Off in the distance there’s a large vessel moving across the water like an elephant in a desert. It looks like a blob at first. But as it moves closer, I notice its flattened bow. I see the distinctive car-sized containers stacked on top and I know what’s in them. Heads of broccoli. Crates of bagged romaine lettuce and underripe tomatoes. Whole chickens. And those other frozen chunks of meat that will arrive unlabled and unpriced, you’ll have to make your best guess.
This boat is the mail boat and it’s my lifeblood these days.
In the remote out islands of the Bahamas, where we’ve been cruising around for two months, every day brings peak summer heat. Sand stands in for soil and farmers markets are, mostly, a distant memory of a past life in in the states. Most of the produce here makes its way to the islands on one of the bi-monthly mail boats, which leave from Miami and drop shipments and supplies and mail at the local Bahamian government docks. There, pallets of produce and frozen meats are set out in the sun and later driven by truck or boat to the small convenience stores in the surrounding cays.
Produce isn’t nearly as abundant in these out islands as it was back in the U.S., but I learned a trick from several seasoned sailor friends of mine early on. “Show up at the island’s convenience store the day after the mail boat arrives and stock up,” they advised. “That’s how you get the good stuff.” This is also, I’ve learned over time, your only prayer for taking home an avocado. And quite frankly I’d probably dumpster dive for a good avocado these days, so showing up early to the convenience store a few days a month is asking nothing.
Meat and protein, however, are an entirely different story. We do our best to rely on the sea for most of our protein needs. After all, it’s near impossible to store enough meat in our small top-open refrigerator to last us two weeks. But we have ups and downs even with that. One week, we’ll catch a seven-pound cero mackerel, a ten-pound blackfin tuna, and several large queen conch and we’re sitting pretty; the next, our lines and conch sacs will come up empty, the bottom layer of our fridge filled with nothing but four inches of frost and a deep sense of disappointment.
Those are the hard weeks. Those are the weeks that usually end with me crying into a pot of SpaghettiOs.
It was during one of those kind of weeks – when we’d run out of the meat we’d purchased, been slighted by the sea gods on both fishing and diving for protein, and had little more produce than a bag of lettuce along with a whole lot of canned goods – that Lily’s beautiful new book, Kale and Caramel: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table, saved us. It had arrived in my hands the week before – likely off of one of the mail boats I was stalking – and I remembered a recipe I’d bookmarked from it. A Greek chopped salad with crispy cumin-fried chickpeas and tahini mint dressing. This, I thought, sounded a whole lot better than my backup meal of SpaghettiOs and, bonus, it capitalized on most of the fresh ingredients I had remaining. A few bruised tomatoes, a bunch of mint that was mostly brown like a tumbleweed with a few scant pieces of green popping through, a head of romaine lettuce. Romaine, much to my surprise, has turned out to be one of the only green vegetables that doesn’t turn to mush several days after the mail boat’s departure, so I keep heaps of them piled in the top layer of my galley fridge but I was running out of ideas of how to use it.
It was at least one moon cycle ago when I first made Lily’s chopped Greek salad with crispy, cumin-y chickpeas and it has since shown up on LaMo’s salon table over and over again. I’ve made it with (gasp!) avocado in lieu of cucumber and basil instead of mint and toasted rye in the place of toasted pita, like it is here. I’ve even used dried herbs for the dressing when fresh weren’t available. And time after time it turns out. It has thus, unknowingly, become a staple of sorts on this boat. A perfectly flavored, perfectly balanced, easily adaptable meal in which we can use up the piles of romaine lettuce and eat something that’s soulful and nourishing and protein-rich.
Of course, there are still moments of frantic freezer diving, peanut butter & jelly sandwich assembling, and tears cried into a pot full of vowel-shaped pasta. But to have this dish to break up those moments, reminds me that there are heroes in cooking like there are heroes in literature. This salad is one of them.
More about Kale & Caramel: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table:
As I mentioned above, this recipe comes from my friend Lily’s new cookbook, Kale and Caramel: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table. To call it a cookbook, though, is really to sell it short. Yes, it’s full of recipes, broken into sections of various herbs like mint, basil, and lavender, but it’s so much more. It’s a poetically-minded memoir about death and rebirth. A series of moments that connect Lily’s Maui-rich island-girl past with her present as an LA-based food blogging, creative badass. And it’s a piece of work that should find its way into the kitchen (or galley!) of anyone who loves or yearns for the bounty from the land we live on. Or maybe I should say the land that you live on since I’m a bit more water-based these days. 😉
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon of ground cumin
- 1 (15-ounce) can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt or ½ teaspoon of regular table salt
- ¼ cup of tahini
- ½ cup of cold water
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1-1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, about 1 lemon
- ½ teaspoon of kosher sea salt, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon of fresh mint leaves, chopped finely
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 4-1/2 cups of chopped romaine lettuce, stems included; about 2 medium romaine lettuce heads
- 1 cup of chopped cucumber, partially skin-peeled
- 1 medium tomato, sliced, seeded, and chopped
- ½ cup of Kalamata olives, pitted and quartered
- 1 cup of loosely packed fresh mint leaves, chopped
- 1 cup of chopped or crumbled feta cheese
- 2 slices of rye bread, toasted (Lily uses pita, which would also be great, though I cannot find it here in the Bahamas)
- Heat oil over medium heat in a wide frying pan. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes, do not let it burn. Remove the garlic and reserve for later. Add the cumin and chickpeas and swirl the pan to coat. Let the chickpeas cook in an even layer, shaking the pan once or twice, for 7-8 minutes, or until the skins are turning golden and crisp. Remove the pan from heat once the chickpeas start to pop. Set them aside in a bowl and toss with salt and the reserved browned garlic. Reserve the seasoned pan to toast the rye bread (or pita, if using.)
- Add the rye bread (or pita) to the hot oil from the chickpeas and cook until toasted and slightly crisp. Remove from heat and cut into triangles. Set aside.
- Add all of the ingredients except the olive oil to a medium sized bowl. Whisk to combine. Slowly drizzle the olive oil, whisking until well incorporated. Set aside.
- Add the romaine, cucumber, tomato, olives, mint, and feta to a large salad bowl. Toss with the dressing to taste. Serve in individual bowls or plates and top each plate with chickpeas and rye toast (or pita.) Garnish with more fresh mint, if desired, and serve immediately.