We spent a lot of just time relaxing and recharging our batteries on our St. Kitts vacation but we did take a full day catamaran cruise while we were there. We stopped to snorkel at small reef near a sunken ship on our way to the island of Nevis.
After snorkeling, the crew feed us a Caribbean-style local lunch featuring chicken with rice and peas, pasta salad with peppers and olives and rum cake for dessert. It got me thinking about the spices of the Caribbean and how I really don't know a lot about them. I was definitely going to attempt to change that while on vacation.
I was hoping to get to talk with one of the crew members who we discovered was also a local chef on the side. It would have been so fun to learn from him more about the local cuisine. But, alas, he was too busy serving up beverages and being the first mate on board the catamaran.
I did partake in one of his favorite drinks to "cook up". Coconut rum, dark rum and pineapple juice. It was quite yummy (and deadly I am sure). After quickly sucking down the first one, I decided I better stick with Caribe the local beer on the rest of the voyage. I had to laugh as the Minnesotans on the catamaran were the wildest bunch on-board. Oh yes, they made up for what I didn't drink... However, I appreciated the fact that it has been a long winter up in the north country this year and they just needed to let loose a bit.
The cuisine in St. Kitts is heavily influenced by the nearby islands of Trinidad and Puerto Rico. Seasonings of mint, curry, chilies, parsley impart exotic flavors into their dishes which are usually light but spicy. They use sofrito in the Puerto Rican style which is a mix of onions, green bell peppers, red peppers, cilantro and garlic generally and season their meat with adobo seasoning. Adobo seasoning was even available in the tiny market near the resort.
I later discovered that the rice and peas we had on the catamaran is actually national dish of Puerto Rico. The dish is simple but delish. Typically made with pigeon peas, rice, sofrito and a bit of tomato paste. Bacon or ham is also often included in peas and rice and it may include olives or capers.
The influence of Trinidad was apparent in the abundance of curried dishes available on local menus. I was reading in the book The Spice Necklace by Ann Vanderhoof while on vacation. In the book she notes that one of the differences between West Indian and East Indian is that West Indian curries are not as hot as East Indian curries because peppers are so easily available in the islands that they can always be added later. I find this to be incredibly beneficial as a chef since every pallet can handle differing amounts of heat.
So what is in a traditional Caribbean curry? There is not one right answer to that question as each island will have their own versions but the two most common come from Trinidad or from Jamaica. In Ann Vanderhoof book she recommends looking for curry blends that are from the Caribbean islands when you look for curry at the grocery as they do not have as much dried chilies in them and are not has hot as East Indian curry blends.
I prefer to blend my own so I can sample the blend and adjust to my likings as well as control the heat level so I set out to find a Caribbean curry powder blend that I could recreate at home.
Searching online, I didn't have much luck finding a curry blends from Trinidad. However, I did find Jamaican blend that I thought had many of the flavors that I found in the curry (and jerk) dishes that I tried during my vacation at St. Kitts: cinnamon and cumin with the heat from cayenne. It is from Traveling Jamaica With Knife, Fork & Spoon by Robb Walsh and Jay McCarthy.
Jamaican Curry Powder
5 parts ground turmeric
4 parts coriander seeds
3 parts cayenne
1 part ground ginger
1 part grated nutmeg
1 part whole allspice
3 parts fenugreek seeds
2 parts cumin seeds
2 parts whole black pepper
2 parts star anise or aniseed
2 parts yellow mustard seeds
1 part whole cloves
Combine all the ingredients. Store the curry powder in a tightly sealed jar away from light and heat.
I recommend adding the cayenne at the end so that you can add a little at a time and taste the blend along way to get to perfect heat level for your pallet. This gives you the ability to control the heat in your curry blend.
Two other options to control the heat in your curry blend is to leave the cayenne out (which some say is the proper way to blend a Caribbean curry) or use chili powder instead of cayenne which is a blend of paprika and cayenne along with other herbs and spices.
So you like it spicy? That is not problem in St. Kitts. You will find hot pepper sauces on just about every table in every restaurant so you it is easy to adjust the heat of any dish you are served! I loved the sauce they had at the resort. It tasted almost like buffalo sauce with a spicy finish. It was hot but it was not brutal. However, I was not brave enough to try the scotch bonnet version....
Brimstone Flavors Pepper Sauce: http://brimstoneflavors.com/?go=caribbeanred
I also sampled a few jerk dishes during our stay at the Marriott. The jerk cobb salad was delightful! Gorgonzola cheese, smoky bacon, avocados along with the jerk chicken were just a few of the tasty elements on the salad. The jerk blend that was used to season the chicken was not screaming hot but it was full of flavor.
Jamaica is probably best known for its jerk and with international hotel chain such as the Marriott it is hard to say where the jerk blend originates from. However, once you have your favorite curry blend ready, I have found that you can very easily make it into a jerk marinade by added a few key ingredients in a food processor with your curry blend: green onions, garlic, ginger, fresh thyme, lime or lemon juice and oil. Let your chicken marinate over night. If you like it hot, a traditional jerk wet marinade would also include a scotch bonnet pepper.
I recommend this route as I found purchasing jerk seasoning blends from the region often add dried chilies to the seasoning to make it "complete". I discovered this when I purchased a Chief brand jerk seasoning package from the local market before we left. Chief is a Trinidad brand of seasonings, one of the two major players in Trinidad.
Very excited to have "scored" some jerk seasoning from the area, I set out to make jerk chicken when we returned home. One taste of the powder blend and I knew that there was a reason that chilies was listed first on the ingredient list!
I had to come up with a Plan B, so I made jerk barbeque sauce for my grilled chicken. A bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce, one cup of mayonnaise and a package of the Chief Jerk Seasoning blend (40 grams). Stir to combine. It turned out delicious. The BBQ sauce and the mayo tamed the heat of the jerk seasoning but the flavors and the spice still came through. You could also use a dip or a spread for a cheese burger or chicken sandwich.
So I am off to the kitchen, armed with the knowledge I gained on Caribbean spices. I am excited to bring their warm flavors into my kitchen. Now all I have to do is figure out how to recreate the spice cake from the catamaran trip. Wish me luck!