Friday, July 15, 2011

A Taste of the Tropics

Remember your Caribbean vacation?  I sure do.  Life is so relaxed, yet the food and the music are so lively.  I've never understood the typical American tourist who goes on vacation, stays in a five star resort, and dines in the resort's Americanized restaurant on chicken fingers and french fries!  Whenever Brian and I go on vacation, sure we stay at the resorts, but we usually boycott these eateries and seek out the dining establishments where local inhabitants serve up their local fare.  We've never been disappointed, and usually end up adding a local cookbook to our shopping list of must-buy souvenirs.  As a couple who embraces food of all nations, tropical dishes are no exception.

Tonight I will be serving it up hot with grilled Jamaican jerk chicken.  Jerk is a very spicy marinade which is not only great on chicken, but I have used it on pork tenderloin and also shrimp.  There are many variations of recipes for a jerk marinade, probably as many as there are Jamaican grandmothers; but the one important commonality among them is the ingredient of the habanro pepper, also referred to as the Scotch bonnet pepper.  It is one of the hottest peppers in the world, so it gives a jerk marinade plenty of heat.  We'll be cooling things down with a pitcher of mojitos, a Cuban cocktail containing mulled mint, simple syrup, rum,  lime and seltzer.  The coolness of the mint and the fizziness of the seltzer make this a very refreshing drink.  For a side dish I am making black beans and rice.  Just about every Caribbean locale dishes out beans and rice or peas and rice on the side.  I came up with a version of my own which seems to work well not only as a side for Caribbean food, but also with Mexican food and southwestern fare as well.



1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup brown rice 
2 cups chicken stock (I like Kitchen Basics, nothing in there that you wouldn't use if making your own)                          
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 15-ounce can black beans

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and saute until transleucent.  Stir in the garlic and saute for one minute.  Stir in the oregano, salt, pepper and rice, until everything in the skillet is combined.  Add the stock, tomatoes and beans.  Stir, then bring to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the rice is tender.   

Serves four.

This is a recipe that is meant to be tweaked of you want to experiment with combinations more specific to your menu's ethnicity.  You could substitute red beans for the black ones.  Or you could switch out the brown rice for white rice, add some saffron, and use pigeon peas instead of the black beans.  Or instead of tomatoes, use a cup of diced bell peppers in whatever color strikes your mood and maybe add a teaspoon of chili powder.  When you're the cook, you get to play with your food!

Remember, ambience makes the meal more enjoyable and memorable.  Music is one key ingredient, so with this dinner I'll be putting on CDs of reggae greats, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.  Table setting for a tropical meal should include boldly-colored tropical blooms in the vase and vivid shades, such as  turquoise, in either the table linens or the plates.  Some strategically placed sea shells on the table will work too.

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