Pros: Some absolutely fabulous flavors; good recipes; not too many hard-to-find ingredients
Cons: Some recipes don’t come out as well as others; some experience required
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
First published 11/13/2003
Lucinda Scala Quinn’s “Jamaican Cooking: 140 Roadside and Homestyle Recipes” is a fun investment. The introduction gives us an idea of the many influences that have shaped today’s Jamaican cooking, from the foods of the Arawaks (Jamaica’s native inhabitants), to the Spaniards, African slaves, English influences, Creole, and more: “Authentic Jamaican food, when it is cooked with understanding, nourishes the body, mind and soul.” Ms. Quinn deliciously describes some of the wonderful roadside cooks and vendors, as well as the foods they’re known for.
Ms. Quinn is very up-front about who her book is aimed at, for which I’m grateful–I have a special irritation reserved for regional cookbooks that seem to be aimed at introducing foreigners to a cuisine, yet make it very difficult for anyone outside of that area to make the recipes. I’d much rather that a cookbook be aimed specifically at foreign novices (perhaps simplifying a few difficult techniques, converting some directions to ones that make use of more standard equipment, or suggesting substitutions for ingredients you can’t find in most places), or specifically at people who have access to the right ingredients and equipment and want an “authentic experience”. Oftentimes it’s very difficult to meld the two different aims into one cookbook, and too many cookbooks try unsuccessfully to combine them.
Ms. Quinn very specifically aims her cookbook at foreigners. “It is not intended as a definitive guide on Jamaican food but rather as a collection of some of the more popular dishes that have been eaten over the years.” She leaves out some recipes because they require ingredients that you just can’t get abroad.
There’s a section in the front on ingredients and procedures, which includes sources for some of the harder-to-find ingredients, as well as techniques for things like making your own coconut milk.
Savory Snacks and Sides includes such delightful dishes as coconut chips (baked spiced strips of coconut), conch fritters, plantain fritters, beef patties, bread stuffing, and shrimp patties.
The recipes usually include a brief introduction (a few sentences to a few paragraphs) about the background or context of that particular dish. We made a vegetable patty recipe out of this chapter (pastry filled with a cooked vegetable mixture, then baked) that came out reasonably well, but it wasn’t one of the better dishes. The major difficulty was that the pastry dough simply didn’t want to hold together when we filled it.
Soups include simple bean soups of various kinds, an oxtail soup, conch soup, “fish tea”, pumpkin soup, and so on.
The recipes in this book are clearly organized and laid out, and easy to read. The instructions are simple, although every now and then I could wish for a little more detail–this isn’t really a book for someone who doesn’t have much experience in the kitchen, just because it does assume that you know a bit about what you’re doing.
Vegetables, Beans and Rice is one of the longer chapters in this book, including everything from celery and rice to boiled green bananas, plantain cakes to baked sweet potatoes. The avocado salad is an extraordinarily simple and absolutely divine side dish to make when avocados are at their ripest, and the stuffed avocado isn’t far behind it in quality. The vegetable curry stew, unfortunately, didn’t really live up to the expectations that the avocado dishes built up in us.
Poultry and Meat: Chicken fricasee, fried chicken, jerk chicken, roast chicken… you’ll find pretty much every major way there is to cook a chicken. There are also a few beef dishes (beef stew, beef and okra, corned beef, pot roast), two pork dishes, and a curried goat recipe!
The recipes are accompanied by occasional black-and-white pictures of Jamaicans cooking by various methods, and a few side-bars about certain cooking methods. There are no photos of the actual foods except as incidental parts of other photos.
Fish and Seafood: Brown stew fish, roast jerk fish, vegetable-stuffed fish in foil, salt cod stew, coconut shrimp, curry shrimp, lobster curry… There are plenty of options here for fish and shellfish, all of them quite flavorful.
Sauces: The sauces chapter certainly drew my eye–jerk sauce, tomato relish, mango chutney, barbecue sauce, hard sauce… If you want a sweet, spicy, and/or flavorful sauce for your food, it’s probably in here. (And did I mention the pineapple jam?) One specific jerk sauce is provided, as well as a pared-down basic jerk sauce with some suggestions on where to start when building your own favored variation.
Drinks: Limeade, lime squash, mango smoothie, banana milk shake, ginger beer (yes, it involves yeast and sitting out overnight at room temperature), fresh mint tea, egg nog, mango liqueur… Oh, my. Most of my favorite fruit flavors are in here somewhere,
Desserts and Sweets: There are some exquisite pies in here (coconut cream pie), a good banana custard, an absolutely glorious bread pudding with rum sauce, a few fruit breads or cakes, some cookies and tarts, fritters, and ice cream. Among other things. Yum!
The index is clear, detailed, and thorough.
It isn’t a perfect cookbook. Sometimes it leaves out a helpful detail or two. Sometimes things don’t come out quite right (like the pastry that kept falling apart). Some flavors just failed to wow me. But that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this cookbook–it’s worth trying out just for those glorious discoveries like the avocado salad and the bread pudding. Those two recipes alone were probably worth the purchase of this cookbook, and there are plenty more just waiting to be tried!