Food & Drink

Jamaica inspired her art — and her cooking

Lisa Remeny is seen at her Coconut Grove studio, where the Miami Beach-born artist and painter works on her hallmark hyper-realistic images of nature. This week, she’s finishing a painting to raise money for the Bali Ha’i event Sunday at The Kampong, David Fairchild’s former winter home.
Lisa Remeny is seen at her Coconut Grove studio, where the Miami Beach-born artist and painter works on her hallmark hyper-realistic images of nature. This week, she’s finishing a painting to raise money for the Bali Ha’i event Sunday at The Kampong, David Fairchild’s former winter home. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Lisa Remeny considers the three Jamaican stamp-and-go fritters on a cobalt earthenware plate with an artist’s eye and smirks.

“Hmm. Three is OK. I prefer five,” she says as she adds two more and spins the plate, looking for the best angle to photograph it.

There’s also the issue of the Jamaican “run down” stew. There’s just not enough of it in the matching blue bowl handcrafted for her by a fellow local artist. She spent last night shaving fresh coconut meat from the fruits of her own backyard to make the traditional Jamaican sauce for this broccoli and chicken dish she made in the tiny kitchen of her bohemian Coconut Grove home. It is among the many she learned while living on the island, where she found her voice as a cook and painter.

“Should I put more in your bowl? You don’t mind a little more, do you?”

Light pours into the room, where every window is open on a cool spring morning. A breeze blows past the swaying palms, a blooming fuchsia bougainvillea and through the upstairs of her converted two-flat home. The walls, ceiling and couches are white, highlighting the hanging art. In the distance, a peacock calls.

A painting of a hand holding an ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, where she lived and painted for 10 years, reflects salmon-colored light into room. She travels there to paint several times a year.

“The food is what I miss the most about living there,” she says, as she shares her crispy fritters and creamy stew. A twisting apple-walnut bundt coffee cake she often makes from a 1973 New York Times recipe awaits.

Downstairs, in a flat she converted into her art studio, the Miami Beach-born Remeny paints her hallmark hyper-realistic images of nature. She is finishing a painting to raise money for the annual Bali Ha’i event Sunday at The Kampong, David Fairchild’s former winter home that has become a national park. Her white shirt with the sleeves rolled up three-quarters is streaked with its teal and yellow paint.

Upstairs, in a 6-by-8-foot kitchen, where the space is too tight for the refrigerator and oven doors to be open at the same time, she produces her edible works of art.

Here, where a handmade sticker on the door denotes this a shoe-free zone, she cooks barefoot for collectors who become friends and friends who become collectors. And she has become well known among local artists for both her talents.

“I would never do business with someone I didn’t like enough to cook for,” she says.

Remeny has had both those influences in her life from a young age. Her grandmother, a graduate of art from the Pratt Institute in New York, introduced her to painting with watercolors, while her grandfather worked in restaurants and her mother produced lavish family meals.

“My mother was the only person who could cook with me in my tiny kitchen. We danced around each other,” she said.

By the time she was 15, attending Norland High School and later North Miami Beach, she hand-painted on leather for a local artisan who was the first to tell her she could make a career of painting. She attended California College of the Arts, where at first she focused on photography and film.

“I only wanted to be an artist because my grandmother told me I could do it,” she said. “I had all this encouragement along the way. I never felt I couldn’t do it.”

There, at the Berkeley-adjacent school, she started cooking out of chef Alice Waters’ cookbook after eating at her landmark restaurant, Chez Panisse, and eating the kind of food she had never seen in Miami, like sushi and sashimi.

But it was a 10-day trip to Jamaica with a friend, upon graduating from college in the early ’80s, that reshaped her life. By the time she landed in Miami, she knew she would be going back.

“It’s beautiful. You sit on a beach watching the palm trees swaying across the bay, say, ‘Wow, there is a God.’ Seeing the earth in its glory blew my mind. So I just started painting,” she said.

She moved there that year, using a stipend the Air Force had paid her upon her father’s unexpected death when she was 12. She allowed herself the time to take photographs and paint from them.

She lived on a picturesque farm, in the interior of the island, nearest to the town of Ocho Rios. She found work painting her developing tropical scenes commercially, on everything from album covers to packages of soap. She switched mediums to oil painting to help capture the vibrancy of the landscapes she saw, and her art evolved. She was introduced to a gallery in Ocho Rios, and the first three paintings she gave them sold for several hundred dollars each.

“Once I was able to sell my work, everything changed,” she said.

Meanwhile, she found her way into local kitchens.

“Everyone cooked,” she said. “Women, men, boys, girls, grandmothers, grandfathers — everyone cooked.”

She trained her artist’s eye on the kitchen. She found parallels between her own cooking and her art: passion, boldness, simplicity of form.

“I always love when she comes to visit because she’s a delight in the kitchen. I love how she does our food. She really gets it,” Judy MacMillan, a fellow painter and friend, said from her home in Kingston. “She learned from the grassroots of Jamaica. The real, rural comfort food.”

She learned just the right texture for those ackee and salt cod fritters. She was in the kitchen with local women as they cracked open fresh coconuts and began the hours-long process of grating the coconut meat and stewing it with the water to create the coconut milk. She never did get used to the heat from Scotch bonnet peppers, but she uses them lightly, nonetheless.

“She’s an inspired chef,” MacMillan said.

Jamaica transformed her art — and her palate.

She moved back to Coconut Grove in 1991 (and designed the poster for the Coconut Grove Arts Festival twice) and found the top-and-bottom duplex that would become her home and studio. There, she began inviting collectors and fellow artists to her flat, where she brought back with her the visual and culinary styles of Jamaica.

Collectors find themselves using the same words to describe her cooking and her art.

“It has layers and layers of flavors, like her painting. It looks simple, but there is nothing simple about it,” collector Isabelle Andrews said. “It’s vibrant, bold, elegant.”

A painting she had made after a day fishing in Jamaica, when a friend caught a bright orange mutton snapper on a bright blue Caribbean Sean, won an award and was hung at what is now the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale. It raised her profile, and the piece, “Catch of the Day,” eventually sold for well into the five figures — enough to put a down payment on her halcyon home in the Grove.

There, impromptu dinner parties break out. Remeny immediately wants to feed her guests.

“I don’t trust people who don’t love food,” she said

She whirls around in about three square feet of space, cocooned in her kitchen, and her friends, including the French-born Andrews, never know what delicacy will emerge.

“The grand chefs all cook in small kitchens,” Andrews said.

Remeny cleared the plates from the two-seat table by her kitchen, overlooking her backyard. The silver rings on her hands flashed steel like her tossed black-and-silver hair as she cut a pair of pieces out of the bundt. She paired them with cappuccino.

As she finished up with her sweet creation and the light bounced off her hanging work, it was clear that Lisa Remeny is happiest when she is surrounded by her art and someone to share it with.

Carlos Frías: 305-376-4624, @Carlos_Frias

Bali Ha’i at The Kampong

What: The annual dining and auction event raises money for The Kampong, late horticulturalist David Fairchild’s former winter home and current National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Where: 4013 S. Douglas Rd., Coconut Grove

Tickets: $175

More info: 305-442-7169, balihaiparty.com

Lisa Remeny’s Jamaican Run Down

“Run down,” a savory sauce with a coconut milk base, can be employed to make anything from a vegetarian stew to your favorite seafood or meat. This is one of my favorite country dishes that I learned from both old and young cooks while living in rural Jamaica.

2 dry coconuts, husked and removed from shell (or 2 cans coconut milk)

1 medium onion chopped fine

5 cloves garlic minced

1 bunch scallions to taste, chopped (white and green parts)

fresh thyme (tied together with its own strands in bundle)

1 tablespoon curry powder

Salt to taste

1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, seeded and chopped fine. (A dash of habañero hot sauce may be substituted)

Sweet peppers (as many or as few as you want) finely chopped

1 head of broccoli, florets cut to bite size

3-4 pounds of organic boneless/skinless chicken thighs cut to 1 inch chunks

3 cups hot water

Extract milk from fresh coconuts by grating or liquefying in blender and blend with very hot water (1  1/2 cup per coconut) squeeze out all liquid through strainer and use milk only. Meat can be discarded. Steam broccoli florets while sauce cooks and set aside till end.

Start with coconut milk in large saucepan and medium heat, before it boils over, add chopped onion, garlic, curry powder, salt to taste, pepper and bundle of thyme. When it starts to boil, add chicken pieces and cook at medium heat until chicken is just cooked through, about 10-12 minutes. Remove chicken pieces with slotted spoon and set aside. Add chopped sweet peppers and scallions and continue to reduce sauce until thickened and most of the water is evaporated. Remove thyme bundle. Stir in chicken and broccoli and combine thoroughly. Garnish with raw scallions if desired.

Serve with steamed rice or crusty bread.

Yield: 6 servings

Jamaican ‘Stamp and Go’ Fritters

Remeny adapted a version from Virginia Burke’s recipe in “Eat Caribbean”

8 ounces dried saltfish (bacalao) soaked overnight or blanched twice in boiling water, flaked

1 red, yellow and orange sweet peppers (chopped fine) or just one color if you prefer

3 scallions, chopped (use all parts, white and green)

5 garlic cloves finely chopped

fresh thyme leaves (to taste)

1 dozen chopped cherry tomatoes

 1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, seeded and chopped fine or a dash of habañero sauce.

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg beaten

 1/4 cup water

 1/4 cup oil or so for shallow frying

Mix the prepared salt fish with the rest of the finely chopped seasonings. Mix baking powder with the flour and then add salt fish mixture and mix together evenly. Stir in the beaten egg. Little by little add the water until you have a lumpy batter. Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed skillet. Drop mixture into hot oil by the spoonful. Fry and turn until just golden brown. Remove from pan with slotted spatula and drain on paper towels to remove excess oil.

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