in the kitchen with noon

in the kitchen with noon

Because a visit to the local market did nothing but whet my appetite for Thai food, I press-ganged Chef Noon into a brief cooking lesson in the show kitchen at Paresa. Three courses plus dessert sounded a little daunting at first but with lots of room to spread out, ingredients at the ready, and the guiding hand of Chef Noon leading me step by step, it was enlightening. Nothing too fancy; just a beginners excursion into Rattanakosin, the modern era of Thai cooking, which happens to feature a strong Chinese influence: woks, deep-frying, noodles. Goong Sarong would be our starter, a simple yet visually impressive prawn marinated in pepper, salt, and coriander root, wrapped in vermicelli noodles and deep-fried. Next, we moved on to a red curry. The secret, I learned, is to first cook the curry paste in a little oil, add your meat – we used duck breast – then coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat and stir in eggplant, grapes, pineapple, to allow the flavors to be drawn into the soup. Bring it to a boil a second time, adding chilis, basil, and a soupcon of ever-present fish sauce and remove from heat again. The whole process takes about five minutes. Letting the curry rest infuses the broth with the fruits and herbs, giving it a heady smell and marvelously rich taste. (And in so short a period of time – I was amazed.) Chicken stir-fry was the most easily accessible of the courses: deep fry lightly breaded chicken pieces until golden brown and allow them to drain on a paper towel. Heat a little oil in a wok, quickly frying peppers, onion, chili, and cashews. Season with oyster sauce and soy before mixing in the cooked chicken and voila, dinner is done. The results were more impressive than I had imagined, but dessert is where things really got creative. Tiny sweet Thai bananas battered in rice flour and coconut, deep-fried and served with a scoop of ice cream. There was enough batter left over that I thought I might show the chef a few tricks of my own. Thickening the batter with a bit more coconut I tossed spoonfuls into boiling oil, rolling the resulting pillows in a mix of white sugar and coconut. Beignets, I told her: fried dough balls. A bit frightened at first, Chef Noon and Fern, the curious Sales Manager who stopped in to watch us, soon gobbled them up, proving that in the kitchen we’ve all got something to learn.

mise en place

curry, soy sauce, spices, sugar

vermicelli wrapped shrimp

thai red curry with duck

chicken stir fry with cashew

deep fried banana

my beignets

fern with chef noon

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live blog: at the arcade

Founded in 1919, the atmospheric Arcade is the oldest continually operating cafe in Memphis. Born of Greek immigrants – of course – the diner has weathered the precipitous decline of downtown and lived to see its rebirth, becoming an identifiable location in a dozen or so films as well as a magnet for tourists drawn by the mix of comfort food and retro 1950’s design. The Arcade serves through lunch but to be honest, it’s breakfast that’s the star attraction – unless you’re looking for a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich in the back booth once frequented by Elvis. (in which case, prepare to wait.) Redneck Eggs achieved infamy in a Travel Channel program where the host scarfed down the plate of three biscuits and sausage patties smothered in gravy and topped with hash browns and scrambled eggs with a beer. I opt for the more demure sweet potato pancakes instead – which come with grits, bacon, and two fried eggs – and am not disappointed. What is it about the south and what they are able to do with the sweet potato? This is my second day here and my second sweet potato discovery. Keep ’em coming.

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roadside rasta fruitstand

If you’re driving around Jamaica and see a homemade sign with the scrawl “ice cold jelly,” take heed and stop. It means there’s cheap, cool refreshment to be had in the form of coconut jelly, the slightly sweet, delicious slime – for lack of a better word – that forms inside the fruit of an immature coconut and tastes like, well, jelly. Even better: if you’re cycling through the jungle and happen upon a roadside Rasta fruitstand, make a pit stop for a banana or two and some intensely hydrating fresh coconut water. Don’t be put off by the half-dozen or so ganja-smoking Rastas under the lean-to, they’re stoned out of their minds. More formidable is Mamma, who despite seeming to have never discovered the benefits of wearing a bra is outfitted in a pair of Gucci sneakers and fisherman’s cap. She’s the one in charge here, so ask the boss for a coconut water then watch as one of her boys hacks at the fruit with a machete before handing it off to you with a straw. While you’re drinking it down let Mamma show you the rest of her fruit:  plantains, baby banana, cassava, breadfruit, lemon, lime, and curiously conical pineapple. If you’re lucky she’ll also enlighten you to the fact that she’s no Rastafarian – her family are Maroon, from up in the hills. When you ask about the Maroons she’ll tell you something else you didn’t know: the Maroon were runaway slaves who banded together and took to the hills, establishing a communal hunter-gather society. On other Caribbean islands the runaways were quickly overcome by white settlers and hunters, yet in Jamaica Maroons thrived and grew powerful enough to fight the British colonists to a draw, eventually signing treaties which not only freed them a good half-century before the abolition of the slave trade but also guaranteed them autonomy. Their continued isolation has essentially kept the Maroon separate from mainstream Jamaican society to this day, which is why you might struggle to understand Mamma’s patois yet still grasp her sense of pride.

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blue mountain bike ride

Port Antonio is nestled between twin harbors on Jamaica’s northeast curve, where mist-shrouded mountains drop down to the sea and tourists are few and far between. Orchids, bananas and palm trees grow in profusion here. Waterfalls drop into fern-edged pools. And some of the island’s most elegant villas are tucked along hillsides overlooking secluded coves. Life moves at a slower pace here than it does elsewhere on the island – not that anybody anywhere in Jamaica is ever in any kind of rush – lending a vibe of authenticity which both Mobay and Ocho Rios sorely lack. There seems to be more time: to take advantage of swimming and snorkeling in the shimmering Blue Lagoon, which is fed by freshwater springs and said to reach a depth of almost 200 feet; to worship a little sun on the sand at Frenchman’s Cove, a favorite spot among shell collectors and sunbathers; to do, in fact, nothing. Eschewing more leisurely pursuits, however, I’ve opted to go cycling through the Blue Mountains, home of Jamaica’s eponymous – and very expensive – coffee, as well as its tallest peaks. Excited about traveling on two wheels, I’m nevertheless feeling a conflicted sense of both freedom and foreboding.

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yes, we have no bananas

Lots of bananas in Curaçao, just none ripe enough to eat.  Anyone who’s indulged in the creamy sweetness of a freshly picked banana understands how torturous this is.  We don’t get ripe bananas in the US; we get green bananas left to slowly rot until they’re soft enough to eat.  There’s nothing to compare with a local banana.  Except maybe a mango.  Or papaya.

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