This article appeared in the Toronto Star on September 19, 2009. The project yielded a cookbook called “A Pinch of This.” Buy it here.
Geanie Sarjue lifts the lid on a big saucepan in which water is bubbling away on the sturdy commercial stove. Amid puffs of steam, the faces of five mackerel stare up at us.
The salted fish, that have been soaked and rinsed, are a key ingredient in Rundown: the traditional Caribbean dish we’re preparing in the community centre’s busy kitchen at Alexandra Park.
Built in the 1960s, this inner-city housing project comprises several blocks west of Spadina Avenue between Dundas and Queen West. In the mid-‘90s, the residents’ association converted most of what was Ontario Housing to a co-operative called the Atkinson Housing Co-op while two buildings in the area are operated by the Toronto Housing Corporation.
Alexandra Park houses more than 2,000 people. Many are recent immigrants to Toronto; most are on fixed income. Over the years, this diverse community has had its ups and downs battling crime and the strife that comes with drugs.
But preparing Rundown with a lively group of residents one recent afternoon in this small sunny room, there’s a vibrant enthusiasm and kindred communal spirit that increasingly pervades this tight-knit neighbourhood and that has brought us all together.
We’re working on a recipe booklet that’s a key component of an exciting new initiative called Recipe for Community.
A grassroots venture, it’s a joint one launched a few months ago by the charitable organization Toronto Community Foundation in partnership with the City of Toronto, Toronto Housing Corporation and, most importantly, folks who live in Alexandra Park.
It’s an innovative several-pronged effort designed to bring generations together while beautifying the area and building community: an effort that is well underway.
Residents – many of them young – are being hired to improve common spaces using local talent and assets, nurturing them so they have a life of their own.
An organic garden, maintained by a gardening club, is sprouting tomatoes and other veggies. Flower gardens and concrete, once neglected, have been revived.
A fledgling company called Toronto Mosaic, founded by local youth, is making decorated window boxes and creating a large, splashy mural for an outdoor wall.
And the Recipe for Community booklet, still in its early stages but a big attraction for the avid cooks involved, has spawned regular cooking sessions and promises to be a tasty offering when it’s completed in a few weeks.
Back in the steamy kitchen, Effie Henry is one of the three women who hail from Jamaica wielding knives, spatulas and spoons. Nailing down Sarjue’s recipe for Rundown is the task at hand and not an easy one.
“We black people don’t cook by books,” Henry says with a sweet smile and twinkle in her eye. “Our ancestors taught us, ‘A pinch of that, a little of this.’ We cook to taste.”
She’s not kidding but a measuring cup and eagle eye are my key tools in getting amounts down on paper.
As we work, Allan Rambissoon cracks open two coconuts, then carefully pries out the flesh. Assuring us that he knows what he’s doing, this former Trinidadian notes, “I come from the countryside.”
Next, Sarjue purees the chopped coconut with water in a blender, then squeezes the mixture with her hands to remove the pulp – “We use that for Coconut Drops or cake,” she says – to produce a liquid that’s the essence of Rundown and from which it gets its name. Boiled on the stove until it’s reduced to an oily cream, this is the base in which onions and seasonings are cooked, then mixed with the mackerel, bones and all.
Meanwhile, Mary Wright is peeling green bananas, a breadfruit and white-fleshed yam that are boiled until tender. A hefty piece of each is arranged on each plate, then the onion/mackerel medley is placed on top and we all sit down to eat.
All manner of ethnically diverse recipes from residents are beginning to pour in. They will be tested and tasted. On that menu is an African peanut stew, Filipino Chicken Adobo, Chinese Fried Rice and Sweet Couscous from Egypt.
Some offer quirky advice like the Afghani rice dish calling for “4 pounds of sheep,” another recipe advising enough salt be added “so that it is tangy” and a curry that involves removing the nails from chicken feet.
A week after the lively Rundown gathering, we’re back in the kitchen making two of Sarjue’s superb chicken dishes: jerk and a twice-roasted version glazed with barbecue sauce. Again, the best part is sitting down together and savouring the results.
Soft-spoken Wright sums up our mood and the shared pleasure of communal cooking in her gentle Jamaican lilt: “If you work together with love and laughter, the food will be good.”
Here is Sarjue’s recipe for Jerk Chicken. For more news on the Recipe for Community booklet, check the Toronto Community Foundation’s web site at: www.tcf.ca.
We used large chicken legs cut into drumsticks and thighs. Jerk and all-purpose seasonings are sold in Caribbean food shops and major supermarkets. You can barbecue chicken, if desired.
15 to 20 chicken pieces
2 limes or lemons
1 medium onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, grated
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger root
1 scotch bonnet pepper, seeded, finely chopped
2 tbsp jerk seasoning
1 tbsp all-purpose seasoning
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp black pepper
½ tsp salt
Squeeze juice from limes into large bowl of water. Rinse chicken in mixture. Transfer chicken to very large non-metallic bowl. Add remaining ingredients. Mix with hands to coat chicken. Let marinate at room temperature 30 minutes to 1 hour or overnight in fridge.
Preheat oven to 400F.
Place chicken in single layer skin side up in one or two roasting pans; pour over marinade. Roast in oven about 40 minutes. Pour most of liquid from pan(s) into measuring cup; drain off and discard fat. Return chicken to oven; roast about 10 minutes more or until crispy and cooked through. Serve with warmed marinade on side, if desired.
Makes about 8 to 10 servings.