If you like piña coladas, gettin’ caught in the rain…

Grandmas cocktail cabinet

Grandma's beloved cocktail cabinet

When the English weather gets me down, I head to the 1950s cocktail cabinet we inherited from J’s grandmother. The front pulls open and the top flips up to reveal mirrors, a light fixture and a contraption holding plastic cocktail sticks. If we were more technically savvy we’d make it play Barry White tunes, but for now it opens only to reveal our motley booze collection. This includes a few things we bought, and lots of things left here by friends who moved overseas. Our house was the last resort for items they hadn’t yet disposed of, and, lucky for us, the local charity shop doesn’t take donations of half-drunk Barbados rum.

Poor woman's piña colada

The poor-woman's piña colada I managed to whip up from things I found in the cupboard

Rum is the perfect elixir to turn a blustery English day into a carnival! Or at least a tipsy approximation of one. A few weeks ago, the ‘coldest summer since 1993’ pushed me to breaking point. I remembered seeing a box of coconut-pineapple juice in the back of our cupboard – another kind gift left by friends who moved back to the States … over two years ago, as I discovered upon reading the sell-by date. I persuaded myself to pour it away. Fortunately there was a (slightly less old) carton of similar juice in the fridge, which I whirred up with the Barbados rum, coconut cream and crushed ice.

The result was enough to take the edge off my doldrums, but I still felt the many miles between me and a sunny Caribbean beach. So when I walked past Café Tarifa last Saturday, I couldn’t resist the reggae music drifting from inside. I headed in for a Jamaican ginger beer (and some olives, which have nothing to do with the Caribbean, but they were good). I soaked up the vibe for a while but couldn’t linger long, because I was due at a harvest festival at the Barrack’s Lane Community Garden. I was supposed to drop off some jars of damson (sour plum) jam, which my better-half has been whipping up by the vat-full using fruit from our heavily-laden trees. I can’t think of anything less exotic and Caribbean than homemade English plum jam … Yet, to my surprise, when I showed up at the festival there were two Jamaicans giving a cooking class.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Mexican food may be hard to come by here (see previous post, desperately seeking salsa), it’s easy to forget how Britain’s colonial past is reflected in its culinary landscape. During the 1950s tens of thousands of people from the West Indies came to live and work in Britain, and many of them are still here. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a testament to this, as are Caribbean eateries like east Oxford’s Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House, which has been a fixture for the past 30 years.

Home-grown chillies

Home-grown chillies

Cooking Caribbean-ish

I decided to stick around to see what I could learn about Jamaican cooking. The two chefs were using local, seasonal vegetables grown by Sandy Lane Farm, and a Caribbean leafy green called callaloo, which is grown locally by OxGrow community garden. Suitably inspired, I returned home to plan my own Caribbean-themed feast.

Admittedly, my knowledge of the region’s cuisine is limited: I’ve never actually been to Jamaica, and have only had a few holidays on other Caribbean islands (but I’ve seen loads of movies about islands, which is pretty much the same thing, right?). Despite this, I managed to make a tasty meal that hinted at something remotely Caribbean-ish. It was a pilaf of coconut rice and black-eyed-peas, and Colombo de Giromon, which I think is a fancy name for ‘vegetable curry’: in this case, a mix of squash, sweet potato and greens in a spicy coconut sauce. I adapted these from recipes found in my trusty old copy of Sundays at Moosewood, using produce from our weekly vegetable bag, some chillies grown in our greenhouse, and fresh coriander seeds I “grew” (i.e., accidentally let the cilantro go to seed).

Well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

My well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

Chopped veg and Colombo spice mix

I chopped all the veg beforehand, then mashed garlic, cayenne, turmeric, coriander and mustard seeds and water with primal passion in my mortal and pestle

The pilaf recipe is here, but I changed it somewhat: I didn’t use tempeh (because I didn’t have any, but I do recommend it — a soybean product, nice as a meat subtitute); I used white rice instead of brown; and I added shredded carrot to the onion and garlic. The other dish can be found here on another blog. I didn’t use butternut squash, but a mystery squash (which I traded some plum jam for at the harvest fest). I also used a sweet potato, no peppers, and added kale at the end of the cooking time.

The best bit of this recipe was making the Colombo seasoning: I love mashing up fragrant spices with a mortar and pestle. It’s so … primal. Even better was the fact that the recipe called for rum, so having raided the cocktail cabinet and poured a bit in the pot of simmering veg, I took a bit for myself. Surely that’s how it’s done in the Caribbean.

Later this week I’m planning to stop off at the East Oxford Community Centre to taste the Afro-Caribbean lunches made by people from ACKHI (African & African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative), and may also dip into their Afro-Caribbean cake-baking class on Friday.

Caribbean-ish meal

Coconut black-eyed peas and rice, and Colombo de Giromon (curried vegetables)

Meanwhile, I’ve finished off the coconut black-eyed beans and rice, and at the same time Mother Nature has responded to my desperate plea for a taste of the tropics: she sent winds as high as 80 miles per hour to batter Britain. These were the remnants of Hurricane Katia, which swept across the Atlantic last week. After all, nothing says ‘tropical paradise’ like a hurricane.


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