Caribbean “Home” Cooking

When it comes to Caribbean dishes, operators often rely on island-born staff for inspiration and recipes.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Jerk chicken with mango is a
classic Caribbean dish.

When it comes to getting ethnic food right, more and more operators are turning to members of their staffs for advice and even recipes. With a workforce increasingly made up of employees from around the world, foodservice departments are finding it easier to enlist the aid of cooks and other staff to add authenticity to world cuisines.

This is particularly true of Caribbean, as many companies and institutions now have at least a few employees from such locales as Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. At Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Executive Chef Jim Rose has Joe Cavalier, one of whose contributions to the menu is Caribbean Vegetables over Red Beans and Rice.

“It’s basically braised kale with ginger, nutmeg, beans and some hot peppers,” says Rose. “The vegetables are cooked down and it makes its own sauce. It’s spiked with a jerk style seasoning. The beans are cooked from a dry stage—soaked for a day and then simmered the next day.”

At NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, Executive Chef Istvan Ungi—himself Hungarian-born—has Herbert Henriquez as his first cook. Henriquez is a native of Jamaica who grew up eating oxtail stew.

“Oxtail is great,” says Henriquez. “It is so nice and tender. I add some butter beans to it, along with water, onion, garlic and thyme. It makes its own sauce.”

Ungi also is a fan of oxtail, but he cautions that it is not an everyday menu item.

“We serve it a couple of times a month, for special events, but it’s pretty expensive,” Ungi explains. It can be three times as expensive as chicken wholesale.”

But Henriquez does more than oxtail stew. Ungi says that he also prepares spicy shrimp, marinated in a mixture of chipotle, pineapple juice, brown sugar and oil.

“We also are very strong on using salsas on all types of dishes,” Ungi adds. “You just add rice and fried plantains and it’s Caribbean. It is very versatile in the cafeteria. It’s a very simple item, but everyone likes it.”

At Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Mo., Executive Chef Taylor McCloskey tapped into the knowledge of a Jamaican-born dishroom employee for his Masa Coconut Chicken.

"I picked his brain for some ideas and then added my own take,” says McCloskey. “Coconut and pineapple are very big in his culture.”

McCloskey’s “take” was to use masa instead of flour to coat the chicken breasts. With the substitution of masa, the item becomes even more versatile because it’s gluten-free.

“I had not planned to make it gluten free,” he explains. “But we have such a demand for celiac diets now.”

After dredging the breasts in the masa, McCloskey coats the chicken first with a honey mustard dressing, then with a mixture of coconut, cilantro and more masa. The dish is baked and served with a pineapple pico de gallo.

Not every operator relies on the counsel of employees for their Caribbean dishes. Gregg Russell, foodservice director at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Hospital in Loma Linda, Calif., drew inspiration from his wife for his Parmesan, Potato and Tortilla-Encrusted Tilapia

“My wife likes parmesan crusted chicken with panko, so I thought this would be tasty and colorful with the tilapia, shredded potato, and the tri-color tortilla chips,” Russell says. The fish is brushed with mayonnaise, then coated with the cheese, shredded potatoes and crushed chips. It is baked, then topped with a tropical salsa.

Of course, what Caribbean menu would be complete without the iconic jerk chicken? At Skidmore, cooks prepare their own marinade with a jalapeno-habanero blend and a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Rose says he thinks the wet marinade works better than a dry rub, which he finds to be too spicy and has a tendency to clump of sections of the chicken.

“We use boneless chicken thighs,” he notes. “The meat is grilled. We pair the chicken with roasted plantains—it adds a little sweetness and offsets the spiciness of the chicken—and serve it with a coconut rice. We steep jasmine rice in coconut milk and water and steam it, then add nutmeg.”

Chef Ungi says jerk chicken is one of the favorite dishes at his hospital. Staff prepare it by mixing a dry seasoning mix with cloves, soy, vinegar, chili and chopped onions and applying it to the chicken.

“We leave the chicken in the marinade at least overnight, but it is better if it’s marinated for three days,” he explains. “We bake it in the oven for 40 minutes until it is crispy on the outside and still juicy inside.”

The hospital serves its chicken with coconut rice and pigeon peas.