Star Anise on green counter

Cooking Up Morning Memories


Star Anise is a taste and scent that always brings me back to mornings in Haiti.

Star Anise on green counter

I have visited Haiti twice in the last year as a guest of Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI), an organization that works to alleviate poverty in the rural community of Mizak by taking a comprehensive, woman-based approach. My first visit was with a group from my church and the second time was to film a promotional video about HAPI with a talented videographer, Tim Frakes.

Since I like to write in the early morning, I would sit at the large pink and white tiled outside table at the HAPI compound to start journaling before the sun rose. Mornings are wonderfully sonorous in rural Haiti. The first sounds are magical. They start with a slow steady metronome beat of gentle sleigh bells provided by chirping insects. The small birds then lay down a track of high-pitched peeps to create a twinkling sound as if the heavens were actually one big metal wind chime. Slowly this delicate blanket of high pitched sound recedes in the background as rooster after rooster starts sharply crowing, chickens pluck, pluck, pluck away and the donkey brays loudly.

I hear the low soft voices of Pastor Paul Prévost and his wife planning their day. A low-pitched alarm buzzes insistently every 10 minutes in the background. Around 6:30, a young teenage boy calls quietly, yet urgently, at the gate to the HAPI compound for the Pastor’s daughter, Doris, to join him on the long walk to school. Doris answers back, then I hear impatient footsteps clatter down the stairs, the green iron gate leading to the bedrooms creaks open and slams shut, a quick Bon Jour to me. More creaking and slamming of the outdoor gate and Doris is off to school.

Doris joins the legions of other impeccably dressed Haitian children in their multi colored plaids, each color signifying a different school like the clans men in Scotland. The work-a-day foot traffic follows. An old wizened man leads a cow on a rope. A lanky young man carries an electric keyboard tucked protectively under his arm. Two young boys, maybe 6 and 3, take their goats to graze in the field in front of the HAPI compound, the 3 year old is “sans shorts.”

Later when everyone else woke up we had breakfast around 8 am. We often started our day with oatmeal or grits cooked with star anise, that cool looking star shaped spice that sits in your spice rack forever since it is so infrequently used in American cuisine.

So when I got home I tried to recreate the oatmeal by throwing in a few star anise pods in the pot as I made my instant oatmeal. It didn’t work, no perfume, no taste. Three minutes is not long enough to let the flavor leach into the oatmeal.

Maybe another type of oatmeal would work? I had always used quick cook versus steel cut oats because Modern Day Church Ladies are always pressed for time. On shopping trips, the package of steel oats were always put back on shelf because they take about 30 minutes to cook.

Yet another lesson from my time at Haiti following me home, the need for patience. Like getting anything done in Haiti, cooking steel cut oats just takes more time. If you come to Haiti with an extensive agenda of things you want to get done, be prepared for frustration. The simplest things take 3-4 times as long. If you measure your self worth by ticking off things on your to-do list, then Haiti is a challenge to your sense of self. Internalize the lesson that you are more than your accomplishments or suffer the consequences in Haiti.

After all, many of these trials and tribulations make for a good story as my good friend and executive director of HAPI, Valerie Celestin has learned. Who knew that a tale of a mysteriously missing shipping container resurfacing after 3 years could be so entertaining?

But I digress from my oatmeal.

So with my new Haitian derived patience, I picked up a package of steel cut oats for my breakfast and was rewarded with the taste and smell of Haiti. Here’s the deal on oats. Steel cut oats are made when “the whole groat is cut into several pieces, rather than rolled.” Quick cook oats are “pre-cooked, dried, and then rolled and pressed slightly thinner than rolled oats.” You can see the difference below.

Quick cook versus steel cut oatmeal

What I found is that a cup of quick cook oats makes about 3 servings and the same amount of steel cut oats makes 4 servings. This is due to the increased liquid requirements of steel oats, which require a liquid to oats ratio of 3-4:1 versus 2:1. It is dependent on the package instructions.

To make what I call “Haitian Scented Oatmeal” I use:

  • 1 Cup steel oats
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups skim milk
  • 3-4 Star Anise pods
  • Cinnamon stick
  • 1/3 cup of dried fruit (raisins, craisns, whatever you have on hand)

And then I cook according to the package directions, stirring fairly frequently. You can use 4 cups of water instead of milk, but I like the creaminess milk adds. I tried apple juice to add a little sweetness, but it was too sweet for me. To save time, I often cook more than I need. The oatmeal tastes great heated up in the microwave for 30 seconds with about a 1/8th cup of milk. I have even frozen the oatmeal in a shallow pan and defrosted one portion at a time.

Star Anise Oatmeal

Like getting things done in Haiti, there are always work-arounds!


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