Need an Island getaway? Add Caribbean flair to your cooking 

Use coconut, scotch bonnet peppers and allspice to add a Caribbean kick to your cooking. Today

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By Julie Bensman

Looking for an island getaway? Let your taste buds lead the way! Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see authentic Caribbean dishes appearing on your local restaurant’s daily specials – for good reason. The cuisine is known for fresh ingredients, bold spices and a wanderlust-evoking quality that resonates with both chefs and home cooks alike.

“Because Caribbean cuisine is so versatile, it lets you travel the world simply through its flavors,” says Imran Ashton, Owner and Chef of Plumrose Restaurant in the British Virgin Islands [BVI]. “The sky is really the limit.”

In order to take maximum advantage of those flavors at home, a cook must first stock a healthy arsenal of spices. “Caribbean food is known for seasoning – even children put spices on their food,” said Paul Yellin, chef and author of “Infusion: Spirited Cooking in the Caribbean.” “I’m not just talking salt and pepper – Caribbeans cook with much deeper flavors and marinades.”

Curry powder and allspice are main ingredient pillars. The latter can be purchased ground or whole, and resembles a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise and white pepper. The fragrant spice actually comes from the dried fruit of the pimento tree, which grows in Barbados and surrounding countries. “Real jerk cooking in Barbados incorporates the branches of the pimento tree, in which chefs cook food directly on the wood,” Yellin said. “Since pimento trees don’t grow in the states, home cooks can buy pimento wood chips, which also flavor well.”

Yellin advises every pantry to also keep quality rum, coconut oil and pepper sauce on hand. Since Caribbean markets aren’t necessary popping up on every city block, he suggests shopping at an Asian market as an alternative, since that area of the world has a similar climate to that of Barbados, BVI and Jamaica.

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If you see a can of ackee fruit while you’re perusing the aisles, Jamaica’s GoldenEye Resort executive chef Nerissa Clarke advises to stock up – particularly if it’s the off season. “You can find ackee in every Jamaican backyard, but high season is between January and March and then again between June and August,” said Clarke. “Ackee and saltfish is a meal that totally speaks Jamaica – it’s our national dish.”

While the importation of ackee fruit to the U.S. is forbidden (preparing it improperly can actually lead to being poisoned), the canned options are usually safe and can be found at ethnic markets. Ackee has a subtle flavor and, once cooked, has a creamy texture and looks almost like scrambled eggs.

Ackee and salt fish, from Strawberry Hill in Jamaica -- where it is the national dish. Today

GoldenEye Resort is flush with fresh greens, hosting 30-40 ackee trees on property where guests can pick ingredients that will eventually make their way onto the breakfast plate. “The dish is most often eaten in the morning with a fresh glass of orange juice, but it’s versatile enough to eat for lunch and dinner, as well. We also mix ackee with corn pork or chicken to mix things up.”

From breakfast to dinner, the flavors get bolder as the day goes on. Ashton’s grocery list usually includes fresh garlic, thyme, shadow beni (similar to cilantro) and scotch bonnet peppers, which come with a caveat Clarke knows well: “Some peppers are mild, but some are very hot. You can usually tell by the color - the hottest are the brownish-purple ones.”

To add a bit of the Caribbean heat to your cooking without going overboard, Clarke suggests soaking whole scotch bonnet peppers in olive oil, and then drizzling the oil on dishes like eggs or pasta.

And don’t even think about venturing into wine pairing territory – it’s all about quality dark rum, both for drinking and cooking. “I like Mount Gay brand. You want to cook with a 5 to 8-year-old rum, nothing older,” explained Yellin. Check out Yellin’s 2-Bite Strawberry Crème Brulee recipe below – we think a rum pairing with this dessert wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.

(Rum soaked) Drunken Strawberry Crème Brulee

  • 2 lbs of fresh large strawberries
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup half & half
  • 1/8 cup sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/8 cup cornstarch
  • 1/8 cup sugar
  • 1/8 cup of dark rum (Mount Gay Black Barrel)
  • 1/2 cup of rum (same) for soaking strawberries
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence or 1/2 vanilla pod scraped
  • Brown sugar (for topping )

Heat and stir the milk, half & half and sugar. Bring to boil.

In a stainless bowl, whisk the yolk and egg. Stir remaining sugar and cornstarch, then add into egg, mixing until smooth. 

SLOWLY drizzle in milk and whisk smoothly so eggs don’t cook. Return mixture to fire and SLOWLY bring to a boil on low heat, whisking constantly so eggs don’t curdle, scramble or burn on bottom.

As mixture thickens, remove from heat. Whisk in butter, 1/8 cup rum and vanilla thoroughly. Pour into a stainless bowl or heatproof container with a plastic wrap cover (to prevent formation of skin) and refrigerate (well-chilled) until ready.

Slice off tops of strawberries and slice off a bit of the bottom so they sit flat in a low-sided pan/tray. Core out a decent-sized hole with an appropriate sized melon baller  

Drizzle (or pour) rum over berries liberally and let sit in fridge for 30 mins - 1 hr. 

Funnel cream mixture into a plastic piping bag. Remove berries from wet pan and pipe cream gently into strawberry centers. When finished, top with a nice sprinkle of sugar and scorch the sugar with a handheld blowtorch until sugar burns and starts to melt. Don’t touch the sugar while it’s hot!

Present and serve ASAP (or remain in refrigerator until needed and then torch sugar just before service).