Eating Well: In the Caribbean - #109

BURT WOLF: The Caribbean, home to some of the best cooking in the New World. We'll cruise through the islands on the largest sailboat afloat, point out why it was food that really caused the mutiny on the Bounty... discover what you can eat to help you stay cool on hot days, and learn some of the best-tasting recipes from local Caribbean cooks. It's hot stuff. Join me. Burt Wolf, Eating Well, in the Caribbean.

The islands of the Caribbean start out just below Florida and form an arc that curves east and south for some 2,600 miles until it comes to the last landfall in the chain, just off the coast of South America. There are about 7,000 islands in the group. Sometimes they're called the West Indies, because when Christopher Columbus originally discovered them, he was looking for India. And these islands are somewhat to the west of his original destination. Actually, they're about half a planet to the west of his original destination.

To say that Columbus had lucked out would be one of the great under-statements of the past 500 years. They're also called the Antilles, which was a name used by 13th Century map makers, the designated group of imaginary islands that they placed in the Atlantic. But there's nothing imaginary about the beauty and charm that you find in much of the Caribbean. These islands were formed during the last Ice Age and were part of an unbroken land mass that connected Florida to Venezuela. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions changed the geology, and today, only the tops of the land ridge remain above water, forming these magnificent enclaves.

For hundreds of years after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, the area was in constant conflict. The Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the English were perpetually battling each other and the local natives. Piracy was big, rebellion, slavery. Not the ideal environment to develop a great cuisine. And yet all of the natural elements were here, just waiting for a time when the cooks were free to cook.

The sea supplied an almost endless variety of fish and seafood. The area's rich tropical soil produced excellent fruits and vegetables. Many of the foods we take for granted were first brought to Europe from the Caribbean by Columbus and other early explorers: grapefruit, pineapple, hot peppers, tomatoes, all from the Caribbean. Think about that. Columbus was the first European to taste a tomato. Talk about landmarks in culinary history. Without Columbus, no tomato sauce on pizza. Just on the basis of that, he deserves to be a major hero in Italian history. 

Within the last hundred years, the islands have become politically and culturally independent. Colonial ideas no longer suppress local flavors and techniques, and that has led to the birth of a rich and fascinating Caribbean cuisine. Today, Caribbean cookery is hot stuff. 

The first inhabitants of the Caribbean islands were Arowak and Caribe Indians who arrived here from South America. Next came the European colonists, French, Spanish, English, Dutch. In the 1500s Africans arrived from the Congo and the Gold Coast. The most recent immigrants came here as workers as indentured servants from China and India. Those basic groups, South American Indians, European colonists, Africans, Indians, and Chinese, form the basic influences that create today's Caribbean kitchen. 

A dish that clearly shows the influence of the immigration from India is Madras rice. A little oil goes into a saute pan; some chopped onion is added, cooked and stirred for a minute, and three cups of rice are mixed in. Five cups of chicken stock, some raisins, chopped pineapple and grated coconut. Mixed, covered and cooked for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender. Rice is a wholesome grain that takes on the flavorings of the foods and seasonings that it's cooked with. It's very low in sodium and very low in fat, and only about 80 calories in a half cup serving. 

Another great-tasting, low-fat food that's common in the Caribbean is the banana. Some historians believe that the banana was the first fruit cultivated by man, though in reality it was probably cultivated by a woman, since in ancient times women did most of the farming in the family. The banana is actually a giant berry that grows on a giant herb. The banana starts out as a large purple bud. As the bud develops, it opens to reveal rows of tiny fingers. Each of these grow into a banana. The fingers are clustered together into a hand. Several hands make a bunch. One bunch grows on each plant each year. Side shoots are cultivated for next year's crop. They're called daughters and granddaughters. Bananas are one of the most nutritious foods available. They're low in fat, low in sodium, and only about a hundred calories in the average banana. What they're high in is Vitamin A, Vitamin B-6 and Vitamin C, also iron and potassium. These days, many medical authorities are recommending we increase our intake of potassium as part of an anti-high blood pressure diet, and bananas are a great way to do that.

Columbus arrived in the Caribbean aboard three sailing ships. Five hundred years later, there's still no better way of exploring these islands. Today's cruise ships offer you the excitement of a floating city with the comforts of a private yacht. You'll find dining rooms with magnificent views of the sea, offering buffets at breakfast and lunch and classic, elegant dishes at dinner. If you like, you can take your meal right onto the deck. 

And to work off those calories, you'll often find fitness centers with floor-to-ceiling windows to keep your mind off your muscles. There are on-board swimming pools, aerobic exercise classes, and water sports programs that could entice Captain Nemo. The stern of this ship opens up and a huge door folds down to form a private marina. Then you can take your pick.

ACTIVITIES DIRECTOR: Today, specially for you, water skiing, sailing, wind surfing, scuba diving, snorkling. Everything here. Thank you very much.

BURT WOLF: During the days, you can stop in at local port towns for shopping and sightseeing, or take an excursion to a deserted island for a day on your own beach. This particular ship, the Club Med I, is the world's largest sailing vessel. It's also a marvel of engineering.

CAPTAIN: The Engine-- The engine here does not need any engineer. All information is given on the bridge and if something happen, we call one engineer on duty and he's go down to see what has happened. Each engine is 2,500 horsepower, forward thrusters is 1,000 horsepowers; aft thrusters, 700 horsepowers. That's me. If I throw something here (BEEP), just go to the bridge, I can turn all around it from 360 degrees and stay at one meter from it. 

BURT: That's amazing. What does that do?

CAPTAIN: That's gives me information about the sail here, the engine, the list, and this full information, what is most important information we have to look all the time.

BURT: Summary of everything you need to know, right here.

CAPTAIN: Yes. And then if you want to have something more or actually at about something like the sail, I ask for the information. You can ask everything like that. 

BURT WOLF: The captain is not only knowledgeable about his ship and the islands of the Caribbean, but also about the food that is cooked on those islands. Today he's asked the kitchen to prepare a Caribbean recipe for chicken and lemon with a slight French accent.

A few tablespoons of vegetable oil go into a saute pan. A sliced onion, a little minced garlic, a chicken cut into parts that have been marinating for three hours in a mixture of lemon juice, sliced onions and parsley. You can cook the chicken with the skin on or off but take off the skin before you serve the dish. Most of the fat and cholesterol in a chicken is in the skin. A half cup of lemon juice is added and the meat of two limes. That's covered and simmered for 20 minutes. And the cover comes off and a quarter cup of cream goes in. I tested this dish with buttermilk instead of the cream and it was fine. The shift to buttermilk turned the recipe into a rich-tasting dish that is very low in fat. But if you're as in good shape as Chef Chevee, I guess you can use the cream. A quarter cup of chicken stock is added, two more minutes of cooking, and it's ready to serve. Chicken, sauce, lime as a garnish. 

For over 400 years, the French Navy has been sailing through the Caribbean, so the officers of Club Med I are definitely part of a long tradition. And during those centuries they've had a considerable impact on the local cooking. As a matter of fact, the word "Creole" originally referred to someone who was a direct descendent of a French or Spanish colonist to the Caribbean. So when you see a dish described as Creole, you are looking at a European influence. 

A good example is this recipe for Creole snapper. A little vegetable oil goes into a saute pan, some chopped onion, green pepper, scallion, lemon, tomato, garlic, and pitted black olives. That cooks together for about five minutes and then the fish filet goes on top. A little lemon juice, a little saffron, the fish is turned and cooked a few minutes more, then the fish goes onto a serving plate, the vegetables, a garnish of lemon zest shaped into a flower, and a little fresh dill.

One of the most expensive foods in the world is a spice called saffron. A single pound of pure, top quality saffron sells for about $2,000.00. Saffron is hand-picked and you actually need to pick over 75,000 individual saffron flowers in order to get a single pound of the spice. You got plenty of hand labor in that little jar. Also, saffron is often grown in Middle Eastern countries. These days they are in turmoil and quite difficult to deal with. 

Hundreds of years ago, saffron was an important dye. It's what gave the robes of Buddhist monks their distinct color. And it does the same thing for many Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean recipes. The finest quality saffron is made up of whole strands called stigmas. Saffron should be crushed gently and allowed to sit in a little bit of hot liquid for a minute or two just before it's added to any dry ingredients like rice. If it's part of a recipe for a liquid-based dish like a soup or a stew it can go right in after it's crushed. 

It's one of the world's most expensive ingredients, so you want to try and get the most flavor from each pinch. Fortunately saffron goes a long way. A single pinch of top quality saffron is enough to flavor an entire quart of a soup or a stew.

Life on board this ship is quite opulent. But in the old days, existence at sea was often awful. Case in point: Mutiny on the Bounty, the account of a black-hearted, evil-minded wicked sea captain who was cast off his ship by his own men. Three major motion pictures have been made about this true story; one with Clark Gable, one with Marlon Brando, and one with Mel Gibson. But none of these films have told the true and complete story of what went on. It happens to be a food story, too. During the late 1700s, the planters here in the Caribbean were looking for a food crop that wouldn't take up much land and was easy to grow. They wanted their workers working on the sugar cane and not on the food. 

They heard that the ideal crop existed in Tahiti called breadfruit. And they asked the King of England, King George III to send a British naval vessel to Tahiti to get them some of this breadfruit so they could plant it. The king agreed and he sent the H.M.S. Bounty under the command of Captain Bligh. On the return voyage from Tahiti to the Caribbean, Bligh began to run short of water. He decided that he would rather care for his breadfruit seedlings than his crew. Naturally enough, the crew disagreed. So they mutinied, put Bligh into a small boat, and shoved him off. A true story that changed the history of food and the life of Marlon Brando.

And now we go from the Bounty's breadfruit to a bountiful fruit bread. This recipe stands out because the cake has a great flavor and texture, but it's very easy to prepare. Mix, pour, bake, eat. Hey, I can do that. Melted butter, confectioner's sugar, eggs, flour with a little baking soda, and candied fruits chopped into small pieces, plus some whole candied cherries. That's all mixed together into a batter and poured into a loaf pan. Into the oven for a short bake, and your fruit cake is ready to serve.

During the 15th, 16th, and 19th Century, the British Navy pretty much ruled the seas. But the long ocean passages were kind of tough on the health of the sailors. The diet was more or less limited to something called hard tack, which was a dry biscuit and salted meat when it was available. As a result, many of the sailors came down with a disease called scurvy. Then one day a British naval doctor sailing here in the Caribbean noticed that when his men were eating limes, the symptoms of the disease disappeared. Eventually limes were put on board all British naval vessels. When sailors from other countries noticed that the British were always eating limes, they began to call them Limeys. And even today that is an epithet for an Englishman. It was actually the Vitamin C in the lime that was curing the disease.

BURT WOLF: The Island of Grenada. It originally rose from the sea in a volcanic eruption. Its inner harbor is actually formed from the open mouth of that long-dormant crater. The capital city and major port is St. George, which has become famous for its picturesque beauty and it's easy to see why.

The blue lagoon is surrounded by English Georgian and French Provincial homes that reflect the town's colonial past. Just behind the harbor is the town's market square, a typical open air Caribbean affair with a substantial selection of locally produced fruits, vegetables, and spices, including nutmeg which is the national spice of the island. Grenada produces over 30 per cent of the world's supply. It's actually the kernel of the fruit of the nutmeg tree, and when it's growing, there's a lattice that grows on the outside of it. When that lattice is removed, dried out and ground up, it becomes a second spice called mace, double your pleasure, double your fun, two wonderful spices all in one. 

But don't overuse your nutmeg, it's kind of potent and too much of it can be dangerous. Use it in terms of quantity the way you would use black pepper. 

To sample some of the local specialties of Grenada, just stop into the Belasha Hotel and Restaurant. The owner, Dale Friday, can take you on a gastronomic tour of the island. 

DALE FRIDAY: We're going to be starting with a soup, Callaloo soup. Callaloo is a vegetable grown here in Grenada. It's a green leafy vegetable, which has been compared to spinach. They make-- it's also going to have a salad, garden fresh salad. All these vegetables that you will have today are freshly grown vegetables here in Grenada. And after that, we're going to have a Creole fish. A dessert, we were going to do a fruit salad for you, or we can give you a choice. You can also have nutmeg ice cream. 

BURT WOLF: Oh, nutmeg ice cream.

WOMAN: Again, you know, utilizing the nutmegs that are, you know, grown here. 

BURT WOLF: Grenada is the major spice- growing island of the Western Hemisphere. In addition to nutmeg, it produces cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, and of course, mace. The streets are peppered with women who place their spices into home-made baskets and offer them for sale. And now it's time to set sail from Grenada and travel east to the Island of Barbados.

The island of Barbados was discovered by Portuguese explorers in 1536 and named Los Barbarros, which means "The Bearded Ones." Hey, certainly makes me feel at home. It's a reference to the Banyan tree with its hanging roots that look a little like a beard. The real colonization of the island was undertaken by the English, and today, Barbados is a little bit of Britain in the Caribbean. 

Sugar cane was first planted in the Caribbean on Barbados and it was here that the great sugar fortunes were made. The landscape bears an unusual resemblance to England, and the colonists on Barbados have made a great effort to maintain an English atmosphere. The capital city of Bridgetown was founded in 1628 and has become a bustling center of activity. 

The Brown Sugar Restaurant is one of the sweetest spots on Barbados. Denise Shepherd showed me the classic dishes of the community. 

DENISE SHEPHERD: This is sorrel. It's a major drink. It's usually served at Christmas. It's quite delicious. It's non-alcoholic. This is traditional rice and peas. Sort of a staple that people have with their meals instead of, say, potatoes. Pigeon peas and rice. They give the rice its distinctive brown color. This is jug-jug. Now this is also made with pigeon peas and guinea corn, and mixed with salt beef and cooked -- pureed -- and this is what we get. This is Boljau; this is salted fish, salt fish, codfish, which is soaked to remove some of the salt, and then it's boiled, and tomatoes, cucumber and peppers are added to it. 

Our desserts include Bajan bread pudding. which is bread pudding, but we soak our raisins in rum, so it's sort of alcoholic dessert, very delicious.

BURT WOLF: Another delicious specialty of Barbados is the flying fish. The wide fins are used to sustain the fish in a long glide after it leaps out of the water. 

When they leap into a frying pan, they're lightly sauteed and taste great. Bajans are also famous for their pepper pot stews. Pepper pots cook indefinitely with fresh ingredients being added every day as servings are taken out. There are actually pepper pot stews on this island that have been cooking for generations. It's really nice to know that dinner's been ready for the last 60 years.

It's also nice to know what's cooking on the island of Martinique. The first European settlers on the island were Spanish, but as soon as they realized there was no gold, they moved on. An old Spanish saying: Why marry just any island when you can marry a rich one? Then came the French. They were a little more into true love. They colonized the island in 1635, planted sugar cane, and brought in Africans to work the plantations. Then the English and the French fought over the island for a couple of hundred years, until it became a department of France in the same way Hawaii is a state of the United States. 

The cooking of Martinique is a blend of French and African techniques carried out on the local ingredients. Traditional recipes include callaloo, a soup made from the giant leaves of the dasheen. Blaff, a fish stew that gets its name from the sound that the fish makes as it drops into the pot. There are also a series of dishes that show the influence of the Chinese who came to work the cane after the Africans were freed. Sweet and sour pork is an example. Bite size cubes of pork go into boiling water, where they cook for 20 minutes. Meanwhile a little vegetable oil goes into a hot sauce pan, chopped ginger is added, chopped onion, pineapple, carrots, green peppers, and a little white wine vinegar. All that cooks together for about five minutes. Sugar goes in, and then ketchup. Ketchup by the way is based on an ancient Chinese sauce that came to Boston on the clipper ships from the Orient. Five more minutes of cooking, the pork is strained, and goes into the sauce. Everything heats up and is served with rice. That's a really nice sauce and it's quite versatile. You can use it on pork the way we did here, or you could use it on chicken, or beef, or fish. It's pretty low in fat, too. 

The single most important ingredient in Caribbean cooking is the hot pepper. Local native chefs were using them when the first European explorers popped in. They were using them to make a hot sauce, the descendant of which is found on just about every Caribbean island today. The home-made version is produced by taking the peppers, putting them into a jar, covering them with vinegar, letting them steep for a day or two before use. 

These are the flame throwers of food, and many people are concerned that their intensity will cause stomach ulcers or eat away the lining of their stomach. But a number of recent scientific studies indicate that that's not the case.

Hot peppers in a meal appear to be fine. No damage to stomach tissue. No increase in the incidence of ulcers. As a matter of fact, hot peppers appear to have some positive effects. They increase your body's production of saliva and gastric juices and that helps your digestion. They also appear to reduce blood clots. They can, however, start a fire in your mouth. But don't try to put out those flames with water. Water will only spread 'em around. Your best bet is to take a piece of bread and chew it slowly while moving it around your mouth to absorb the heat. 

The cruise ships that sail through the Caribbean are devoted to their food and beverage service and usually offer an afternoon tea along with home-baked pastries. Today the chef is preparing a classic recipe for meringue cookies. Here's how they're made: 

A half cup of egg whites go into the bowl of an electric mixer where they are beaten until they form stiff peaks. I'm always a little hesitant about recipes that call for beating ingredients because I think there's took much violence on television already. But this cookie is worth it. A half cup of sugar is mixed in, the stiff egg whites are then folded together with a half cup of ground almonds and a half cup of confectioner's sugar. That batter goes into a pastry bag and is then pressed out onto a parchment-covered baking sheet. Each round is about two inches in diameter. And into a 200 degree Fahrenheit oven for one hour and 45 minutes, at which point they're ready. These will keep in an air-tight container in a dry place for about two weeks, assuming you've forgotten where you put the container. You can't eat just one. 

Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, suggested that we eat a low fat diet during hot weather in order to stay cool. And he knew what he was talking about. 

BURT WOLF: The body has to work harder to digest fat. The extra work produces extra heat. In general, the lower the fat content of your diet during hot weather, the cooler you're going to be. And then there was Isadora of Seville. Now, you don't hear much about Izzy these days. But during the 6th Century, Isadora of Seville was a big deal. And he suggested that a spicy diet would keep you cooler during hot weather and he knew what he was talking about. A spicy diet will cause perspiration. The moisture on the surface of your body evaporates, and that cools you down. It's also a good idea to avoid foods that are hot in temperature or cold in temperature. Your body has to do extra work to bring the temperature of the food into line with the temperature of the body. And the extra work causes extra body heat. Finally, it's a really good idea to drink six to eight glasses of water every day during hot weather. 

So, what is there to comprehend from the Caribbean when it comes to food and good health? Well, first of all, rice is an ideal complex carbohydrate, low in fat, low in sodium, and only 80 calories to a half cup. Don't overdo your use of nutmeg. In large quantities it can be dangerous. Use it in the amounts that you would normally use black pepper. Hot peppers do not appear to cause any problems for stomach tissue or ulcers. They may actually help you with digestion and reduce blood clots. To deal with the fire that hot peppers can set off in your mouth, avoid water. Just dry your mouth out with bread. You can help lower your body temperature during hot weather by avoiding high-fat foods and foods that are very hot or cold in terms of temperature. Also foods containing chili peppers can bring moisture to your skin that will cool you off.

And a word on sugar. Until a German scientist figured out how to make sugar from the common European sugar beet, planters here in the Caribbean amassed enormous fortunes from their sugar cane. They also planted cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice, which were known as the sweetening spices. They understood that by adding a little bit of any of those spices to their sugar, their sugar turned out to be much sweeter. They saved sugar and they saved money. And you can use the same technique to save calories. 

That's Eating Well in the Caribbean. Please join us next time as we travel around the world, looking for something that tastes good and makes it easier to eat well. I'm Burt Wolf.