Monday, January 5, 2009

Beginning the year on a healthy note: with a fish soup

Standing on the corner of Canal and Baxter Streets in Chinatown, arguably New York's most famous ethnic enclave, I was taken back to my senior sociology class. In particular the section on how immigrants assimilate to life in the United States. New immigrants arrive here literally everyday with some never even bothering to learn English. Not because they chose not to but because the dynamics of the city's many ethnic enclaves make it easy to get by with just a basic knowledge of the language.

New York, as many other metropolises, would not be the attraction it is today if it were not for this influx of cultures. The mix of people, the music, the food, the ideologies all play a part in the attraction of the big apple. Imagining the city any other way is impossible. The constant influx of new immigrants, recently from Latin America and Asia in particular, has had an exceptional influence on the city's culinary sector. The restaurant scene alone is analogous to a mini world tour.

Last November, I chose to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Queens; an easy decision not only because I get to spend time with relatives but it was also persimmon season! From August to about December, sidewalk fruit stands seem to glow with the bright orange of persimmons. Two varieties in particular, the fuyu and the hachiya. Me, I'm partial to the larger hachiya variety even though one must wait at least a week, sometimes more, for it to fully ripen. Otherwise, biting into an unripe hachiya is akin to eating a very green banana. Not a pleasant experience. The unpalatable aftertaste and sensation are due to the very high tannin content, especially the hachiya variety, which is only removed once the fruit is ripened. How can you tell when it is ripe? Simple. Ripe persimmons should be soft throughout while unripe ones are much firmer. Fuyu persimmons on the other hand are commonly classified as non astringent and are mostly ready to be eaten right from the vendor.

Food certainly is one reason I travel to New York. This visit was extra special. Oysters are particularly good this time of year and, true to form, my host had the freshest mini oyster bar awaiting us in the kitchen. He also shared this recipe with me; a common soup in Trinidad and Tobago's cuisine. As I have mentioned in previous posts, many of the country's cooks have their own variation of the national dishes. My mother and aunts all made this soup but each added their own special ingredient. I chose to post this version because of it relative simplicity. What better way to supplement our new year's resolutions regarding healthy eating than with a bowl of delicious, low fat Caribbean inspired soup. Here's to a happy and healthy new year!

Trinidad Fish Soup
Serves 4 to 5

1 two lb red snapper (sliced into 1" thick steaks)
3 limes
1 small onion
4 garlic cloves
2 springs fresh thyme
4 leaves shado-beni*
2 cups sweet potatoes, cubed
1 green banana, sliced into rounds (optional)
2 carrots, sliced
5 to 6 cups of water
2 whole scallions, chopped
1 large tomato, sliced into thin wedges

1. Squeeze two limes over fish, coat well and and drain off lime juice. Squeeze the juice of the additional lime and season with salt pepper,
2. In a food processor, grind onion, garlic, thyme, and shadon-beni. Add to fish, coating each side properly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for thirty minutes.
3. Get a large stock pot over medium heat, add the carrots, sweet potatoes, and green banana. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the vegetables are fork tender. Season with salt and pepper. (Remember that the fish also has salt so use moderation here.) At this point, gently add the fish steaks to the pot. As soon as the fish is cooked through, (about 5 to 7 minutes depending on the thickness) add the chopped scallion and tomatoes wedges. Serve while hot with a slice of avocado (optional.)

* Shado-beni is found is most Trinidadian seasonings; every home cook uses it. It is sometimes referred to as Mexican cilantro and can be found in West Indian groceries. However, fresh cilantro can be substituted.