Jerk It Out

Certain foods fly under the radar, overshadowed by classic crowd-pleasers or passing trends. No matter how delicious, versatile, or accessible, they remain firmly out of sight, out of mind. Occasionally, something will shake us out of our stasis, forcing the question: Why don’t I eat this more often?

Speaking for myself, I’m talking about plantains here. Satisfyingly starchy, subtly sweet, I like to think of them as tropical potatoes rather than fruits. Anything spuds can do, plantains can do, too. Not to invoke Bubba Gump, but you can boil them, fry them, saute them, bake them, mash them, stew them… You get the picture.

Thus, inspired by my Za’atar Melting Potatoes from The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet, Jerk Melting Plantains are encrusted with jerk seasoning, roasted at high heat to a blackened, crispy finish while retaining a downright buttery interior. The result can only be described as downright juicy, succulent in a way that you might not expect from a starchy vegetable. Hopefully this will help you and me both remember to put plantains on the grocery list more often.

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Run Down Runaround

Walking into Philip Gelb‘s underground restaurant, you never know quite what to expect for dinner, no matter how carefully you study the menu in advance. It’s been many months now since I had the luxury of that fully immersive, in-person experience, but there are some moments indelibly imprinted in my memory.

It was a taste unlike any other I had encountered before, being shamefully uneducated on the entire Caribbean culinary canon in general. Leading with heady aromatics, simultaneously fiery hot yet creamy and soothing, it’s both familiar and entirely foreign. Tender vegetables enveloped in a voluptuous broth, almost thick enough to qualify as custard, smoldered quietly in deep earthen bowls. Dissecting the fundamental building blocks, the spices didn’t appear particularly exotic, nothing terribly esoteric; the combination of seemingly discordant elements, mixed with a generous pinch of technique, is where the true magic happens.

Run down stew is a staple of Jamaican cuisine, typically made with seafood, but no two cooks make it quite the same way. Coconut milk is the only constant, utterly irreplaceable component. Long simmered over low heat, the rich broth reduces to concentrate the flavor, thicken to a velvety consistency, and take on a subtly toasted, nutty aroma. Flavor like that doesn’t come out of a can; time and patience are really the most important ingredients here.

The genesis of the name is a bit murky, some attributing it to the way it’s cooked down and some of the more delicate vegetables fall apart. Personally, I’d like to believe that it comes from the ability to revive anyone who’s feeling a bit run down themselves. Forget about watery chicken soup; this stuff can truly soothe the soul.

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A Taste of the Tropics

As we settle into winter and the cold, snowy weather that comes with it, a bit of spice, brightness, and excitement is always welcome to escape this dreary season, if only for a moment, or a single meal. While a one-way ticket to a tropical island is undeniably appealing, a much more reasonable approach to handling the cold is to hunker down with a good cookbook and whip up something warming. The Caribbean Vegan, a new release by blogger extraordinaire Taymer Mason, is a bit outside of my culinary comfort zone, but just enticing enough to warrant a closer look.

Filled with traditional dishes from all over the islands, sans meat, egg, and dairy, The Caribbean Vegan manages to pack tons of flavor into the simplest of preparations. Though unfamiliar with the spice combination and a few new ingredients, I was excited to taste another cuisine that isn’t readily as available to me, and so rarely made with vegans in mind.

First up, a Creamy Pumpkin Soup sounded like just the thing to shake off a nasty chill, so I wasted no time throwing sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and aromatic spices into the stock pot. Wholly unlike my typical approach to pumpkin soup, it was love at first spoonful. Enriched with a splash of coconut milk and blended to a perfectly smooth consistency, the balance between sweet and savory was incredible. Thick but not cloying, it seemed so much more satisfying than the typical bowl of orange squash puree, and had an instantly soothing quality, like a nice warm hug for your stomach. Delicately and warmly seasoned with a melange of ginger, cinnamon, all spice and more, it’s still subtle enough for kids to appreciate, but much more complex in flavor than one might expect from a humble soup. This is one that I will absolutely make again and again throughout the winter.

Encouraged by this early success, I moved on to a more complex (but still easy) dish; the White Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie. Never before had I seen nor heard of a white-fleshed sweet potato, so off to the store I went, fully planning to pick up a standard orange yam. Clearly it was fate intervening, because lo and behold, as soon as I entered the produce department, white sweet potatoes stood proudly piled right in front of me. They must have been hidden in plain sight all along!

Surprisingly spicy for the typically humdrum meat-and-potato pie, this recipe breathes new life into the tired old casserole. Kicked up with curry, paprika, and a good dose of pepper, the mildly sweet mashed potato topping pairs beautifully with the hearty filling below. Hearty enough to satisfy the most voracious appetites, this is one that I would recommend serving to omnivores and vegans alike. Don’t skip over the optional peas, though, as they add much needed color and textural variation to the dish.

The instant I opened up this cookbook, there was one recipe in particular that leapt out and seized me by the throat: Ackee Scramble. Just days earlier, I happened to spy a can of the elusive ackee at my standard grocery store, and was taken aback by the steep price. Not willing to spend so much on a risky ingredient I knew nothing about, I was thrilled to finally get the bit of advice on how it might be prepared. Enticed by the opportunity to try a whole new food, I took the plunge and treated myself to one of those pricey tin cans. Taymer explains that the ackee is a fruit related to the lychee and longan, but cooks up looking for all the world like scrambled eggs. No kidding, this was the most “realistic” scramble I had made since eschewing eggs.

Soft and somewhat creamy, the texture was shockingly spot-on. I could hardly believe what a find this exotic fruit was! Admittedly, I wasn’t crazy about the seasonings and especially the use of liquid smoke, but you can be certain that this is not the last ackee scramble that will grace my plate. Using Taymer’s recipe as a template, I will definitely be trying a more traditional tofu scramble-type of approach, sulfurous black salt and everything.

Whether you’re familiar with the flavors of the Caribbean or have never tasted a single dish from the tropics, The Caribbean Vegan is a fun and engaging way to immerse yourself in the food culture. Filling a niche otherwise almost entirely untouched by those seeking cruelty-free cooking, it’s an invaluable text for any adventurous cook’s shelf.