Caribbean cuisine is as rich and aromatic as the earth and sea from which it comes. Rich, dense root vegetables that are abundant in many of the Caribbean islands often go unnoticed to the average cook. Gourmet chefs are beginning to enrich their recipes with these veggies once thought of as “poor people’s” foods. Historically speaking, many were brought to the islands by Europeans to fill the empty stomachs of slaves for very little cost, but the return of rich vitamins and minerals make them a perfect addition to your list of vegetable bin staples. These intense vegetables thrive in moist fertile land and have been gaining enough popularity that they are becoming easier and easier to spot at your local organic or ethnic food store. Not only are they a great source of fiber, but they contain virtually no fat.
An all time favorite and excellent replacement for a typical starchy side dish is the breadfruit. In the Caribbean it is boiled or more commonly, roasted on pre-heated rocks or on top of a coal pot. Once the skin is charcoaled or boiled, it is then peeled to reveal a delicious yellow meat. The breadfruit is very filling and particularly nice when drizzled with a pepper infused oil.
For a simple desert, scrape the pulp from a ripe breadfruit and combine with coconut milk, salt and sugar and bake to make a pudding. A more elaborate dessert can be made of mashed ripe breadfruit, butter, 2 beaten eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and a dash of rum.
How often have you read about the benefits of wild yam? This incredible root should not be relegated to a cream in your medicine cabinet for women’s issues. Wild yam is a very nutritious vegetable with an evocative earthy taste. In Native American medicine it was used for asthma, joint pain, morning sickness and labor pains. The Chinese created tonics with wild yam to help the liver and relax muscles. In India and the Caribbean it is believed to help infertility and impotence.
Most islanders simply boil and add butter and chives as you would a typical white potato. With this tuber, the possibilities for preparation are endless: mashed, whipped, stir-fried, baked or even grilled.
You may have seen dasheen in the vegetable aisle and eyed it with skepticism but don’t be afraid to pick one up and give it a try. In the United States, this is typically labeled Taro at the supermarket and when you see it growing you’ll swear it looks just like the elephant ears you planted in the shady spot in your backyard, but in the West Indies it is grown for the edible underground part or tuber. Prepared peeled and boiled, it is a simple Caribbean side dish. If you feel more adventurous, substitute dasheen for potatoes in your favorite Scalloped Potato Recipe, you’ll love it!
There are many more to be on the look out for, such as: plantain, Tania, cassava and christophene. If you aren’t able to find these at home, it may just be time to plan that Caribbean vacation.