, Newburyport, MA

April 2, 2014

Spicing things up

Port cook puts a global twist on homemade dishes

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — It all started a couple of years ago with a map.

When Newburyport resident Sheila Mullins offered to start cooking for the First Friday Socials at the Custom House Maritime Museum, she wasn’t sure what she would make. Then she noticed a map on the wall in the museum’s Bushee Gallery showing the ports of call of Newburyport ships from 1790 to 1890.

Inspired by the Spice Route, she has been taking Custom House Friends and their guests on a monthly Culinary Spice Trade Adventure ever since. For March’s social, she made Jamaican dishes. This Friday, her recipes will reflect the Caribbean island of Martinique.

“It is wonderful to explore this,” Mullins said. “Because part of what I want people to understand is to not be afraid of food. Everywhere you go, there is great food.”

Mullins, who is a personal cook and interior designer, has discovered through her research of the different regions that a lot of the food has evolved through influences from the local cultures.

“I can see the progression of recipes across the Mediterranean, into the Caribbean,” she said. “You’re going to find a lot of similar flavor profiles that get tweaked and twisted along the way based on what’s available. If you follow the food, it is the story of who we are as human beings.”

The Internet has proved a useful tool for finding the recipes every month. She selects dishes based on her budget, what she can accomplish by herself and what ingredients are available in the Greater Newburyport area.

“I’ve had to get really, really good at breaking down recipes in terms of all those different factors,” she said.

Exploring new dishes for the socials has also helped her add to her cooking repertoire at home. It also gives her the chance to go back and try a dish a different way.

“I don’t get the opportunity to do a trial run when I do the recipes for the Custom House, so I kind of have to nail them right the first time,” she said.

One recipe that Mullins has revisited a few times is a South African version of grilled cheese, braaibroodjie.

“I’ve also translated it into a pizza,” she said. “It works really, really well for a pizza.”

Mullins learned to love the art of preparing food as a child growing up with a Pakistani father and American mother.

“My mom will tell you I’ve been cooking since she carried me on her hip,” Mullins said. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking. I’ve always enjoyed just trying different things, experimenting, that doesn’t change.”

As someone who makes “three meals a day, seven days a week” most of the time, Mullins said she doesn’t really have a favorite dish.

“It’s going to come down to, ‘What am I in the mood for?’” she said. “There’s very little I can’t cook. I can make everything from mac and cheese to a dish from Senegal.”

Below, Mullins shares four recipes, two from the First Friday Socials and two of her own specialties.

Jamaican Sweet Potato Stew

Vegan and gluten-free

1 cup kidney beans/red peas (precooked or soaked overnight)

4 cups coconut milk

2 pounds cubed sweet potatoes

1/2 cup cubed pumpkin (or butternut squash)

1 cubed medium carrot

1/4 pound string beans

2 scallions

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 medium onion, chopped fine

1 scotch bonnet pepper

1 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon butter or margarine

2 small tomatoes (cut into chunks)

Cook the kidney beans/red peas in coconut milk.

Add the sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, and string beans. Simmer for 15 minutes.

Add salt, onion, scallions, tomatoes, thyme, garlic, pepper and margarine. Simmer another 10 minutes.Serve hot.

— Adapted from a recipe at and served at March’s First Friday Social at the Custom House Maritime Museum

Martinique Sweet Potato Coconut Curry with Aubergine & Pineapple

Serves 4. Vegan and gluten-free.

For the Colombo spice mix:

3 tablespoons cumin seeds

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon whole cloves

3 tablespoons ground turmeric

In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, toast all the whole spices (not the turmeric) until fragrant and lightly browned, 2 or 3 minutes. Don’t take your eyes off them, they will burn. Remove from the heat, and tip into a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, and grind to a powder.

Toast the turmeric in the same pan over medium-high heat until fragrant and lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Combine the turmeric with the rest of the spices, and store in an airtight container. Makes about 3/4 cup.

For the curry:

1 tablespoon Colombo powdered spice mix (see above)

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 onion, roughly chopped

3 small or one large scotch bonnet chilis, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large aubergine, cut into 2-centimeter cubes

1 large sweet potato, scrubbed and cut into 2-centimeter cubes

3 small green peppers (the long, small frying peppers), deseeded and 2-centimeters diced

1 tin coconut milk (400 milliliters)

400 milliliters vegetable stock

1 tablespoon tamarind paste

2 bay leaves

1/2 small pineapple, core removed, cut into 2-centimeter cubes

1/2 lime, juiced

2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)

Handful of fresh coriander, chopped, plus leaves for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, then add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and chili, and cook for a further 2 minutes.

Add in the aubergine and sweet potato cubes, and cook for about 4 minutes until just softening and turning golden brown.

Stir the spice mix through to coat all the vegetables, cook for a further 2 minutes and season with 1 teaspoon salt.

Pour in the coconut milk and vegetable stock, then add the tamarind paste and bay leaves. Stir well and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover with a lid and continue to simmer for 30-40 minutes until the aubergine has melted into the sauce and the sweet potato is soft.

Add in the pineapple, lime juice and rum (if using), stir well, cover and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning, add more salt if necessary and stir through the chopped coriander.

Serve with plain basmati rice or roti bread to scoop up the delicious sauce.

— Adapted from and Levi Roots’ “Caribbean Food Made Easy” and will be served at this week’s First Friday Social

Eggplant terrine with roasted heirloom tomato sauce

Serves 6 as a main course or 10 as an appetizer

2 pounds eggplant, sliced into 1/8-inch-thick slices

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt


1 bunch basil leaves

2 leeks, sliced lengthwise and cleaned

2 orange bell peppers, sliced lengthwise, roasted and skinned

6-7-ounce feta cheese block, sliced into 1/8-inch-thick slices

3.5-4 pounds vine-ripened yellow heirloom tomatoes

1 bunch fresh thyme leaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove stems and any blemishes from tomatoes, and cut into large pieces.

Place some extra-virgin olive oil into the bottom of a roasting pan, and brush to coat pan thoroughly. Place the tomatoes in pan, skin side down.

Drizzle more olive oil on the tomatoes, season well with salt and pepper, sprinkle about 1.5 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves over tomatoes, and lay a few sprigs of basil over the tomatoes.

Roast tomatoes until soft, approximately 30 minutes. Remove basil and place balance of contents into a food processor or a blender. Process until just small chunks remain. This is meant to be a rustic sauce. Reserve sauce and cool. Place into a storage container and refrigerate.

While the tomatoes are roasting, prepare the terrine ingredients.

If you prefer to remove the skin from the eggplant, do so, but this is not a necessary step. Season both sides of the eggplant slices.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat until hot. Turn heat down to medium. Place the eggplant in batches, and cook until browned. Set aside. Peel leeks apart into layers of 2-3 layers per layer of terrine. Cook the leeks in the same manner as the eggplant, and reserve.

Seed and slice the peppers into thick slices vertically. Place in a baking pan with oil sprayed onto the bottom or some olive oil brushed on the bottom, and broil skin side up until skin is charred. Remove skin and reserve peppers.

Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap going both vertically and horizontally, and leave excess for wrapping terrine over the pan edges by 5-6 inches on each side. Assemble the terrine ingredients.

What is important is that the ingredients are going in the same direction because it’s the layers that are seen and in part what keeps the terrine together. Lay a layer of eggplant at the bottom of plastic wrap-lined loaf pan, followed by a layer of leeks, followed by feta cheese, followed by basil leaves. (The assembly process takes only a few minutes.) Layer and repeat until ingredients are used up, ensuring that the final layer is eggplant.

Finish wrapping the plastic wrap around the terrine. Press the layers together. Lay some weight on the terrine, and place in refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight if possible.

For serving, carefully remove terrine from loaf pan. Remove wrap from terrine, and with a very sharp knife, slice. Place a pool of cooled sauce on plate and top with terrine. Serve.

Blueberry pancakes

Makes 10-12 4-inch pancakes

Total time: 20 minutes

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons baking powder

2 room-temperature eggs, divided

11/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 cup ground flaxseed meal

11/4 cups skim milk

2 cups blueberries

Place all ingredients except egg whites in a medium bowl. Mix by hand until combined. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Fold egg whites into batter until just barely combined.

In a cast-iron skillet, add 2 tablespoons butter and melt over medium heat. (Alternatively, use a cooking spray.) Spoon batter into 4 pancakes into hot skillet, and top each with one-eighth of the blueberries.

Cook until bubbles form on top of batter, and turn over. Cook for approximately 1 minute.

Serve with “syrup”: Mix equal parts honey and frozen orange juice concentrate. Heat until warm. Pour over pancakes.