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Push veggies, find proteins when meat is scarce

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I was thrown into an unexpected vegetarian trip years ago. It was only the third boat I had cooked on. As a chef at the beginning of her yachting career, I had no idea what I was in for and just went with it.

My first big offshore trip started from an eclectic village called Barra de Navidad on the west coast of Mexico. With its coffee shops and artist galleries, it was an adorable enclave, but I spent most of my three hours there running from one fruit and veggie stall to the next. No time to check out those brightly colored scarves that were probably handmade; I was grabbing every produce item that looked good.

Was that brownish thing with the rough skin a fruit or a vegetable? No matter, take 20. I’ll sort it out later.

We crew would be at sea for most of three weeks getting back to Ft. Lauderdale. I felt it best to shop like there was no tomorrow. Our problem was, we were late. We’d failed to make our connecting flight arguing with customs the previous day, and had an unexpected overnight stay in Mexico City. As we attempted to clear customs, we were stopped.

“What’s in the coolers?” the agent asked.

“We have provisions for a yacht near Manzanillo,” the captain responded. “I’ve already called ahead to confirm we could bring these in. It’s meat, you know: chicken, beef, pork and fish.”
The officers opened the coolers and perused the items, saying nothing until they declared it all had to be confiscated.

I naively piped up. “Everything? Like all types of meat and seafood?”

After a little palaver, they informed us that beef and fish were OK, so I swore up and down my bright pink pork spareribs were, in fact, beef. It worked. I got to keep those. Everything else had been put to the side, for incineration. The captain was still fuming and I had yet to find out his suspicion of any meat purchased in that area.

As we set sail, I had to get creative quickly. Hustling to get all my produce put away before we got into open ocean, I had no idea how I was going to keep eight of us fed and satisfied. Under strict instruction from our captain not to purchase any meat or fish until we arrived back in the states, I was now in uncharted territory.

Meat is generally central to a meal. When someone asks “What’s for dinner?” you don’t say glazed carrots and mashed potatoes. You say roasted chicken. What was I going to do now?
The natural progression seemed to be to elevate the food items I did have. The crew got crepes with fresh berries and powdered sugar, fried egg and cotija cheese tostadas with crisp tomatillo salsa and roasted poblano sour cream for breakfast.

I pushed myself to master local ingredients and found that yuca is fantastic boiled, fried or made into croquettas with queso blanco and green onion. I got quite comfortable working with plantains, the green ones double fried as tostones and the ripe ones sauteed with butter, rum, sugar and vanilla to go over ice cream.

Shredded jicama served with thinly sliced red onion and julienned carrot tossed with a freshly squeezed orange and poppy seed vinaigrette was served alongside homemade steamed tamales for lunch.

In a moment of opportunism whilst under way, we hailed a small fishing boat and traded gristly beef from the freezer for some freshly caught mahi-mahi. I remember it was already cleaned and filleted; a real treat. I was thrilled.

But I basically was letting it fly with all sorts of methods of cooking in order to get us the proteins we needed and the variety I wanted. If we only had veggies, we’d do them right. For one dinner, I layered grilled squash, peppers and onions with fried cheese and topped it with a cilantro heavy salsa verde, and served it with sides of stewed beans, corn with chipotle-cumin butter, and homemade escabeche. I pickled carrots, radishes and chayotes, a mild plant from the gourd family known in other parts of the world as cristophenes, cho-chos or mirlitons.  
 
As chefs, we encounter loads of particular requests from guests and crew alike. Our quick thinking, vast knowledge of food, and arsenal of substitutions keep our heads above the proverbial water.

One of the more common requests these days is for vegetarian options. There is an amazing variety of fruit, vegetables and grains available with which to work. Easily available now are quinoa, hominy, and black garbanzo beans. You can build a meal around fresh fried falafel, barley pilaf with a medley of mushrooms, or bulgur with soaked dried cherries, raisins, apricots and cashews.

Source local ingredients and ask the purveyors at markets what they do with the ingredients. With a little research and some ingenuity, you’ll be on your way to presenting some of the easiest, most colorful food of your career.

Outside a bit of groaning from the boys for red meat, we survived and ate many delightful vegetarian meals.

Chips, Salsa and Guacamole
There’s nothing better than chips and salsa from scratch. For a spectacular hors d’oeuvres, cut the tortillas into 1-inch strips, fry and top with ceviche for a one-bite treat.

Cut 16 corn tortillas into quarters and fry over medium in enough vegetable oil to cover until crispy. Drain on paper towels, salt.

For the salsa:
7-8 medium tomatoes
1-2 green onions
1-2 cloves garlic
1/3 cup red or white onion, medium chop
8-10 sprigs cilantro
1 teaspoon jalapeno or habanero, to taste
salt to taste
1-2 fresh squeezed limes

Chop the tomatoes and red and green onions into smaller pieces to fit into the food processor.
Puree all the ingredients together but leave a little chunky. If you want to make guacamole, simply leave a few tablespoons of salsa in the food processor and chuck in two medium avocados plus some more salt and lime … too easy.

For Smoky Salsa, toss a combination of tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, onions, chilies, green onions and zucchini or corn in a little vegetable oil and salt. Grill the veggies, chop roughly or use your food processor to blend until still chunky. Add salt and lime to taste. Serves 4.

Recipes adapted from “Cooking with the Fridge Door Open” by Laura Cherington.

Laura Cherington worked as a chef aboard yachts for 11 years, and enjoys every moment she spends playing with food. She is now under way with her first cookbook, detailing some of the adventures from yachting life. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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