Back in the day, fresh out of Le Cordon Bleu and wanting to show off newly minted skills to family and friends, I used to entertain constantly via fancy plated dinners. As time passed, noticed a pattern after countless dinner parties. Felt deflated afterwards, missing out on the juicy bits of conversation always being in the kitchen, anal about getting plating perfect and vegetables showcased at the right angle. By the time I was ready to fully relax and get involved, for most guests it would be time to leave. Do not get me wrong, an artful plate is a delight to behold, but I was over it.
Nowadays, older and caring less about appearances, I am the queen of platters and small plates, mostly prepped beforehand so I can sit with guests in happy repose and chatter the night away. With diligent planning ahead of time, when the date arrives, I worry more about the wine being at the right temperature, that there is sufficient ice for cold drinks and hope garnishes do not wilt in the kitchen’s humidity.
No longer fixated on everything being perfectly matched, a clutter of mismatched plates, bowls, knives and forks are more than likely to adorn my table unless it is Christmas or Easter and decidedly more formal. My dinner party style for the most part is casual, raucous with laughter, an eclectic mix of individuals, both expat and local who usually become friends with each other in their own right. I purposefully create a sanctuary of peace and good vibes, a judgement free zone where people feel free to speak without censure.
The entertainment theme varies from what is seasonal to a country’s cuisine or whatever I feel like cooking on a whim. To be honest, the most fun are throw together meals. They occur usually when unexpected guests say they are on the island and want to come over to visit me. I challenge myself to create what is in my fridge and pantry as most likely, there will be no time to food shop. It forces me to be my most creative self in a short space of time. There are moments I mentally kick myself for not jotting down notes on the dishes. Recipes are a job for me in one aspect of life I suppose, therefore reckon subconsciously, my mind desires to separate it from work. Keeping it light transitions cooking from obligation to a form of therapy for me.
For years, have been sharing in my food writing that the humblest market ingredients can be coaxed to become the most decadent. You do not necessarily need expensive components to entertain. If you have no wine, prepare a mocktail for teetotalers or simple cocktails for those who appreciate something stronger, even a straight up welcome shot from bottles you have hanging around can set the mood. Your heart will warm when you witness the stresses of the day visibly melt away from your smiling guests.
A general trend for me over the last few years is to serve a variety of vegetable dishes for everyone to mix and match, not quite mezze, cannot really call it tapas, more a salad bar vibe. In Israel, I discovered there is a word for it called “salatim” which literally means salads and is popular in restaurants over there. They are so divine, you sometimes forget about the meat course that comes afterwards, or too full to care. The plant based dishes and bread are so satisfying and more special by the wonderful company I hope you surround yourself with.
The following recipes are inspired by my globetrotting over the years, powered by availability in local markets and herbs from my garden and the type of food I share with friends. This particular feast was vegetarian, and my meat loving friends were satiated. A Caribbean Flexitarian © lifestyle hodge podge of varying tastes, textures, freshness and spice all sprinkled with lots of love.
‘Pretty Up Di Bubbly’ Bar
First, let us start with the drinks. We all have champagne dreams, but not always the budget for decadent bubbles. Grazie mille to the Italians for their delicious and affordable Prosecco. Most Jamaican supermarkets and purveyors are stocked with excellent brands. Likewise, we are now seeing more Spanish cava and French crémant. Muchas gracias and merci beaucoup!
The beauty is, bubbly pairs well with most foods, so when I cannot be bothered to pair wine and food, I stock inexpensive but quality bubbly, cordials such as the elderflower I bring back from the UK each year and now available in select supermarkets across the island, crème de cassis from France, my homemade pimento dram and local fruit juices in season. My friends can have an unadorned glass, make mimosas or other mixes for their pleasure. A fun way to break the ice. For this shoot, I invited friends over and my dear friend Debra Taylor of Select Brands kindly brought over Bolla Prosecco, Campo Vieja Brut Reserva Cava and Barton & Guestier Crémant de Bourgogne Brut.
I commenced with a mini apero featuring buttery popcorn, a sweet and salty mix of dried cranberries and walnuts and marinated cumin and garlic roasted red peppers with mixed olives. My mates munched on these while photographers, Will, Andre and myself were shooting the dishes. They had a fun impromptu crash wine course with Debra sampling the various styles of bubbly by the time we were done, had voracious appetites and hungrily tucked into the dishes post shoot.
This is not a dinner roll or baguette type feast. You will need some sort of pita or flatbread to accompany the spread. Making your own flatbread is so easy to do. A plain no yeast version the novice cook can manage. Feeling confident? Then add additional herbs, garlic or spices to jazz it up if you wish. I am sure this could be made vegan with appropriate substitutes, but since I haven’t tried to make a vegan version as yet, none are offered. Makes 8 flatbreads.
- 600g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1 tsp salt
- 375ml milk
- 100g melted butter
- Olive oil for frying
- Add flour and salt to a bowl, mix to combine and make a well in the middle.
- Warm milk and butter until the latter is just melted and pour in the well in the bowl.
- Mix dry and liquid ingredients until it forms a soft dough.
- Dust a dry surface with flour and knead the dough for 5 minutes until smooth and pliable. Cover with cling film and rest for at least 30 minutes.
- When ready to use, cut dough in 8 pieces and roll into balls.
- Again, dust a dry surface with flour and use a rolling pin to roll out each ball into a thin circle. No worries if they are not perfect, just make sure they can fit in the base of the frying pan you are going to use to make them.
- In a small frying pan, over medium high heat, add enough olive oil to coat the pan.
- Add first dough round and after a minute the circumference will be a nice golden brown and the surface puffs up like little bubbles. Flip over gently and cook for a further 30 to 40 seconds. Remove and repeat with the other dough rounds until you have your stack of flatbreads ready to eat.
Quick Pickled Beets with Whole Spices and Thyme
Pickled beets are a staple in my fridge. I snack on them with other small plates and add them to salads for another dimension. They always come in handy for a quick treat.
- 500g boiled beets
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 2 tsps coriander seeds, slightly crushed
- A couple sprigs of thyme
- 250ml white cane vinegar
- 100g sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- Peel and slice boiled beets and set aside in a bowl.
- In a small saucepan, add cinnamon, star anise, coriander seeds, vinegar, sugar, salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer for 5 minutes.
- Pour over the beets and let cool until it is room temperature, then place in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.
French Style Carrot Salad
In France, this dish was ubiquitous at many of the dinners I was invited to. There were always variations. Some with parsley, some without. Others quite tangy, others less so. A bit of onion or shallot. Everyone had a twist. Play around as you see fit. The beauty is in its simplicity.
- 450g carrots
- 2 tbsps finely chopped onions
- 2 tbsps finely chopped parsley
- 2 tsps Dijon mustard
- 1 lemon, juiced (I often substitute with lime when lemon is not in season in Jamaica)
- 2 tbsps vegetable oil
- 2 tsps Jamaican Logwood honey (believe me, it is special if you can get your hands on it)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Wash, peel and grate carrots, then add to bowl with onion and parsley.
- In a separate bowl, whisk mustard, lemon juice and oil until combined.
- Pour dressing over carrot mix, add salt and pepper to taste and toss well together.
Broadbean and Callaloo ‘Falafels’
My Egyptian friend Nihal, first introduced me to falafels in New Jersey in her Coptic Christian home. Years later, in my Parisian neighbourhood, Le Marais, I lived a couple streets away from the Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish quarter where famous falafel shops competed for customers. It was an economical, nutritious and convenient meal for me when I did not feel like cooking. Crispy hot herbaceous falafels with copious fresh salad toppings made me super happy. Now living in Jamaica, I like to mix it up from time to time. Chickpea based like the Israeli’s or broad bean (fava bean) based like the Egyptians. Those of you who have been following me for years and my JuicyChef brand’s “eat local, cook global” ethos, know that I like to “Jamaicanise” some dishes.
Local broad beans are normally dried and white versus green. I used to look forward to the short season after the Christmas gungo peas when my broad bean tree would bear a bounty. Sadly, it died in the drought, so no longer have access to fresh beans at my fingertips and purchase at the market. Anyway, this recipe takes me back to my late mother’s organic callaloo from the garden and freshly picked broad beans which inspired me to create my original interpretation of falafels. She loved when I made this for her. I have adjusted my first version of this recipe using dried versus fresh beans. Yield 20 to 30 small falafels.
- 600g dried broad beans, soaked in cold water overnight and drained
- 200g cooked callaloo
- 125g chickpea flour (aka gram or besan flour)
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 ½ tsps ground cumin
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 4 escallion stalks, finely chopped
- 100g flat leaf parsley or cilantro leaves or mixture of both
- Sesame seeds (optional)
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Add all ingredients except the flour, sesame seeds and oil into a food processor and pulse until you get a rough pasty like mixture. Add the flour and pulse again until combined
- Take a tablespoon of mixture and roll into a small ball. Repeat with the rest.
- On a plate, add sesame seeds and roll the balls until covered with seeds if you are using them.
- Use your palm and slightly flatten the balls and chill for at least 10 minutes or until you are ready to cook them.
- Pour enough oil to about 4cm in height and heat over medium high heat.
- Add the falafels in batches and fry for 3 minutes per side or until crispy and golden. Drain on paper towels
- Serve immediately with salad, garlic or tahini sauce, pita or flatbreads.
Cornmeal Crust Zucchini
Another version I prepare of this flexible squash. This time encrusted with cornmeal that is in most Caribbean pantries.
- 4 medium zucchini (courgettes)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp pepper
- 3 eggs
- Cornmeal for coating
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Sea salt for sprinkling
- Pepperoncini for garnish (optional)
- Slice each zucchini in half lengthwise and then repeat slicing crosswise in thirds to get 6 pieces.
- Crack eggs in a bowl, add turmeric, garlic powder, ground ginger, salt and pepper and whisk until combined.
- Pour some cornmeal in another bowl, start out with about 250g (a cup’s) worth, add extra if needed.
- Dip a zucchini slice in the beaten egg, then dip in the cornmeal to coat. Repeat with the other slices.
- Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat. Once hot, add zucchini in batches and fry for a minute per side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
- Sprinkle with salt and serve.
Jerk Pumpkin with Mozzarella
I was “jerking” vegetables before it was “a thing”. Anyone who has followed my career knows this. I enjoy creating with pumpkin, the Jamaican variety is special. The creaminess of Italian mozzarella tempers the spice of the pumpkin and salty cashews, one of the island’s indigenous nuts, makes another appearance. I have a cashew tree at home whose fruit blesses us each year with juice and nuts. My side dish is spicy, creamy and crunchy.
- 1 medium pumpkin, weighing about a kilo, seeds removed and cut into cubes
- 2 tbps Jamaican jerk marinade (mild or fiery depending on your heat tolerance)
- 2 tbsps vegetable oil
- 200g mini mozzarella pearls (or a regular mozzarella ball, cut into small pieces)
- 200g roasted and salted cashews
- Cilantro leaves for garnish
- Preheat oven to 400F(200C) and get a sheet pan ready.
- In a large bowl, add pumpkin pieces, jerk marinade and oil, toss to coat and tip out onto sheet pan and spread pieces out.
- Roast for 35 to 45 minutes.
- Transfer to serving platter and top with mozzarella and cashews, garnish with cilantro and serve.
Jacqui ‘JuicyChef’ Sinclair, founder of Nyam & Trod, is a British Jamaican award-winning chef, writer, and food culturist. She is a co-founder of Kingston Kitchen, an annual food event supporting food artisans. Jacqui has been an advocate of the Meatless Monday Global movement in Jamaica since 2011. Jacqui’s work has been featured in such publications as the Huffington Post, the Jamaica Observer, Saveur, The Jewish Post and numerous blogs. She has appeared on the Travel Channel’s ‘Bizarre Foods’ with Andrew Zimmern and Food & Wine’s Jamaica episode with Kwame Onwuachi.