Monday, June 28, 2010

Virgin Islands Campground

I sought out eco-lodging in the Virgin Islands because I think it is important for tourism dollars to support independent places with minimal impact on the natural environment, rather than corporate resorts. I also don't mind roughing it a bit, if it means I get to have an ocean view and a place to prepare my own food, all for less than I'd pay at most hotels. My other criteria were easy access to scuba diving and a relatively car-free vacation where I wouldn't need to rent a car or take a taxi all the time.
I ended up at the Virgin Islands Campground on Water Island, a short ferry ride from St. Thomas, which fit all of these qualifications for a peaceful, eco-sensitive trip. It's not camping as you know it, but luxe camping with conveniences: private wood-frame-canvas-screen tent-cottages tucked into the trees, each with a comfortable bed, deck, electricity, and even wireless for iPhiles. To make up for lack of air conditioning, there are fans and the magical feeling of sleeping in a treehouse. There is also a hammock and a cooking pavilion that is a wonderful place to have coffee and eggs and read in the morning light, or to enjoy a breeze while grilling dinner in the evening and chatting with fellow campers.

I was impressed by several sustainable measures at the campground: electricity powered by onsite wind turbines, composting toilets (which didn't smell!), captured rainwater that is filtered for drinking and heated by solar energy for showers. Water is also conserved by spring-loaded faucets and pull-cord showers, which is especially smart because conservation is built into the design and doesn't require any extra thoughtfulness on the user's part.

Water Island is small, peaceful, relatively undeveloped, and sparsely populated, with only about 150 full time residents who are on the friendly and laidback side. People drive around in old jalopies and golf carts, and will sympathetically offer a ride if you are walking along the road in the hot sun.

The island is home to the aforementioned Honeymoon Beach, which has it all: A shallow sandy bay that feels like a warm saltwater pool. Decent snorkeling - in one afternoon you can swim with a sea turtle, see a school of fish, and a stingray. Palm trees and picnic tables for shaded spots to kick back. Joe's Beach Bar for drinks (the closest thing to nightlife on the island), and Heidi's Honeymoon Grill truck for lunch as well as a weekly gourmet dinner, which was the best meal of the trip.

The campground is a fairly easy half mile walk to both the beach and the landing where a commuter ferry shuttles back and forth to St. Thomas every hour or so. In less than ten minutes, the ferry docks at a marina with a restaurant, grocery stores, and a great dive shop, Blue Island Divers. I only needed cabs for trips to and from the airport and an excursion to St. John, which made me especially happy because squishing into stuffy and sweaty taxis there was not fun.

As for the daytrip to St. John, I shelled out more money than appropriate to rent a car for a death-defying tour of the island. The harrowing hair-pin turns had me so nervous we would drive right off a cliff. I was so relieved when I finally touched back down at Water Island at the end of the day. My recommendation for daytrippers: save your money and just take a safari cab to one of the beaches nearest the main town on St. John.

Ironically, St. John is supposed to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but it was the hottest day of the week and I had a hard time finding comfortable shady spots on the national park beaches, so I traveled all the way there just to wish I was back at Honeymoon Beach, which I think tells you how much I enjoyed staying on Water Island.

For those of you who have been enticed by my tale and are interested in a trip of your own, I found this website to be the best listing of Caribbean eco-lodging.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Rhubarb Lemon Almond Cupcakes

I know I still have to reveal our Caribbean location last month, but first I want to share this rhubarb recipe before the pink and green stalked vegetable sees the end of its season. I recently had the occasion to create rhubarb cupcakes in honor of two lovely ladies that I work with - one for a birthday and one for a bittersweet farewell. The first batch was too wet and flat (pictured), and the second batch rose light and fluffy, but was a little lacking in rhubarb flavor - although it should be noted that coworkers eagerly adored both versions. The recipe below should be the perfect compromise.

Most rhubarb cakes involve adding chopped rhubarb to the batter, but I chose to puree fresh rhubarb instead, to evoke a texture similar to zucchini or carrot cake without any of the stringiness you might expect. It also increases the water content so you don't need to incorporate any milk. I haven't tried it, but you could easily replace the 3/4 cup of all purpose flour for a gluten free flour version. This batter is easiest to make with a food processor, but if you don't have one, almond flour or almonds ground in a coffee grinder would work- or just use 1 3/4 cup all purpose flour if need be; and rhubarb could be shredded in a blender, or possibly grated.

The pairing of rhubarb with lemon and almond was inspired by Shannalee's spelt lemon rhubarb cake on Food Loves Writing, and it is a winning combination. The nutty texture from the ground almonds and shredded rhubarb makes this more interesting to the tongue than a plain light and fluffy cupcake, while lemon and sugar in both the cake and icing offset rhubarb's subtle tang. Now go check your farmers market this weekend and see if you can find rhubarb before it's too late.

Rhubarb Lemon Almond Cupcakes

1 cup almonds (or almond flour)
1 1/2 cup rhubarb (just over a half pound)
5 tbsp butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
zest and juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda

Lemon icing
2 cup powdered sugar
4 tbsp butter, softened
juice of 1 lemon
1-3 tsp milk

Preheat oven to 350 and grease and flour two cupcake tins. Grind almonds in a food processor, checking every few pulses until it reaches the texture of coarse flour. Chop rhubarb into small pieces, add to food processor, and blend until thoroughly pureed. Add remaining wet ingredients and process one by one until combined, followed by dry ingredients together.  Fill cupcake tins halfway with batter and bake for 18-20 minutes. Let cool for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the lemon icing. Mash sugar and butter with a fork, add lemon juice, and add milk a little bit at a time until it reaches desired consistency. Use a butter knife or piping bag to frost cupcakes. Makes 18-24 cupcakes.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tropical Days

It's already been more than a month since the Caribbean excursion. It was a nice, but otherworldly, break from reality, with its own calm routine very different from the daily grind. I'm not a morning person, but as often happens when camping, I found myself following the routine dictated by natural light (and because scuba sessions are scheduled for early morning - why??) and it was refreshing to feel a day stretching luxuriously ahead.

Virgin Island Campground bed view

Mornings meant waking early to a view of the sunrise and treetops through the open screen window of our cottage. Followed by quiet time on the beach for lots of easy reading. Floating around the bay with a snorkel before coming back to sit in the shade on the shore again. Watching the number of people on the beach slowly collect over the day from a few loners, to many regulars chatting socially, and occasional boatloads of tourists, and well-behaved dogs.

Honeymoon Beach on Water Island

Dog on Beach

The heat and humidity were relentless. I remember a lot of hot walks to get around in the pounding sunshine, taking in the landscape that was a surprising desert-rainforest hybrid. As one local said, it took him a month for his body to adjust to stop sweating constantly, after he first moved to the area. Since I was staying in eco tent-cottages without air conditioning, water was my only respite: dips in the beach, breezy boat rides on the ferry, quick showers.

cactus 1
cactus 2

Evenings often found me sitting at a makeshift bar on the beach for a pina colada or bushwacker or cold beer or three, talking with old hippies, taking in the sunset over the water, trying to fend off mosquitos, and eventually admitting defeat to the bugs and heading back to camp, with a headlamp to guide the dark walk through the woods.

Night fell earlier there because of latitude, so it was early to bed and early to rise, lulled to sleep by the chirping music of birds and insects in the surrounded forest. The downside to no air conditioning was restlessness at night as I itched from bug bites collected over the day without cool air to soothe my skin. Despite the nightly discomfort, I still felt it was worth it for the totally unique experience of the campground. To be continued...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Garlic Scape Pesto Pizza / Quinoa Salad

I've written about garlic scapes here before. Bright green stalks that shoot from the tops of young growing garlic in June-ish, scapes evoke a wild flavor similar to how you'd imagine summer grass to taste.

To create a vivid and creamy garlic scape pesto: Collect a handful of scapes, a handful of parsley or basil, depending on what looks good in the garden, a handful of walnuts or pine nuts or almonds, many glugs of olive oil, a little bit of vinegar for a kick (optional), and shreds of whatever hard cheese might be found in the fridge, and blend it together.

I used this scape spread to assemble a green and white pizza, along with crumbles of goat feta, fresh chopped leeks, bits of kalamata olives, and a scattering of crushed hot pepper. The combination was delicious, but almost over-the-top so from all the salt in the cheese and olives. Next time, it's one or the other - parmesan in the pesto or feta in the mix - not both.

Extra pesto-feta-olive-leek mix went into a quinoa and chickpea salad. Despite repeated attempts, I have a hard time enjoying quinoa, but hiding it in the garlic scape pesto worked for me. I think this pesto also has a future in a pasta salad with some tiny sliced cherry tomatoes.

Have you tried garlic scapes? What's your favorite preparation?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Late Spring Farmers Market Hauls

I somehow lost photos of my mid-May Greenmarket shops and resultant dinners, but in summary this exercise has got me experimenting with new dishes, and I've learned that:

* Quiches are not a quick and easy dinner, especially if you make the crust from scratch the same night. Your hungry boyfriend will get angry, even if the final sauteed greens quiche, nibbled at hours later, is tasty.
* If you do not have a pie pan, quiche crust can be baked in a cast iron pan, though it may look a bit misshapen.
* Grilled squid is a revelation. Spear large squid pieces onto skewers and lay over a hot grill for a few minutes until charred. Let rest until cool enough to handle, and chop into small pieces to scatter into a spring salad like so, only better this time with a deep smoky and fishy flavor enhanced by the grill. I will never snub at grilled calamari on restaurant menus again.
* You do not need soy sauce to prepare a peanut sauce - peanut butter, hot pepper, olive oil, and molassess will suffice.
* However, marinating beef kebobs in peanut sauce for half an hour will only lend a subtle flavor to the final grilled kebob skewers, and it is ideal if you can reserve some of the sauce for dipping.

May 29: Carrots and radishes for snacking. Asparagus for grilling. Spinach for sauteeing and combining with beans in empanadas made using leftover quiche dough (see below). Lettuce for salad. Potatoes and onion for storage in the crisper drawer. Wilklow Orchard pork chops for storage in the freezer. Leeks and Lynnhaven goat cheese feta to go perfectly with next week's garlic scapes. Artisan whole wheat bread made with local flour for bagged sandwich lunches for dayboat fishing. Red Jacket cranberry apple juice to quench thirst. STRAWBERRIES for freezing, which means it's finally smoothie season! I like to blend a handful of frozen strawberries, a few splashes of milk, and a spoonful of honey in the food processor for my semi-daily dose of fruit and dairy.

June 5: eggs, milk, Baker's Bounty whole wheat bread because it's too hot for baking, asparagus, GARLIC SCAPES! for pesto (more on that to come), (hot house?) Kirby cucumbers to make refrigerator pickles, RHUBARB for baking before it goes out of season (turned into almond-lemon-rhubarb cupcakes that I'll share soon), swiss chard, more carrots for snacking, stocking up on Wilklow ground beef while it's on sale. No radishes this week - will I see them anymore this season?