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At Chez Shack, Fine Food Meets Island Attitude… Sancocho: 1-Pot Wonder Is A Point Of Pride

At Chez Shack, Fine Food Meets Island Attitude


April 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004 New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

The Boston Globe

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - "I'm sorry I've been so busy tonight," says our perpetually smiling, spiky-haired waiter as he sets down yet another round of the high-octane house punch. "I usually have time to sit and talk."

That we didn't expect (or ask) him to do so doesn't matter any more than that we had never met him. A certain kind of refined informality is the paradox that pretty much sums things up at Chez Shack. Proudly run-down and rife with tropical bohemia, the place is an island institution for Canadian and American expats and tourists (many of whom hail from Boston) who come for the island lore almost as much as for the food. Owner Hugh Duffy is said to have helped launch the Mamas and the Papas in the 1960s, employing them at his former St. Thomas restaurant, Duffy's Love Shack. Then there's the scene itself: a cluster of connected, open-air shacks tucked behind a rain forest area that genuinely feels like the middle of nowhere.

The surprisingly sophisticated food, meanwhile, feels a bit like everywhere. Imagine a collision of nearly every tropical-latitude ingredient with French, Italian, and American cooking techniques - all of it heavy on the seafood, light on the pretense. If the East Coast Grill were in the tropics instead of Cambridge, it would be just like this.

In fact, chef Tony Casino lived in Boston for years and is an alum of both East Coast Grill and the South End's Tremont 647. His food has a lot in common with the creations of his former bosses, Chris Schlesinger and Andy Husbands, respectively.

"We do a lot of classical international cooking but adapt it to what fresh foods I can get here on the island," Casino says. "I try and substitute fruit for fresh tomatoes, for example, since they can be hard to come by. Or use pickled tomatoes instead. Like in the grilled pork loin, we'll use pickled tomatoes with roasted onions, so you get a balance of salty and sweet."

Another example: the pan-seared duck breast, its juicy meat cut with spicy grilled chorizo and the sweet-tart flavors of peach and orange relish. Instead of standard fries, Casino piles on thin and crispy yucca frites.

Seafood, though, is nearly always front and center at the restaurant. The stew of plump, sweet shrimp and scallops (or "S & S," as regulars call it) is heaped with noodles in a deep bowl, steamed in a coconut broth zapped with chiles and lime. A plate of braised red snapper comes swimming in a light tomato broth with roasted red peppers and scalloped potatoes, with a thin layer of crisp-edged bacon in its center. This is food created in the brain but cooked from the gut. It's worldly but not precious, educated but not studied - the very definition of refined informality.

So, too, is the rest of Chez Shack. Its pink walls are strung with Christmas lights, dotted with painted flower pots, and made a backdrop for steel bands every Monday. On quieter nights, diners are entertained by the sound of peeper frogs from the neighboring forest mixed with recorded Motown tunes. They linger over desserts like the grilled banana split with molasses butter and chocolate passion-fruit sauce, and, of course, over drinks with the uncommonly affable wait staff.

Chez Shack, Highway 995 (Airport Road), Vieques, Puerto Rico. 787-741-2175. No credit cards. Closed September and October.

Sancocho: 1-Pot Wonder Is A Point Of Pride

By Viviana Carballo | Special to the Sentinel

April 21, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

World-class chefs

My friend Grizelle de los Reyes, blessed with the looks and the grace of a flamenco dancer, is a champion.

At the University of Puerto Rico she was an academic and athletic achiever, bringing the judo and the basketball teams to win after win. That prowess brought her more scholarships, first to the University of Florida and then to the University of California, where she not only graduated with honors but repeated her athletic feats. She is a nationally recognized specialist in marketing and advertising but she claims, with a great deal of pride, that her most important role is that of mother of two boys, ages 10 and 14, and, after that, her role as a sports instructor to teenagers.

When Grizelle left Puerto Rico to pursue her education in the United States, she deeply missed her family. In her student kitchen, she tried to re-create her mother's recipes to keep her island in her heart. Little by little and to her own surprise she became a very good cook. Now her cooking has taken a new dimension, that of passing on her culture and heritage to her children.

She and I like to cook together, and I am learning the subtleties of Puerto Rican cooking from watching her. Many dishes of the Spanish Caribbean and beyond are similar in style and name, but each country seems to add its own twists.

Take the sancocho, for example -- that all-in-one dinner in the pot-au-feu and olla podrida family, also the Italian bollito misto or the New England boiled dinner -- is a stew/soup made with everything but the kitchen sink. There are even different ways of eating the finished dish.

Grizelle's Championship Sancocho

Some grand sancochos require seven types of meat, among them pork ribs; skirt steak; goat meat; chicken; and myriad vegetables -- peppers, yuca, malanga, potatoes, plantains, corn, calabaza, carrots.

In Cuba, the sancocho goes by the name of ajiaco, and its defining factor is beef jerky. In Venezuela the sancocho is made with chicken, but it's not uncommon to find fish in the recipe in some coastal areas.

It's intriguing that every country that serves sancocho, from the Canary Islands to Panama or Ecuador, considers the sancocho to be its national treasure.

In North Miami, Grizelle helped organize and now coaches the Trinity Church basketball team for boys ages 13 to 15, ranging in height from 5 foot 10 inches to 6 foot 4 inches -- with appetites to match. Her son Gabriel plays forward. On a recent Sunday after services, Grizelle invited the team to celebrate a victory with a sancocho with all the trimmings.

Of course, for Grizelle cooking is more then cooking, it's an expression of love for her kids and for the la isla del encanto, her island of enchantment, and for a sense of community. While she cooked, the boys shot hoops in the back yard.

The good thing about this type of dish is that you need not be a slave to the recipe. Improvising is encouraged. So don't be afraid to mix it up and don't feel daunted by the list of ingredients -- it really is an easy dish to make. You can replace a couple of the tropical tubers (doesn't much matter which) with potatoes and carrots. Leave the semi-ripe plantains in if you can, they provide a pleasant sweetness, or substitute with calabaza, the orange-yellow Caribbean pumpkin.

New column

Sentinel Staff Writer

April 21, 2004

To showcase the diversity of Central Florida, today we launch Gusto!, a new column by Miami writer Viviana Carballo.

Every other week, she'll explore the cuisines of the Caribbean and the Americas. Carballo, who was born in Cuba, has traveled extensively in Latin America, Europe and Southeast Asia. She graduated from Fordham University in New York, earned the Grand Diplome from the Paris Cordon Bleu and studied Spanish regional cooking in Spain.

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