Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Conversation, Catherine and the Caribbean

Catherine gave me this rustic nutmeg grater from Dominica. I have a fetish for foreign kitchenalia.
Catherine Phipps in the kitchen
Prep list

My supper club with Catherine Phipps, cooking Dominican food, proved that Caribbean cookery is about more than jerk chicken. I discovered Bread Fruit, which, when roasted till blackened on the outside, infused the house with the signature smell of Dominica, a mixture of charcoal and marijuana. I also discovered Christophene, a fresh tasting gourd family plant, also known as the Chayote or Cho-Cho, which can be eaten raw or cooked. Catherine decided to prepare a gratin from Christophene, par-boiled then sliced into an oven dish, dotted with ginger butter then baked. I already knew salt fish, and the fritters were popular with the guests, along with a dipping sauce of Scotch Bonnet jelly with red wine. I must confess, I'm still not keen on salt fish however.
Bread fruit being roasted on top of the Aga. Ideally it would be done over a fire.
Salt fish fritters
My contribution amounted to trying to remember two Caribbean dishes. The first, a coconut and ginger sphere the size of a tennis ball, bought for a pound at Notting Hill carnival years ago. The stallholder who made and sold these, I never found her again, despite repeated searches each year. I remember the sweet gingery fudge around the gleaming half moons of fresh sticky coconut flesh. Catherine knew this dish as Coconut Ginger Candy Drops, as did one of the guests who originated in Montserrat, another Caribbean island, where the coconut was grated finely. It's funny the tricks that memory can play when trying to reproduce a souvenir of flavour and texture. I also tried to make caramel from brown sugar. Usually the thermometer must reach 160º to achieve caramel, just after the hard crack stage. Brown sugar, however, and I tried twice, would burn, literally in an instant, at 150º, remaining at the hard crack stage. Brown and white sugar clearly cook differently. Any readers with technical knowledge of sugar please add your comments below. It's time like this I wish I could afford cookery school.
My other 'recovered memory' dish, from an old friend and Hackney squatter who was a brilliant cook, who I have lost touch with, was plantain fritters with green chillies. Catherine suggested unripe plantains and we duly peeled, chopped, boiled and mashed the fruit. The resulting fritters however were lumpen, dull and tasteless. I didn't serve them. I will try them again with ripe plantains.
Diced plantain
Catherine and I, being good friends, decided to sit down on Saturday afternoon for a bit of lunch and a natter. Our talk ranged from the curious fact that both of us have the surname 'Cook' in our family tree to the links between incest and osteoporosis. Mistake! Next thing we knew it was 6 o'clock and we were running late. It meant that when the first guests arrived, the cocktails weren't ready, Catherine had no makeup on, I smelt of chip oil and wore crocs for the night. I also realised, not for the first time, that I am not numerate. I counted 17 guests and in fact there were 18. The last two arrived late and they would have had to sit apart from each other. One of them objected and walked out, even after I had persuaded all the seated guests to move down one place to fit her in. 
The rum cocktails were a hit; along with hibiscus juice, and a traditional Planters punch, we served a lime, cinnamon and nutmeg punch. Caribbean tonic water is much sweeter than British so we hit upon the perfect recipe: half tonic, half lemonade. Catherine plans to write a Caribbean cookery book so this kind of on the job testing that a supper club makes possible is helpful.
Lime, cinnamon rum punch with a grating of nutmeg on top. 
The traditional Planter's Punch is with Seville oranges (which are more bitter) but I used blood oranges. It was perhaps not as accurate but it was darn good. You feel like you are on holiday just drinking it.
For the coconut callaloo (spinach) and plantain soup, we added something strange: palm nut purée, used in soups in Ghanaian cookery. It was more of a texture than a taste but not unpleasant. 
Stuffed crab back with parmesan and breadcrumbs
The crab backs were raved about by the guests, as was the soup and the trio of desserts (mini pavlovas with ginger marinated mango, ginger cake and home-made rum and raisin icecream). 

We used dark orange mangos(probably from Pakistan) and marinated them in grated ginger and sugar syrup. It's best to use a non-fibrous kind if possible. There are different kinds of mango; each one has a distinct flavour and texture.
It's worth making your own rum and raisin icecream. I only had currants, which I marinated in a whole bottle of dark rum until they were bulging with alcohol and syrup.
Coconut is so good for you, even though it contains saturated fats, but the good sort. We added the fresh milk to the black-eyed peas, one of my favourite dishes of the night. You don't need to soak black-eyed peas plus, tip from Catherine Phipps whose book on pressure cooking will be out in September, they only take 12 minutes to cook in the pressure cooker. During this meal I also discovered coconut oil which is marvellous for frying. The next day I made a smoked aubergine and tomato curry, starting it off with coconut oil.

Kerstin/MsMarmite: Well, we managed to pull that off. How are you feeling?

Catherine Phipps: Relieved! I'd forgotten how nerve-wracking it can be, cooking for people who are actually *paying*. Brought back memories of the first time I had sole charge of the kitchen when I was working in Dominica - part of me just wanted to burst into tears/run away and hide! However, there's nothing like getting through service, knowing everyone's enjoyed their food and are happy. After a while, you just get into the rhythm of it, must be quite different from running a supperclub, when you are doing weekly/bi weekly meals. 

What do you feel was the most successful dish?

The crab backs I think, despite the lack of basil! Most people seemed to enjoy them and they're so easy to make. My personal favourite was the salad though. People associate green papaya salad with the Far East, but they're just as popular in the Caribbean. We had so many, we were always looking for ways to use them up so adapting Som Tam made a lot of sense - it's still distinctively Caribbean because the heat comes from Scotch Bonnets.What did you think worked best?

Sorry about the basil! I loved the christophene gratin with ginger butter and the black eyed peas in coconut. 
What was the least successful? Or one you'd like to tweak? I'm thinking of how our cocktail testing resulted in honing the recipe for the lime, cinnamon punch when made in Britain.

I know you didn't like the salt fish fritters - they're a bit love/hate! I'll try you on a couple of other salt fish recipes before I give up on you....ever tried saltfish and ackee? Or in a soup - it softens much more.....Talking about the cocktails - they have an extremely sweet tooth in the Caribbean. Their tonic water is so sweet you'd be hard pressed distinguishing it from lemonade. I once bought a pile of Schweppes on one of the rare occasions it was available in a Roseau supermarket, only to realise it was made on one of the islands to a completely different, much sweeter recipe. So our tonic makes the cinnamon/lime punch very sour. I like it, but combining tonic and lemonade made it much more authentic. It didn't occur to me that it was a hot weather drink! 

Do you feel that we managed to change perceptions of Caribbean food?

I was surprised at the number of people who said they were eating food completely unfamiliar to them, so I suppose we must have done. I don't see the flavours as being unusual - ginger, lime, garlic, scotch bonnet and thyme, all the spices, are all common here, I suppose it's what I did with them. I know you said the ginger butter was a new one for you....I guess a lot of people here equate Caribbean food with Jamaican - lots of jerk, curry goat etc., saltfish and ackee - lovely food when done well, but there's a lot more to Caribbean food than that. We've barely scratched the surface. 

Highlight of the evening?

The lovely man from Jamaica/Montserrat whispering that it was better than his mother's and grandmother's food! 

He was a sweetheart and very stylish too. Any thoughts on the experience of doing a supper club? 

I like the creative aspect of it - all your different themed dinners, how far you can push your ideas - completely different from a restaurant. I don't think I'd find it easy opening up my own home. We were talking about shyness, weren't we? The more I do this job, the more I realise I need to be more extravert and can't hide in the kitchen for ever. If I had to go out and do a talk for the guests before starting on the food as you do, I don't think the food would ever be up to scratch because I'd be too stressed and worried!

It's funny, at first I just thought I could hide in the kitchen but then I realised people want to meet the hosts/cooks. Now I really enjoy the talk at the beginning, where I explain the creative process behind the menu. It's been good practice for public speaking in general.
For me I loved learning about Caribbean food and exotic vegetables such as breadfruit and christophene. The palmnut puree was pretty freaky too, although that is more Ghanaian. I can't resist, when I see something new in a shop, checking it out.

I know - I'm in total agreement with you about how you learn more about a country/culture by visiting its markets and supermarkets - it's my favourite thing to do when I'm away, and London has rich pickings too.
Thanks Catherine, for sharing your love of Caribbean food with myself and my guests. I'm looking forward to your cookbook!

Mango painting by Margaret Rodgers


  1. The reason your caramel overcooked is because it's impossible to control brown sugar unless you are very familiar with the brand. Brown sugar comes with different amounts of impurities/ molasses and moisture content and as it sits on the shelf it dries out so this will always vary. David Lebovitz recommends only using refined sugar to make caramel

  2. Thanks Sasha. I did a bit of googling afterwards and I wondered if that was the case.
    But these ginger coconut balls had ginger fudge clearly made from brown sugar....

  3. I SO wish I could have come to this evening because, obviously, it's right up my street! I do hope Catherine writes that book...

  4. Wow you always get the best gigs! Reminds of my first ever big event - a Caribbean canape/ cocktail party. Finding all the ingredients is half the fun.

  5. Looks fabulous, and loads of great stuff. I love bread fruit!

  6. We had a lovely man from Nigeria live with us for a year and his cooking was very similar to your caribbean meal. looked fantastic....by the way neviepiecakes bought her dad your new book for his birthday....love it!!

  7. The food sounds delicious as usual! Silly person for walking out - they missed out! I love how I learn so much every time I visit you! :) xxx


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