The easiest way to save money and control the sustainability of your food on vacation is to do your own cooking. Renting a condo with a kitchen can save a lot of money and usually give you prime locations that would cost substantially more in a resort. After doing a lot of searching, we booked a week at The Atlantic Beach Front Villas on Grace Bay in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. The villa was very comfortable and as close to the water’s edge as I can imagine ever being. The sands of Grace Bay Beach were quite literally our backyard. We had everything you needed to make a good vacation: a nice place to sleep, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world at our feet, and a kitchen so I could have fun exploring Caribbean ingredients. If you are ever looking to book a Turks and Caicos vacation, I highly recommend our villa.
The view from our beautiful condo
For months before leaving for Turks and Caicos, I researched Caribbean food. A particular highlight of my research was reading An Embarrassment of Mangoes, by Anne Vanderhoof. If you have any interest in food and the Caribbean, then you will enjoy this book. She cooks her way through the Caribbean in a tiny galley kitchen with wonderful stories that make you feel like you are on vacation with her (and make you think twice about buying a boat and sailing the islands). Her book gave me the courage to try my hand at cooking local food from my sparse condo rental kitchen.
I decided to try cooking ground provisions, the Caribbean term for starches cooked in any variety of ways. Provisions include cassava, plantains, yams, sweet potatoes and many, many others. This article from the St. John, USVI restaurant, “Sweet Plantains,” talks in depth about provisions and is an interesting read (with several typos so I feel a real connection to it). So, when I found real yams (as opposed to sweet potatoes) at the store, I jumped at the chance to serve ground provisions with our jerk chicken at dinner. Never-mind that I didn’t know what type of yams they were or how best to serve them. I just wanted to make provisions for dinner; I can be stubborn that way.
Real yams are very different from sweet potatoes. Real yams are also a starchy root vegetables, but that is where the similarity ends. The yams I found were sold in big chunks and were hairy. They looked like a cross between an overgrown horseradish and a tree stump. My insufficient research had not informed me about this type of yam or how best to prepare it. I decided to roast it like a normal sweet potato. Well, I’m going to make a really long story short. It didn’t work out so well. After fighting with the slimy beast and finally roasting it, I tasted it only to find out it was so bitter we couldn’t eat it. In fact, a much-too-late internet search suggested that bitter yams can be toxic. The garbage can enjoyed my roasted yams that night, and that ended my adventure in yam cooking. I guess I lucked out too because the slimy juice is also supposed to itch terribly if you get it on your skin. Well, I was dripping with it but didn’t itch at all. Later in the week I had much more success with another provision, plantains. I’ll share my recipe for plantains with you soon.
With the bitter, possibly toxic, itchy yams in the garbage I was stuck with a grill full of jerk chicken and nothing to serve with it. For someone that likes for the meat to be the flavor and not the center of the meal, this was a problem in a rental kitchen with exactly one days worth of food and no convenience foods to fall-back on. At home I would pull out a bag of frozen fries, chop up a big salad and be done with it. I checked the cabinets and found two boxes of cereal, a tub of peanut butter, two bottles of rum (ummmm), a head of garlic, and a package of unusual Asian noodles called Pancit noodles. They caught my attention at the IGA because the recipe on the back of the package did not require boiling the noodles prior to stir-frying them. I’m a big fan of cutting out a few steps. Jamaican jerk chicken over Asian noodles: I could make that work! I LOVE Pancit noodles; you need to find these suckers! They are a gift to the busy vacationing mom-on-the-go (or anyone so lazy that they are bothered by having to cook pasta before tossing it with the sauce. Yeah, that’s me). Just throw these noodles in the pan with some stir-fry sauce and a little water, and ten minutes later you have saucy noodles full of flavor and only one pan to clean up. That’s especially helpful when you have exactly one pan in the kitchen.
Caribbean cuisine is highly identified with peas & rice, jerk seasoning and plantains, but other aspects of the cuisine hint at an Asian/Pan-Pacific influence as well. Both Indian and Chinese workers came to the islands to work on the sugar cane plantations and left their imprint on the local cuisine. Traditionally Filipino, Pancit noodles can be wheat or rice and are used in many different recipes. Pancit is just a form of lo mein or chow mein and if you can’t find the Pancit noodles then you can use the slightly thinner chow mein Chinese wheat noodles they sell in the store. The Cook’s Thesaurus website has a handy page that lists different type of asian noodles and what can be substituted. The noodles I bought in Turks & Caicos were wheat and included a recipe for “Pancit Canton.” I didn’t follow this recipe, but I did cook the noodles right in the pan with the sauce to form chewy noodles in a thick sauce that was very slurp-able and tasty. I had a little onion, a carrot, a red bell pepper and some stir-fry sauce (and lots of garlic) on hand and that is all it needed. You can make this with any veggies you wanted, and it would be wonderful stir-fried with a little tofu. We had this with Jerk chicken the first night I made it. We all liked it so much that we had it again the very next night with grilled snapper.
These chow mein noodles were similar to the pancit noodles I used
On most Caribbean islands, almost everything is imported which drives up the price (as well as the carbon footprint). Stir-fry sauce that I usually make at home, I bought pre-made to keep costs down and convenience a priority. One jar of sesame stir-fry sauce eliminated the need for soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, sesame oil and chili paste. You could use pretty much any sauce you want. I could see this working with hoisin sauce, oyster sauce or any stir-fry sauce you have on hand. I’ve included a recipe for an approximation of the sauce I used, and you can use either your own homemade or store-bought sauce to make these. Enjoy!
Pancit Noodle Stir-fry
Serves 4 as a side dish or two as an entree
Pancit noodles usually come in either flour or rice versions. This version uses wheat flour noodles, sometimes called flour stick. They can be difficult to find. If you cannot find Pancit you can substitute Chinese wheat noodles or chow mein noodles. Just don’t make the mistake and buy the cooked chip-like product intended to be eaten as-is and not cooked.
1 tablespoon oil (vegetable oil such as canola or coconut)
1/2 sweet onion, sliced (I used red onion in the Caribbean and Spanish onion at home)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ginger, minced
6 oz package Pancit Noodles or chow mein noodles
1/4 cup stir fry sauce (pre-made or recipe below)
1 3/4 cup water
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
1 cup carrot, julienned
2 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
1/2 lime, cut in wedges
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and cook until the edges start to brown.
Add the garlic and ginger and cook for about thirty seconds or until it is fragrant.
Add the noodles, sauce and water. Cover and cook, stirring frequently until the noodles are almost tender and the liquid has turned into a thick sauce. You may need to add a little bit more water.
Add the vegetables, stir everything together and continue to cook for about four minutes or until the vegetables are crisp-tender and the noodles are done.
Remove from the heat and top with chopped cilantro and lime wedges.
Basic Stir-fry Sauce
If you are using this in a stir-fry (as opposed to noodle sauce) add 1 teaspoon corn starch to the mixture to help thicken your sauce.
2 tablespoon Soy Sauce
1 tablespoon Brown Sugar
2 teaspoons dry sherry or white wine
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon chili garlic sauce (or to taste)
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir. Use in any stir-fry or noodle dish.