jalapeno, minced
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1 large ripe tomato, diced
1/2 bunch green onions, trimmed and sliced or 1/4 cup red onion
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Dice the fish into 1/2-inch chunks. In a large, non-reactive bowl (glass or ceramic), combine lime juice and salt. Stir to mix. Add fish or shellfish, cover the mixture and let it rest in the refrigerator for one hour.
Drain away lime juice and mix in remaining ingredients. Adjust seasonings if necessary and refrigerate until time to serve.
-- Amy McConnell Schaarsmith
INDIVIDUAL MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKES
These cakes look (and taste) decadent, but they are extremely easy to make. In the unlikely event there are leftovers, the chocolate won't be molten the next day, but it will have the consistency of pudding and taste just as chocolatey. There are worse things to eat.
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 large eggs plus 2 large yolks
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Position rack in middle of oven and preheat to 450 degrees. Butter and flour 4 four-ounce ramekins; butter and flour again.
Melt chocolate with butter in the top of a double boiler, or in a metal bowl set about 1 1/2 inches of nearly simmering water, whisking continually until smooth.
Beat eggs, yolks and sugar with an electric mixer on high speed in a deep bowl 8 minutes, until thick and pale. Whisk chocolate mixture into egg mixture. Whisk in flour.
Pour batter into ramekins. Place on baking sheet and bake 14 minutes, or until cakes have risen and have a thin crust, the sides are set and they are slightly jiggly in the center; underbaking is better than overbaking.
Carefully invert each cake onto a serving plate and let sit 20 seconds.
Unmold by lifting up one corner of the mold; cake will fall onto plate. Dust tops with confectioners' sugar and serve immediately.