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Haiti’s in trouble

But the food’s awesome — and you can help
By LINDSAY STERLING  |  January 9, 2013

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HANG OUT AND HELP OUT Join Mirielle Jean-Francois, Mark Walton, Lindsay Sterling, and others to make and eat Haitian food, and donate to earthquake relief efforts.
We're cooking green plantains, habanero-lemon pork ribs, and rice and beans. Teaching us is Mirielle Jean-Francois, who was raised in Cap Haïtien, Haiti. She dips yellow plantain medallions into salt water before frying them, totally nonplussed about what happens when the wet plantains hit hot oil. Who cares if oil splatters and pops like liquid fireworks? Just put a mesh splatter guard over it. Not that she'd use one in Haiti. There she'd be cooking outside for 60 friends and family on live coals, splattering away. This method sucks the salt right into the soul of the plantains. If you sprinkle the salt on once they're done, the salt just bounces right off sadly onto the paper towel. I tell you, topping these tostones with lemon-spritzed avocado, tomato, and crabmeat is the best thing that's happened to me in the food world. It's little finger food. It's colorful, crunchy, hot, and fresh at the same time.

Another great trick: she puts a chicken boullion cube into the bean cooking water. This makes the beans great as opposed to eh, just some beans. Next, mashing up thyme, salt, shallot, fresh habanero pepper, garlic, and parsley in a mortar and pestle, you just know this pork is going to taste amazing. Marinate the ribs in this chunky mash, then toss generously with olive oil and broil. Her pork came out delightfully crispy and browned on the outside because once the ribs were cooked she drained off the cooking juices, doused the ribs in five times more olive oil than I ever would have recommended, and then popped them back under the broiler for a couple minutes. She called this technique, "the next best thing to deep frying." Kinda fried. I love this. Don't kill yourself, but enjoy life. Olive oil's good for you anyway.

How did I connect with this faux frying master? It's a sad and happy story. When Mirielle was 17, in 1988, her parents' house in Haiti was ransacked. Mobs were burning houses and vehicles, "with dogs in them," she added, horrified. The chaos was unfathomable. Her parents sent her here for college. After that she went to work in Kansas City providing car dealerships with service contracts. One day she was calling a client, Maine Mall Motors. Someone there said to this guy, Mark Walton, in the finance department: "You gotta hear this woman's voice on the phone." It's true. Mirielle's voice makes you feel sparkly like a habanero. Long story short, these two, Mark and Mirielle, fell in love long-distance, got together, and got married.

After moving to be with him in Maine, she discovered Konbit Sante, an organization based in Portland that was working to improve health care in her hometown in Haiti. Small world. She describes their work. "It's not just lending a hand or helping someone, it's taking them from death's door, giving them a chance for life." Despite Haiti's extreme troubles, made even worse by the 2010 earthquake, Mirielle says, "Haitian people couldn't be nicer people. One piece of bread in the house; they give it to you, knowing that they can't just go get more." It makes you want to give back. So do her pork ribs. What would be cool is if a whole bunch of us cooked Mirielle's recipes with some friends, feasted, and then all donated some bucks to Konbit Sante. We'll be doing this at my next cooking class, February 8. Join us.

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  Topics: Food Features , Haiti, relief
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