Caribbean Flavor Fest

Caribbean Flavor Fest

The dead of winter is the perfect time to travel to the Caribbean—even if it's just for a meal or two! The fresh-picked high-impact flavors and ease of preparation make tropical dishes a tempting culinary diversion in the cold months of winter.

The Caribbean is comprised of more than 7,000 islands, islets, and reefs. And Caribbean cuisine is an amalgamation of worldly influences. Though the entire region has strong ties to African cooking, history shows that the stronger the dominance of the conquering Europeans culture had upon an island, the stronger its influence on its food.

In the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, for example, cooking has a Spanish character (olives, capers, garlic, cilantro) and those regions are known for black beans and rice. On the islands of St. Barts, St. Martin, Guadeloupe and Martinique, Creole cooking and the use of fresh herbs and cream sauces demonstrates the French influence. On islands once ruled by the British, like Jamaica, afternoon tea serves as a traditional "coffee break" that may also feature curried meats with homemade chutney.

Although it seems a million miles away, the cuisine of the Caribbean isn't necessarily exotic—just some of the ingredients are, particularly the fruits and vegetables. In Caribbean restaurants you will see familiar preparationslike soups, stews and braised dishes, for examplelaced with a simple culinary twist. Consider conch stew (islands-wide); Bajan Kingfish (Barbados), a fried fish stuffed with onion, bell peppers, garlic, lime and thyme; or Poulet Colombo (Martinique), chicken marinated overnight in vinegar and lime juice, then browned in a garlic and annato infused oil, and braised with curry, stock, potatoes and carrots.

Local ethnic markets, internet purveyors, and creative distributors can help operators obtain "exotic" ingredients (see p. 62) with ease.

Seared Florida Mahi with Papaya Coconut Curry Sauce [4]

Caribbean Menu Theme Ideas

Literary — Author Ian Fleming penned most of his James Bond action novels on the island of Jamaica. How about high sea culinary adventures featuring a seafood and chicken menu with hot and spicy salsa and sauces?

Musical — Think Bob Marley and Harry Belafonte, from the Banana Boat Song to reggae. Feature a Caribbean inspired menu with some island ambiance and a limbo competition to add a little heat to the cool winter months.

Sports — Baseball is extremely popular in the Domican Republic, particularly in the southeast part of the country, where generations involved in the sugarcane industry learned the sport during the season's downtime. This area produces the greatest number of professional players in the world relative to population.

Consider featuring easy-to-eat Caribbean-inspired specialties like fritters, jerk chicken wings and drumsticks, wrapped fish, and seafood brochettes.

Caribbean Pantry

Combat winter menu doldrums with an infusion of the bright flavors of the Caribbean.

Spices: curry (styles depend on the island), coriander (cilantro), cinnamon, ginger, Jamaican thyme, sugar cane, jerk seasoning, sweet basil, mint, tamarind, lemongrass, clove allspice, annato, mace, nutmeg.

Fruit: banana, citrus (particularly lime), coconut, guava, lychee, mango, papaya, passion fruit plantain, paw paw, pineapple.

Vegetables: ackee, avocado, breadfruit, calabazza (West Indian pumpkin), callaloo (leafy vegetable (kale or spinach make good substitutes), cassava (yucca), chocho (chayote), eggplant, eddo (similar to potato), heart of palm, okra, peppers sweet to hot (especially jalapeno and scotch bonnet), sweet potato, yam.

Protein: Bacalao (dried salt cod), beef, chicken, conch, pork, fish, goat, shellfish.

And don't forget the rum—but keep it in the cakes, please!

Seared Florida Mahi with Papaya Coconut Curry Sauce

Cooking Caribbean

An internet search or trip to the bookstore yields a bounty of recipe resources. Here are just a few.

New World Kitchen, Latin and Caribbean Cuisine, by Norman Van Aken, Harper-collins Publishers, $34.95

The Real Taste of Jamaica, Revised Edition, by Enid Donaldson, Ian Randle Publications, Ltd., $18.95

Hot & Spicy Caribbean, Over 150 of the Best and Most Flavorful Island Recipes (Hot & Spicy), by Dave Dewitt and Mary Jane Wilan, Prime Lifestyles, paperback, $11

A Taste of the Tropics, Traditional and Innovative Cooking From the Pacific and Caribbean, by Jay Solomon, Crossing Press, paperback, under $10.

Great Chefs of the Caribbean, Signature Recipes from the Islands, Edited by Julia M. Pitkin, Cumberland House Publications, Ltd., $24.95

The Sugar Reef Caribbean Cookbook, by Devra Dedeaux, Dell Trade Paperback, $13.95