ST. CROIX, US VIRGIN ISLANDS
She is an attorney by profession and a culinary genius during her spare time. Her name is Tanisha Bailey-Roka. But, she is affectionately known to many as the Crucian Contessa.
CGR: How long have you been cooking or should I say creating dishes?
Contessa: I always loved baking—not so good at cooking—when I was growing up. One of my favorite Christmas gifts was an easy bake oven my parents gave me! That was just a little metal box with a really tiny space for a really tiny cake pan, and a hot light bulb. But boy those little cakes were delicious!! I really started to hone my cooking skills when I went away to college. My mom is an excellent cook. She didn’t believe in feeding us fast food, because in her words, “My food is better than that!” So having to shift from eating my mom’s amazing cooking to college cafeteria food was a real adjustment, to put it mildly. So, I started cooking most of my own meals. It’s amazing what you can do with two pots and a college stove top. And I just continued to cultivate my love of from scratch cooking from there.
CGR: What makes you passionate about cooking?
Contessa: The taste! Making food from scratch and with excellent ingredients is a gift to yourself and to those you share it with. It is simply incomparable to anything that comes frozen or out of a box. Almost anything you can buy, you can make yourself, and you control what goes into it. I also adore the look of pure bliss that crosses someone’s face when they taste something I shared with them. You can’t get that from a box! That comes from time and pride and love! It has its own unique flavor!
CGR: What’s your favorite dish of all time?
Contessa: It is REALLY hard to answer this question, because there are SO many foods I just love! But one of my definite go to comfort foods is a dish I found in an African Cookbook. It is called Mafe, and it was made with ground peanuts/peanut butter and chicken. It is just delicious! I have to make myself stop eating it. And of course anything from Ethiopia, Mexico, and India. Those cultures are like ours, they KNOW how to use and balance flavors and spices! See, I told you it was hard to answer this question.
CGR: Is there a certain ingredient in the kitchen that you can’t live without?
Contessa: Thyme for savory and nutmeg for sweets. I put thyme in everything! My husband is Hungarian, so he didn’t grow up with thyme as a main component to his cooking. But over the span of ten years together he will sweet me up by saying, “Honey, I even put thyme in it!” Big smile!! And nutmeg compliments everything sweet, especially recipes that rely on cream. I will tuck a little fresh grated Dominican nutmeg into everything! I’ve even snuck some into my lasagna. Just a couple scrapes and it balances out the creaminess of the ricotta and other cheeses! Miracle spices those two are.
CGR: What are some advantages of creating dishes on the island?
Contessa: I joke with my friends that island living is not for the faint of heart. You have to WANT to live on an island. It can feel practically biblical—By the sweat of thy brow shall you eat! There are no home delivery places, many of our residential streets have no names. You can either cook it yourself, or go pick it up yourself. Also, the options can be very limited sometimes in terms of availability of ingredients. But I am nothing if not persistent and resourceful! Once, I was craving some Ethiopian food and of course there are no Ethiopian restaurants on island. I managed to hunt down one of two Ethiopians on island. He was just as clueless about how to make it but had all the spices we need. After much research and trial and error we ended up with a feast that would rival any restaurant on the mainland! That man is my friend today and one of our favorite local farmers. So, if there is an advantage to island living and island food crafting, it would have to be the spirit of community that trails it. I also find that making my own food is so much cheaper than ordering out. My husband and I make all of our own breads. Every Wednesday is bread night, and every Saturday is baking day! I make bagels, croissants, challahs, and focaccias and share them with my friends and family. I don’t make food for me to eat, I make food for me to share, and I feed my friends and family well!
CGR: What was your inspiration behind starting a blog?
Contessa: I wanted to figure out a way to share what I love most! It was a way for me to have a new creative outlet. I am a lawyer by profession and that job can be very taxing and demanding and grueling. The kitchen is my escape. Also, there is so much happening in the local food scene. Our farmers are beyond amazing! They take advantage of the soil, sunshine, and their own creativity to grow some amazing fruits and vegetables! I love the local farms on island: Sejah Farms, Ridge to Reef, Artfarm, Ms. Jackson to name a few. I also adore the provisions of places like Annaly Farms who produce local beef and pork products. And the work of beekeepers like Wanda Wright, Grantley Samuels, and the V.I. Honeyman who share the beautiful and complex flavors of wild Crucian honey! I mean come on, how can you not share the ahhhhmazingness that is the food culture on this little Rock! I just love it!
CGR: Your blog features various recipes from around the world including Caribbean, Greek and Mediterranean to name a few. Do you have a favorite?
Contessa: My favorite recipe on the blog right now is my Beef Pate recipe. It is very Crucian and it is very good. I refuse to say how many times I have “tested” this recipe, of course for the sake of the blog! (That is my story and I am sticking with it.) My other favorite recipe is my Cocoa Tea recipe! Brunch isn’t finished until there is cocoa tea! And no matter how much I make, I always seem to have to make just ONE more pot! It is that good!
CGR: Who is your biggest inspiration?
Contessa: If I had a celebrity chef favorite it would be Ina Garten. I just love her. That simple. She was the affectionate nod for the name Crucian Contessa. But the everyday awesomeness inspiration would be my mom. She is a true kitchen ninja! She cooked for us every-single-day! You almost have to read that as one word. Four children and a husband, a full-time job, and still came home to create a home cooked meal for us every-single-day. That is love! That is worthy of inspiration AND aspiration.
CGR: What items would we be served if we we’re invited to Sunday brunch at the Crucian Contessa? ☺
Contessa: I actually laughed when I read this question. Sounds like you’ve been chatting with some of my favorite Brunchees! I do a brunch spread when I am in the mood to really throw down in the kitchen. No holding back. I go wild! But those only happen on special occasions! I do smaller brunches with visiting friends and family on various Sundays and that could be as simple as homemade bagels, salmon, and organic blueberry muffins. But when I do go kitchen ninja on those Brunch Feast Days a typical spread could include but not be limited to: Breakfast—Nutmeg waffles, Spinach Quiche, Sausages, Bacon, Cocoa Tea, Lunch: Scalloped Potatoes, Roast Pork, Grilled Lamb, Jerk Pineapple BBQ Chicken, Coconut Shrimp, Conch Chowder, Assorted Breads—focaccia with my husband’s infamous garlic sauce. Desserts: Homemade ice cream, lavender cookies, coquito bread pudding, almond tiramisu, white chocolate and lime cheesecake. Like I said, “…wild in the kitchen!”
CGR: If you could have anyone over for dinner, who would you invite?
Contessa: Food is such a communal activity. It is a way to bring people, ideas, solutions, hopes and dreams together. I love looking up from whatever I’m doing in the kitchen when we have friends over for brunch and seeing folks who just met handing each other a card or tapping numbers into their cell phones to keep the good energy they created with us over some well-made food! So, like the favorite food question, the favorite person question is tough because there are SO many people I would love to feed and share space with. But if I had to choose one—for right now it would be my favorite very Crucian Vice President Joe Biden! That man needs to have some Contessa Cocoa Tea! I’m gonna figure out a way to make that happen one day!!
For more on the Contessa, please visit her at www.cruciancontessa.com