The Flavors of Jamaica

If you are like me your vacation nourishes all the senses – sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste.  When I am on vacation I want to be able to eat with reckless abandon be it in a fancy restaurant or from a vendor on the street without a bottle of Immodium at hand.  Where ever I go, be it for work or for fun I most enjoy eating indigenously – if I’m in New York, a bagel; in Texas, Bar-b-que; in Atlanta, Eggs with grits and in New Orleans some chicken livers with jalapeno jelly.

Bounty from the Veg Man

Over the years I have taken great pleasure in preparing meals at home in Negril.  This was partly out of necessity but mostly I can take the time to mindfully shop, fuss, prepare and fill my need to feed.  There are two large supermarkets in Negril where I’ll go for certain items.  I wouldn’t be caught dead buying shrink wrapped vegetables at large chain supermarkets in the states, so why would I do that there?  I prefer to support locally owned small markets such as Wise Choice on the West End where I can get most of what I need.  I prefer to buy my chicken from my neighbor who raises them.  I prefer to buy my fish right from the fishermen as they come in from the sea.  I prefer to buy my fruit and vegetables from my “veg man”, who comes to our yard twice a week with a van full of produce harvested in the farmlands of St. Elizabeth.  When those doors open I am faced with a huge bounty of seasonal and Jamaican grown produce – dasheen, pumpkin, cho-cho, string beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, lettuce and bananas of all sorts, including my favorite – Plantain.  Before he arrives we make sure we have on order two bags of oranges for Peg to squeeze in the mornings.  After I bring the bags back to the house I sometimes just gaze upon its fragrant beauty before putting it all away.

Unripe Ackee on the Tree

Thanks to the Ackee Trees in our yard and in our friends’ yards this is something that I never need to buy.  Different trees bear at different times while we are there, ours are usually on the later side.  But when they bear, look out.  Harvest right then or they become mulch.  It is so prolific that I have started to refer to Ackee as the “zucchini of Jamaica”.  With so much abundance it is not unusual to find a mystery bag full of the stuff at your front door.

Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica.  It is also fatally poisonous if eaten at the wrong time.  Ackee is ripe and ready to eat when the fruit is completely open, its yellow flesh and black seed completely visible.  Even then, it must be cleaned properly and carefully.  The first time I cleaned Ackee I was so nervous it took me forever.  I was terrified I was going to poison my friends.  I’d sworn I’d never do it again…but I did and the more I did it the better I got at it and the less time it took.  The goal is to remove the seed and then the red vein that is tucked within the yellow fruit.  I’ve found that the fresher the Ackee the easier it is to simply pull this vein out.  I use a butter knife to scrape off any remaining “red stuff” that might cling to the flesh.

Ackee - the "Before" Picture

Ackee is a lot like Tofu in that it is bland and porous, thus picking up the flavor of whatever it is cooked with.  Traditionally Ackee is cooked with Salt Fish in Jamaica and my guess is that the strong flavor of the preserved fish is tamed by the subtle flavor and texture of the Ackee, making it a good combination along with a little “zootz” of protein in the meal.  I am not a huge fan of salt fish and I don’t really know yet how to properly prepare it so I stick to making my Ackee Ital style, infusing it with the flavors of fresh vegetables, herbs and spices and a touch of coconut milk.

Ital Ackee and Steamed Calalloo

First I get a pot of salted water up to a rolling boil and I blanche the Ackee for a few minutes.  I drain it immediately and rinse it in cool water to stop the cooking so it doesn’t get mushy.  Then, in a little vegetable oil, I’ll saute chopped tomatoes, sweet pepper, onion and scallion.  I season the vegetables with salt, pepper and a little freshly grated nutmeg.  While the vegetables cook, I’ll prepare a very light coconut milk by adding a few tablespoons of powdered coconut milk to about 1/2 cup of water, whisking until the solids dissolve.  Once the vegetables are al dente, I add the Ackee, tossing it with the vegetables so it gets a good hit of the seasoning and vegetable juices.  I then immediately add the coconut milk and a sprig or two of fresh thyme, bring it to a boil then simmer it until just about all of liquid has evaporated.  I serve this with a heaping helping of steamed calalloo.  I shared this preparation with my landlord and his son.  The young man was a bit skeptical – he’d never had Ackee prepared by a white woman.  He cleaned his plate, and was quite impressed, saying my dish was just about as good as his Mom’s.  I’m a proud woman and one step closer to being a proud “Jamaican” woman.

Calalloo

I can eat Calalloo every day and never tire of it.  It is for me the perfect food, loaded with iron and calcium and all that other good stuff you get from a green leafy vegetable.  It grows everywhere, even by the side of the road.  The plant is stalky with broad leaves and cleaning it…well, let me just say this:  It makes cleaning spinach feel like a walk in the park.  This is why the only vegetable I will ever buy at the big supermarket is Calalloo, because it comes cleaned and pre-chopped.  I just need to give it a good soak in cool salted water and its ready to go.

Cooked Calalloo has often been described as “spinach-like” but for me to reproduce it in the states I use a combination of several green leafies to simulate it – spinach, chard and kale.  On its own it can taste bitter, so I temper that by adding shredded carrot and steaming them together.  Some people like to add chopped tomato as well.  It is rumored that the lycopene in the tomato releases the calcium in the Calalloo.

Calalloo with Butter Sauce

For breakfast I’ll serve steamed Calalloo with Ital Ackee.  As a side dish for dinner though I’ll prepare it with a decadent butter sauce.  I melt a hefty amount of butter until bubbling and into that I’ll throw a whole mess of chopped onion.  I season the onion with salt, pepper, fresh thyme leaves and a healthy amount of freshly grated nutmeg.  I cook the onions low and slow so they do not brown but are cooked all the way through until nice and soft (but not mushy).  I toss that sauce with the steamed Calalloo until well incorporated.

There is so much that can be done with a healthy batch of steamed Calalloo.  Omelets are always a favorite but my personal favorite is making Calalloo and Cheese Pasta, inspired by the same dish served at Jus Natural.  I start by making a roux with equal parts butter and flour, cooking the flour until fragrant.  I then immediately add milk, stirring constantly until it coats the back of the spoon.  I season the milk with pepper and a healthy amount of freshly grated nutmeg and  then add “real” shredded cheddar cheese, continuing to stir until the cheese is melted.  I’ll taste and adjust seasoning as necessary, and then I add the steamed Calalloo, stirring until well incorporated.  Then over the pasta it goes, again, stirring until well incorporated.  I’ll serve this with a green salad dressed with a bright citrus vinaigrette.

Plantain Fritters served with Fresh Pineapple and Coco Bread with "Real" Cheese

Plantain is a big starchy banana with a thick skin and mealy fruit.  When fried in a little butter it is a great accompaniment to any meal.  I slice the peeled plantain and soak it in sugar-water for about ten to fifteen minutes.  I then pan fry it in some melted butter until golden.  I drain them on paper towels and sprinkle them with cinnamon before serving.

This past year I had a Plantain go “black” on me.  I thought it might be spoiled but after polling the Jamaicans in the yard I learned that it was ripe and needing to be dealt with NOW.  So I peeled it – the flesh had turned a light shade of pink but I was told not to worry, it was not yet “finish”.  I decided to go ahead and try my hand at fritters.  I mashed the fruit (it mashed very easily because it was so ripe) and added egg, flour, a little sugar, cinnamon and a good amount of freshly grated nutmeg, working it until it formed a sticky dough.  I formed loose “balls” and dropped each in hot coconut oil, frying until the middle seemed solid and the toothpick inserted came out somewhat clean.  While the fritters fried, Les cut up some perfectly ripe sugar pineapple and I split some freshly baked and still hot coco bread from the patty shop, topping it with “real” cheddar cheese slices.  After draining the fritters on a paper towel I served them up with the pineapple and coco bread, drizzling them with a little honey.  To tell you the truth, my first attempt was not too bad but the fritters were a bit dense.  Next time I think I’ll actually look at a recipe to get my proportions straight and add some baking powder to the mix so they will be more fluffy.

Catch of the Day

Negril is still a fishing town and nothing feels better than eating very fresh fish there.  While I most prefer to “run into” a fisherman coming straight from the sea I’ve sussed out a great little market in town where the fish is either fresh or flash frozen and I get a “local” price.  When I buy fish from the fishermen they are whole, and I tend to get ones that are the perfect single serving size.  Sometimes the fisherman will clean them for me.  If not, well, I have “people” who do that, I’m a woos when it comes to dealing with the “grosser” parts of food prep such as fish guts.  Once that’s done, I’ll “clean” the fish with some freshly squeezed key lime juice.  I then season the inside and outside with salt, pepper and some prepared fish seasoning.  I stuff the cavity with whatever veg I have on hand – “Irish” potato, thinly sliced, julienne carrot and/or sweet pepper and of course steamed calalloo if I have it.  I place a small amount of butter inside the cavity as well as on top of the fish and them steam it in a wok or pot until the flesh is flaky.

Escovetch Fish

My favorite fish preparation is Escovetch.  It is a pickled dish so it can be served anytime after its preparation – the longer it sits the more strong the flavor of the Escovetch sauce will be.  I start with some nice butter fish fillets from my fish market.  I clean them with key lime juice then dredge them in a flour and corn meal mix seasoned with salt, pepper and fish seasoning.  I fry the fillets in either vegetable oil or coconut oil or a mix of the two until golden and cooked through.  I drain the fillets on paper towel and set them aside.

In the same pan I’ll saute garlic, sliced onion, and julienne carrot and sweet pepper, seasoning with fresh thyme, salt, pepper and freshly ground pimento berries.  (I toast my pimento berries in a small dry frying pan until fragrant, then I crush/grind them with a mortar and pestle.) I’ll saute the vegetables until they are just about al dente and then add some apple cider vinegar, cooking rapidly, stirring until all the cider has evaporated.  I then add more cider, about 1/4 of the way up the pan, and bring that to a boil.  I simmer the vegetable uncovered until just about all the liquid has been reduced.  I’ll plate the fish and pour the sauce over.  I like to let it sit for just a few minutes so that the fish absorbs some of the sauce but not so long that it is overpowering.  The left overs are great eaten cold out of the fridge for breakfast with a little scrambled eggs on the side.

Lobster Twice Cooked in Lobster Sauce served with Rice and "Nice String Beans"

Long ago I gave up on ordering lobster in restaurants in Negril.  I found it to be for the most part overcooked – rubbery and usually over-seasoned, dripping with butter.  Its gotten pretty expensive too, and not at all worth the money.  I was disappointed more than I was satisfied.

Now, aside from our annual visits to Little Ochi, I prefer to prepare my own.  I keep an eye peeled all the time for spear fishermen just as they come out of the sea and I’ll pick three or four nice sized lobsters, weighing anywhere from 1 1/4-1 1/2 pounds.

Since the lobsters have been spear-fished they are dead when I get them – but freshly dead.  Still, they need to be cooked immediately.  So into boiling water they go, usually for about ten minutes and then straight into ice water to stop the cooking.  They are shelled and the tail meat set aside for later preparation.  Meantime, I take the shells and make a stock by putting them in water along with onion, carrot, garlic, pimento berries and a few stalks of fresh thyme.  The stock is brought to a boil then simmered for a couple of hours; I keep tabs on it and skim the scum off the top as needed.

I bring the lobster to room temperature before I “cook” it for the second time.  While the lobster “warms up”, I prepare the sauce. I dice up some sweet pepper and onion and get that sauteing in some vegetable oil, seasoning with salt and pepper.  I strain the stock and put some of it in a sauce pan and bring that to a boil, then simmering until reduced by half.  I then season with salt and pepper and whisk in some butter so it thickens oh so slightly, almost “glaze-like”.  I add the lobster, which has been cut into bite sized pieces and cook just for a few minutes until the meat is warmed through.  I then take it off the heat and finish the dish with a squeeze or two of fresh lime juice.  I serve it up immediately over some rice.

Pepper Shrimp-Middle Quarters Style

Each year, at least once a year, we head off to Middle Quarters to get our fix of Pepper Shrimp.  Auntie’s & Cousin’s shrimp is perfectly pickled in a spicy vinegar brine that makes your lips tingle and leaves you wanting more.  The “shrimp” they use are in fact fresh water crawfish so its like eating tiny lobsters one at a time.

I’ve never made Pepper Shrimp in Jamaica – I’d like to, on our next ride south, get some of those fresh water crawfish and carry them back to Negril in a well iced cooler.  I haven’t done that until now as each trip there has involved a trip somewhere else so getting them home in one piece was not realistic.  Shrimp as we know them in Negril are extremely expensive.  So when I make a Jamaican meal at home, I always serve Pepper Shrimp as the first course.

Pepper Shrimp-Bodega Style

I start by combining water, vinegar (a three to one ratio), scallion, garlic, fresh thyme, Habanero peppers (the best substitute for Scotch Bonnet), salt, pepper and pimento berries in a pot and bring that to a boil.  I then simmer the mixture for about twenty minutes.  I add the shrimp, unpeeled, turn off the heat and let it sit in the brine covered for about an hour.  I then take the cover off and let the shrimp cool in the brine until room temperature.  When serving time comes around, I remove the shrimp and plate them up alongside some home-made festival.  This spicy dish wakes the palettes of my dinner guests and gets them ready for a true Caribbean feast.

On this next visit I’m looking forward to cooking up more of the same, including Rasta Stew, Conch Ceviche and Brown Stew Chicken.  I’m also planning on experimenting more with some fusion of Jamaican cuisine and ingredients with cuisines from all around the world.  I do have one rule that I stick by each and every time:  I will only eat seasonally and indigenously and the only food products I will bring from home is Olive Oil and Matzah Meal.

Bon Apetit!

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One Response to The Flavors of Jamaica

  1. Pauline mangione says:

    This article made me really miss Jamaica!!!Love Jamaican food and try to simulate at home but can never get it exactly right. i guess you just gotta be there… Respect, pauline

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