Archive for September, 2010

A Cayman Islands version of a pepper pot

Chef Dean Max

As we were pondering how else to use our beautiful Cayman peppers, we were reminded that chef Dean Max is also a big fan. We met him last winter at an “Island Organic” presentation at the Cayman Cookout on Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman Island. When Max isn’t presiding over the kitchens of his Miami seafood empire, he’s often on Grand Cayman kicking back at the Brasserie, the restaurant he owns with King and Lisa Flowers.

For him, one of the pleasures of cooking in the Caribbean is drawing inspiration from local cooks. “I always take the traditional thinking,” he said. “We use their technique, but then we add things. Take chicken pepper pot soup. You’re making this beautiful chicken soup…and then you use the incredible peppers you get here.”

Like so many dishes, there are as many versions of chicken pepper pot soup as there are cooks. In most parts of the Caribbean, though, it can be a pretty spicy pot. We didn’t have chef Dean’s recipe, but we took his advice to adapt the dish to what we had. We played around with several chicken hot pots before we settled on this one. It has enough heat to earn its name, but not so much that it overwhelms the fruity taste of the Cayman peppers.

CHICKEN PEPPER POT SOUP

Ingredients

1/4 lb. bacon, diced
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut in 1/2 inch dice
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large sweet potato, quartered lengthwise, half thin sliced, half diced
15 Cayman peppers, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 small moderately hot peppers (Numex 6 or similar), seeded and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano or marjoram
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2-4 drops Scotch bonnet hot sauce
7 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
5 oz. fresh spinach, roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups coconut milk

Directions

1. In large stock pot, fry bacon over medium heat. When browned, remove bacon to paper towels.

2. Add chicken pieces to fat and sauté until lightly browned. Add onions and continue cooking until onions begin to soften.

3. Return bacon to pot with sweet potato, Cayman peppers, red bell pepper, Numex chiles, garlic, spices and chicken stock. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.

4. Add spinach and coconut milk. Simmer another 15 minutes.

19

09 2010

Deciphering the traditions for sofrito


There must be as many recipes for sofrito as there are cooks in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, and even Catalunya. But the mixture is to Latin cooking what the classic mirepoix of onions, carrots and celery is to French. It’s the underlying mother flavor of the cuisines.

When I asked around the garden, I got very different answers about ingredients. Jamaicans seemed to favor a lot of green sweet pepper, and some suggested ham. Some people add tomato, some don’t. But everyone felt that the sweet ají dulce peppers were critical for an authentic sofrito. If they were not available, you could substitute an equal amount of chopped bell pepper. Some folks use only cilantro (or cilantrillo, as some call it), while others insist on also using culantro, the Caribbean herb with flat leaves about the size and shape of a finger. The flavor is similar to cilantro, but is much more intense.

Back in the kitchen, I made a sofrito that used the ingredients that seemed to cut across the various cuisines, though I confess I was probably more influenced by Puerto Rican sofrito than any other version. When I tasted the sauce that came out of the food processor, I was initially disappointed. It was harsh and the flavors did not marry.

But then I tried cooking with it. Seasoned with just a bit of salt and some sugar (the tomatoes were not that sweet), the mixture came together into a sauce of complex, layered flavors when heated. After all, I told myself, you wouldn’t eat raw mirepoix either, right?

Seasoned and lightly sauteed, this sofrito makes a terrific sauce for chicken or fish. It’s shown here on a small swordfish steak brushed with olive oil and cooked by indirect heat for five minutes total in a Weber charcoal grill.

Following the directions of Daisy Martinez of the Daisy Cooks! show on PBS, I froze the rest of the raw sofrito in half-cup batches to use in soups and stews this fall.

BASIC SOFRITO

In the best of all worlds, I would have added culantro, but I did not grow any this year and I could not find it at local ethnic markets. Hence, this recipe has a lot of cilantro.

Ingredients

1 medium yellow onion cut in large pieces
1 very large or two medium cubanelle peppers, seeded and chopped
10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large bunch cilantro, washed
10 Cayman peppers, stemmed and roughly chopped
3 large plum-type tomatoes, cored and cut into chunks
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

Directions

Place onion and pepper pieces in bowl of food processor and process until roughly chopped. Add remaining ingredients, one by one, and process until smooth but not paste-like.

07

09 2010

Cayman peppers come to Cambridge


Back in February I mentioned that our hankering for some of the flavors of the Cayman Islands had led me to introduce the amazing Cayman sweet pepper to the cooler climes of eastern Massachusetts, where I grow at Zone 6. (See Finding seeds for the taste of Cayman.) I started seed from Cayman and Florida sources on March 5 and transplanted seedlings to my community garden on May 5. Other than having richer (and more acidic) soil than they were used to, the plants did just fine. The honeybees loved them.

But it quickly became obvious that even with a heavy yield of a dozen or more peppers per plant, the crop would be too small to squander on experiments making Cayman pepper jelly. I will leave that to the pros.

Señor Negro, who tends an adjoining plot in the community garden, was amused when he saw the plants. He called them ajice, which is the Puerto Rican contraction for ají dulce, and proceeded to give me growing advice across the summer. Mainly he suggested giving them more space by ripping out the neighboring tomatillo plants, for which he sees no use. (You have to love a multi-ethnic community garden. Right now a Bengali woman’s plot that also adjoins mine is a riot of delicate and elegant okra flowers, yellow with red centers.)

As the harvest came in, Señor Negro was also generous with advice on cooking with my peppers. First and foremost, he said, they are essential to a good sofrito. And, he informed me with a smile, a good sofrito is essential for everything else.

03

09 2010