There are a few places on earth that feel like home to me.
One of them is Niagara, of course. The other place, where my soul twin lives, is somewhere in the Caribbean.
I’ve had the good fortune to have visited several Caribbean islands over the course of my lifetime. My parents took me for my first visit there when I was thirteen, and from that day I’ve been under its enchanting spell. Every time I go, I think I could see myself living there someday – particularly during our cold winter months. I can’t really explain it other than to say I just feel so at home there, and I feel some certain kind of connection. It’s definitely one of my Soul Places.
On top of that personal pull that I have, there is so much to enjoy about the time I have spent there. There’s the warmth of its people. The beautiful landscape. The food. Come to think of it, those three things are three of my favourites about Niagara too. The added bonus is that in Niagara we have spectacular wine. I have yet to hear of any wine producers down south, though they do make some pretty fine rum.
But I must admit, the Caribbean has us totally beat when it comes to weather.
So a couple of weeks ago, just after we had that last nasty blast from old man winter, I was able to bring two of my favourite spots in the world together. I had a taste of the Caribbean right here in the heart of Niagara, when I attended the Tropical Heat cooking class at The Good Earth.
I hadn’t been to a cooking class in ages, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Was it going to be a hands-on class or a demo class? I know some people enjoy plunging in and learning something hands-on, but I’m one of those people who likes to watch an expert do it, and then try it myself at my own pace at home. When we arrived I found out it was a demo class, so I was happy to relax and sip some wine while those experts cooked for me.
I looked over the menu and contentedly accepted a glass of wine from Nicolette.
Then she introduced Erica, our chef, and we got started on the first course – Tropical Shrimp Ceviche with Taro Chips.
I love ceviche, but I’ve always been a bit nervous to make it myself. If you don’t know what ceviche is, you make it by using fresh, raw fish and then cure the fish in citrus juices. It’s such a tasty dish, but I didn’t trust myself to know when it was ready and safe to serve. Erica explained the curing process, and it’s much easier than I thought. You can actually see the fish turning colour from translucent pink to opaque white, as the acid from the citrus “cooks” the fish.
But the biggest surprise for me was the taro chips.
Oh my goodness these are good. Exceptionally good. Light, nicely crispy, like a healthier kind of potato chip kind of good.
They were being fried though, so maybe I can’t really say “healthier”….
But I loved them.
The lightness of the taro chips was a perfect match for the fresh, lively flavours of the ceviche. Good Earth’s 2014 Riesling rounded out the flavour experience. Riesling has never been my thing, but I am starting to see how it can be a great match for certain foods. This one worked beautifully.
Our second course was Pan Seared Pork Belly with Pineapple Salsa and Coconut Rice.
Would you believe I’d never had pork belly before?
There is a bit of a process to it, which Erica explained. You can read or watch a video of the steps here.
There were two other components for this meal. The first was coconut rice. Why, oh why, have I never cooked my rice in coconut milk? Egads, it’s yummy, and I’ll be doing this at home for sure. If you are looking for more of a sticky rice, Erica told us the ratio is two cups coconut milk to one cup rice.
Now, the next thing was the pineapple salsa.
I have to tell you something here about me and fruit. I have this strange little food rule: Thou shalt not put fruit with meat.
Yeah, I know, I’ve had so many people try to talk me out of this weird little thing. “Oh come on Jo,” they always say. “What about ham and pineapple?”
“What about pork and apple?”
And someone else even mentioned to me once:
…..”Beef with blackberries?”
Wrong – just wrong, – in Jo’s world.
So you might guess what I’m going to say here.
That pineapple salsa wasn’t bad. Not bad at all, actually.
And I was pleasantly surprised by that.
But I do promise this. I will never, ever, ever put blackberries with beef.
That’s still wrong.
So this was an adventurous course for me, full of surprises. The pork belly, which I’d never had, the coconut rice which was divine, and that pineapple salsa.
But there was one more surprise in store. It was matched with Good Earth’s 2015 Unoaked Chardonnay.
I am one of the few, it seems, who prefers oaked Chardonnay to unoaked. Honestly, I find a lot of unoaked chards boring, and kind of bland. I love the creamy, rich, buttery side of Chardonnay, and just think unoaked misses the fun and beauty of what can really be done with this grape.
However, I’m changing my tune a bit here too, and am finding some unoaked chards that aren’t so boring. You guessed it – Good Earth’s is one of them, and it went very well with this dish. The acidity cut nicely through the fat from the pork belly, but yet didn’t compete with the pineapple flavours in the salsa.
As we were finishing up, Nicolette headed outside to give the chickens some scraps. Of course, Ken followed her to get a shot.
But we still had one more main course to go!
This one made me continue to stretch my food boundaries too, but in a good way – Chicken with Guava BBQ Sauce on a Mango, Jicama and Cashew Slaw.
Yes, I had TWO fruits with meat! I was really shaking things up a little.
Alas, Erica wasn’t able to find jicama, so that ingredient was swapped out for cabbage.
All of the salad ingredients had to be chopped, so Erica blitzed through the slicing and dicing making it all look like the easiest thing in the world to do.
Chefs always amaze me with how effortless they make chopping look. You know what I mean, right? They stand there, chatting away, all while slicing fiendishly like a demon.
If I did that, who knows what would happen. My knife skills are still a work in progress.
But this course was delicious, even more so when paired with their 2014 Big Fork Red.
By this point, we were all getting pretty full.
But who can resist dessert. Especially this one – Coconut Pavlovas with Passion Fruit.
Erica had prepared some meringues earlier in the class, so we saw how to make them.
And the passion fruit on top made for such a pretty presentation.
While we finished our desserts, we chatted amongst ourselves and asked Erica some final questions.
It was such a fun, tasty, and relaxed way to spend an afternoon. And before we went our separate ways, we had to get a group shot.
I first started venturing out to The Good Earth last year, when I heard they were one of the few Viognier producers in Niagara. From that first great experience, I’ve kept popping in, whether for events like Wrapped Up in the Valley, or just to pick up yet another bottle. Every time I stopped in, I kept saying I had to come back for the food. I finally got to the Bistro for their Sunday Brunch, and it was delicious. And you guessed it, when I went for brunch, my next thought was “I really need to come for a cooking class….”
I’m so glad I did.
Good Earth offers lots of cooking classes throughout the year, and if you’re interested in attending a class yourself, all the details are here.
Get ready to eat and drink well. Oh, and wear your stretchy pants too.
**Disclosure: I was invited to attend this class as a guest, but all opinions are totally my own.**