Thank goodness I signed on and paid for this cruise long before the economy did a tap dance on my personal finances. Otherwise, my rational mind would have talked me out of such an extravagance at the beginning of 2009; a cruise would have been only a fantasy to distract me from my fast-dwindling 401k. But, as it turned out, just as our new president was settling into the White House, I was settling into my floating cabin and signing up for the "behind the scenes" kitchen tour of Holland America's MS Westerdam.
The tour revealed some startling facts about offshore kitchen operations: about 168 culinary staff members prepare about 11,000 meals daily for 1,800 passengers and 800 crew members. As you would imagine with so many people to feed, weekly consumption of basic foods are overwhelmingly large: 23,000 eggs, 137,500 pounds of vegetables, 15,644 pounds of meat and poultry, 1,675 pounds of butter/margarine, 4,350 pounds of fish and seafood, etc.
Onboard food departments include butcher (all meat cuts are made on ship), fish, hot soups, cold soups, cold kitchen, hot kitchen, bakery (which makes 20 kinds of breads, everything except hamburger and hot dog buns), pastry (from pies to petit fours), decorative (from marzipan fruit to food sculptures), provisions (imagine the shopping lists?), and cleanup. Finally, Holland America is committed to environmental awareness, converting food waste to mulch and recycling as much as possible.
Food is available almost 24/7 for passengers via several venues. The Main Dining Room formally served full-course meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with options of everything, special preparation requests and napkins placed in your lap by doting stewards. The Lido Deck offered casual buffet dining, most of the day, with multiple food stations for fruit, pasta/pizza, deli, salads, desserts, beverages, etc., and a chance to "eat your heart out" several times a day. The Pinnacle Grill was the upscale gourmet restaurant that required reservations and a $20 surcharge, well worth paying at least once for the prime servings of steak, veal and lobster.
You could enjoy your favorite latte or cappuccino in The New York Times Café, along with a daily cookie or brownie treat, while you checked your e-mails or read the newspaper. And as if that was not enough opportunity to overindulge your eating habits, room service was available night and day. Oh, did I mention all eating (except for Pinnacle) was free? Lest you think it was all about gluttony, the ship offered wonderful gym and spa facilities, exercise classes and enough deck space to put in miles of walking. All was well.
One of the highlights of the cruise was attending a cooking class taught by jazz cruise host, bassist Marcus Miller, and the Westerdam's executive chef. Miller showed us how to prepare a dish that consistently melts his wife's heart, after returning from a long road tour. Like his music, Miller believes in improvisational cooking - using a basic recipe and altering the ingredients and steps to fit your personal culinary preferences. Says Miller: "In terms of quantities and ingredients, this is jazz cooking ... you can use whatever pleases you." The recipe is a basic one and the results at home were as easy as they appeared onboard the ship.
Even if you can only fantasize about taking a cruise right about now, you can still celebrate the amazing power of food to lift your spirits above a rainy day or a dismal economy. Better yet, personalize Marcus Miller's dish for your special someone and present it with the elegance of cruising through the Caribbean (a little soft music wouldn't hurt either). Perhaps that special someone will reward you in ways that you couldn't even begin to fantasize.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
"Way to a Woman's Heart" Cooking Class with Marcus Miller: Mushroom Pasta with Chicken for Two
2-3 cloves garlic
2 pounds mushrooms
1 pound pasta
Salt & pepper
1 chicken, cut in pieces
1. Prep chicken pieces by seasoning with salt and pepper. Smash garlic cloves; sauté in the olive oil in large pan. Remove from pan. Sauté chicken pieces in pan just until nicely browned.
2. Place browned chicken pieces in a baking dish. Bake at 375 degrees until cooked thoroughly. Set aside.
3. Clean mushrooms and process to a fine consistency in a food processor. Sauté mushrooms in olive oil until dark brown in same pan used before. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Transfer mushrooms to colander and drain to remove excess oil. Put mushroom pate to side.
5. Boil pasta and cook until al dente; drain.
6. Mix mushroom pate with heavy cream and butter until blended into a rich sauce. Add to pasta and toss lightly. Serve with a baked chicken piece atop the pasta. Note: Alternately, you can slice the chicken and toss the slices with the pasta and mushroom sauce.