Monday, August 29, 2011

W is for the West Indies: An amalgamation of cuisines


So you know the All State commercials that always end “Life Comes At You Fast..”, well that’s how I feel about my life right now. It’s been crazy, hectic, and my blog has somehow ended at the bottom of my to-do list. But I am back now, over this hiatus, and ready to eat and write!

A sign from the universe came to me a few weeks ago when I was trying to figure out what to write for “W”. I was driving home from work, and I was going back and forth in my head on what to write about when I realized I was lost. Yes, lost…in Columbus. This never happens! I know Columbus like the back of my hand! So, here I am, driving around a not very safe part of Columbus, when I see a beautiful, bright, gem in the middle of gray, boarded houses. It was Ena’s Caribbean Cuisine, and in that instant I knew I had to try this beauty, and further more I knew I had to write about the West Indies.

Yes, I know, the West Indies is not a country, but this is my blog, and I’ll do what I please.

So the West Indies is a region better known as the Caribbean. However, back in the day, January 3, 1958 to be exact, there was a short-lived British federation known as The West Indies Federation that encompassed Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Barbados, the Leeward Islands, the Windward Islands, and Trinidad and Tobago. Due to internal political conflicts the federation only lasted 4 years.

Most people tend to forget that I am half Puerto Rican (that’s until my excessive pride comes to light) and I grew up on flavorful, colorful Caribbean food. Saying my dad was an excellent cook is an understatement. My papi grew up cooking, and my parents even met at a restaurant (he the chef, she the waitress). As much as I love my mother’s cooking, I would take my father’s cooking over hers any day. He cooked with love, and soul, and lots of salt, which is why I think I love salty things so much. I cherish the memories I have of him cooking. His cooking brought the family together, and I hope to someday do that with my family.

So the point is, I have a soft spot for Caribbean. It represents my father and childhood, and I am excited to write about it.

Caribbean food is so unique because it is an amalgamation (GRE word!) of cuisines from different cultures, representing the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Barbados and Puerto Rican to name a few. The power struggle over the islands, mainly between the French, British, and Spanish, has influenced the flavors of Caribbean cuisine, brining not only their own touches but also the gastronomic trends from African, Indian, and China.

Carib Family, 1818 - Credit: John Gabriel Stedman
Now, it is time for your anthropology/ history lesson of the day.  Two tribes --- the Arawaks and the Caribs, first inhabited the islands. The Arawaks were the indigenous peoples that Christopher Columbus encountered when he first ventured out to the Americas. They had a particular way of farming, in which they created slow burning fires that enriched the soul with phosphorus and potassium that allowed for a more sustainable way of farming.  The also developed the hammock and drank alcohol made from fermented corn (i.e everclear). According to (one of my favorite websites!) “theArawaks are credited with beginning barbecue techniques, by fabricating grills with native green sticks called barbacoa. Crops tended by these Native Americans included taro root, corn, yams, cassava, and peanuts. Guavas and pineapple, as well as black-eyed peas and lima beans grew wild on the islands.” The Caribs, after whom the Caribbean Sea was named, are claimed to have begun spicing food with chili peppers. However don’t be fooled, most Caribbean food is not very spicy. The Caribs, were also cannibals, hence the meaning of the English "cannibal". It was associated with rituals related to the eating of war enemies, and lucky for us that trend did not stick around. When our buddy Chris Columbus arrived in 1493, he introduced sugarcane to the indigenous peoples. It was later discovered that rum could be made from fermented cane juice, a drink that remains the ultimate in tropical Caribbean refreshment, such as piña coladas, and my favorite drink, the Mojito. My awesome Puerto Rican buddy Emilio, also introduced me to a traditional Puerto Rican drink, coquito, an eggnog-like drink made from egg yolks, rum, coconut milk, coconut cream, sweet condensed milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.  The Spaniards also introduced other foods, notably coconut, chickpeas, cilantro, eggplant, onions, and garlic. Soon other European colonists, including the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, British, French, and the Swedes, brought to the islands their culinary influences, particularly, oranges, limes, mangoes, rice, and coffee.
In the 1600’s, slaves from West Africa were brought to the Caribbean Islands, and carried their trademark ingredients, including okra, pigeon peas, plantains, callaloo, taro, breadfruit and ackee. In 1838, following the abolishment of the slave trade, laborers from India and China came to work in the fields and plantations, adding two very different culinary convergences to the already long list.
There are distinct regional differences in cuisines of the Caribbean. Islands like Puerto Rico and Cuba have distinct Spanish-influenced food. Guadeloupe and Martinique are French-owned; their native cuisine having ties to France. Jamaica, which was once a major slave-trading center, is rich in African culture.
Although it is difficult to generalize about Caribbean cuisine, all that you need to know is that it is delicious. It has a little something from everywhere, which is what makes this multicultural cuisine quite fantastic.

Recipe time:
As I have said before some of the best spots to eat in Columbus are those “hole-in-wall”/mom and pop joints that often go unrecognized. For inspiration I checked out the diamond in the rough known as Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen.  Mrs. Ena’s restaurant has been open in the Linden area for about 11 years, however her cooking experience has spanned over 45 years. She infuses her Jamaican roots with her experience in Spanish influenced Caribbean kitchens. The restaurant is small, yet the aromas of spices and grill flood the neighborhood. I was almost drooling from excitement of the smells and colors coming from the building. I could never live across the street from that place….I would constantly be hungry. So, along with my trusty sidekick Emil, and his buddy, we embarked on a Caribbean voyage. I wanted to be adventurous with my meal choice, so I chose the oxtail, with red beans and rice, and a side of cabbage.  The meat was seriously the most tender cut of meat I have ever had in my entire life….yes entire life. I have been a few fancy, smancy restaurants, and nothing compares to this juicy, flavorful meat that literally falls off the bone…it was delicious, and I was glad I decided to buy a large portion. Ena’s has definitely become a new favorite of mine, and I can’t wait to get “lost” again.
oxtail with red beans and rice and cabbage  
Although I ate a more African influenced Caribbean meal, I decided to stick to my roots and prepare a Puerto Rican classic, pastelón. Pastelón is the way Puerto Rican’s make lasgna. It has the perfect combo of savory and sweet, of juicy and cheesy, and just simply delicioso! I learned to make this dish from a good friend of my mom and dad, Leslie. Leslie is a petite, little firecracker…the quintessential Puerto Rican women, feisty, family oriented, and a great cook. She puts green beans in her pastelón, but I wanted to go with a more traditional recipe, so I omitted the green beans and added  Spanish olives. She also does a montery cheese, and I decided to go with a Chihuahua cheese, which melts better and goes a bit better with Latin flavors. All in all it was pretty freaking delicious.  My moocher sister and new roommate, Jenny, ate it so fast that I couldn’t take a photo of her eating it. I had to physically stop my self from eating it all. It was beyond yummy. Yet, next time I would make more plantains, and add more meat. The flavors were nostalgic, so this dish is dedicated to my Papi and all Puerto Rican women that love to cook!
Little me, my sisters, my mother and father <3

Serves about 6, but honestly you will not want to share with anyone

                1 lbs ground beef
                1 onion,minced
                3 gloves garlic, minced
                1 green pepper, minced
                1/2 chopped cilantro
                2 tsp adobo
                2 tsp oregano
                2 Tbs vinegar
                1 envelope sazón
                2 bay leaves
                3 plantains, peeled and sliced into strips
                3 eggs
                2 Tbs milk
                2 cups white shredded cheese ( I used Chihuahua cheese)
                Olive oil

1.     Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter square pan with 1 tbs of butter.

2.     Heat a large skillet at medium-high heat with 2 Tbs of olive oil,
3.     Combine onion, pepper, garlic, adobo, and sazon in oil. 
4.     Add meat, and mix well.
5.     Cook beef until brown and of the juices bubble up, add bay leaves, and olives.  Mix and let simmer for 10 minutes, set aside.
6.     Heat a large frying pan with vegetable oil, just enough to coat the bottom.  Fry plantains for 2-3 minutes on each side or until golden and slitely crispy.  Drain on a plate with paper towel, set aside.

notice how I couldn't resist eating one....
7.     To assemble pastelon: Take your prepared square pan, start with a layer of plantains, then beef, then a fistful of cheese, repeat.  You want to finish with cheese and plantains.  Beat 3 eggs with 2 Tbs of milk, pour over the pastelón.  Let it sit for a minute allowing the egg to soak in.  Top off with just a bit more cheese.

8.     Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

1 comment:

  1. Gracias por tu receta,hoy 31 de diciembre la estoy preparando,para despedir el ano por todo lo alto,con la mejor receta de la mejor cocinera {chef}del mundo.Te amo.Para mi eres la mejor cocinera del mundo y estoy super orgullosa de ti