Thursday, January 19, 2012

Recipes from the Bahamas

First a bit of blog news: if you're just joining me on my weird little gastronomical journey around the world, I'm in the process of archiving all the recipes I've done so far offsite in a much more printer-friendly format than you'll find in any individual blog entry. To view the list (and all the countries I'll be doing in the future), click on "The List" on the left hand side of this page, under the header "Pages." From there you can link to each of the individual recipes from past weeks. I hope to also add lists that organize the recipes by course and type (meat, fish, vegetarian etc.), so keep an eye out for that too.

Now on to the usual business: the Bahamas. Despite this being yet another Caribbean nation, I actually enjoyed the whole process of putting together this week's meal, which was both tasty and unusual.

Johnny cakes with crab 'n rice. I don't know if this is a traditional combination, but it worked for me!

But first a bit of history.

Considering the fact that it is a tropical paradise, the sovereign nation known as "The Bahamas" actually has a pretty dark early history. It was the site of Columbus' first landing in the Americas, which was bad news for the native Lucayans, who by 1513 had all been shipped off into slavery. The Bahamas remained mostly unpopulated for the 135 years that followed, until English colonists began settling there in 1648.

There's the Bahamas, just off the coast of Florida.

After the Amercian Revolutionary War, pro-British loyalists who had formerly lived in the US began moving to the Bahamas, bringing African slaves with them so they could set up a plantation economy. Not long afterwards the British abolished the slave trade and began resettling freed African slaves in the Bahamas. Today the descendents of freed slaves comprise about 85% of the population, which means that Bahamian cuisine has a strong African influence, shaped of course by the tropical foods that are readily available on the islands.

So I decided to start my psuedo-trip to the Bahamas as a tourist would, with conch fritters, which I'm told are something of a requirement on the menu of every restaurant on the Bahamian islands. When I was a kid we had a conch shell (pronounced "konk") sitting on our patio, so it's kind of a childhood memory thing for me although I can't really say I ever thought about what it might be like to eat one. In case you've never seen a conch shell:

This is a conch shell, just like the one we had on our patio when I was a kid.

They are beautiful, big, and unsurprisingly difficult to find in a California supermarket. I did, however, locate a canned version on I ended up spending $20 on four cans. Yes, I really wanted to try eating conch. Of course now I'm stuck with two extra cans I have no idea what to do with. Maybe I can find a conch recipe that includes dulce de leche, which I also have an extra five cans of. Haha.

Here's the recipe for conch fritters (from AllRecipes):

For the fritters:
  • 1 ½ - 2 lbs, conch meat, ground
  • ½ green bell pepper, diced fine
  • ½ red bell pepper, diced fine
  • ½ yellow bell pepper, diced fine
  • ½ white onion, diced fine
  • 1 celery rib, finely sliced
  • 1 teaspoon jalapeño chile, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp Jamaican jerk seasoning
  • Water
  • Vegetable oil for frying
For the dipping sauce:
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise

Note: this recipe makes about 30 fritters, so as an appetizer if you made the whole recipe you'd be able to feed between 10 and 15 people. I actually did about 1/6th of the recipe, which given my third grade math skills was not easy, and it was still too much for me and Martin.

The second recipe I hit on is also very popular in the Bahamas, though it sounds like it might be a bit less touristy and a bit more traditional than the conch fritters. Here it is:

Crab 'n Rice
(from The Bahamas Islands)
  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 5 tbsp tomato paste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 4 cups water (traditional) or crab stock (my tweak)
  • 2 cups long grain rice
  • 2 cups canned or soaked pigeon peas
  • 4 whole crabs

Now the thing about crab 'n rice, as prepared in the Bahamas, it's usually made with land crabs rather than sea crabs. If you don't know what a land crab is, prepare to be horrified:

Hey, isn't that the thing that tried to eat Frodo?

OK, actually that is a coconut crab, which is a kind of land crab that doesn't live in the Bahamas. I just wanted to freak you out. This image kind of went viral a couple of years ago so it's all over the internet and I have no idea who to credit for it. I wish I did, because I would ask that person where the hell he/she got a lens long enough to take that photo, because I wouldn't personally get within about three or four miles of that thing.

Actually the land crab you will find in Bahamian Crab 'n Rice is more like this one:

A Bahamian land crab is a little less scary.

Which only grows up to just over a foot in size, which is still actually pretty damned big, and I wouldn't really want to see one of those climbing into my trash either. Anyway you can't get land crabs of any kind at my local Safeway, so I just used regular run-of-the mill crabs, of a variety I can't actually recall at the moment. I'm pretty sure any kind will do since I'm told that land crabs taste pretty much exactly like the ones that come out of the ocean.

For my third recipe I decided to do Johnny cakes, which are popular all over the Caribbean and which I've passed up until now because they just seemed a little too much like the cornbread recipe I always do with chili. The Bahamians do Johnny cakes a little differently, though (without cornmeal) so I decided that it was a good time to try them. Here are the ingredients:

Johnny Cakes 
(from The Bahamas Islands

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 2/3 cup whole milk

And I also decided to do a dessert, which really, I don't know what I was thinking. What happened to my resolve to lose another 20 pounds this year? Oh I know, it weakened in the face of a Bahama Mama carrot cake (from The Bahamas Islands):

For the cake:
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups grated carrots
  • 1 cup crushed pineapple, drained
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/2 cup shredded coconut
  • 1/2 cup raisins
For the frosting:
  • 1 8-oz package of cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Note: I couldn't find a Bahama Mama carrot cake recipe that included a frosting recipe, though one did suggest using a cream cheese frosting. The above frosting recipe is just a generic version I found on one of the big recipe sites.

So I had all these plans made and was ready to go, then Martin said, "If it's the Bahamas don't we need rum?" Well OK, I guess a cocktail would go down pretty well with all that. Here's the one I picked:

Banana Orange Daiquiri
(from The Bahamas Islands

  • 1 1/2 cups sliced banana
  • 1/2 cup light rum
  • 1/2 cup sweet and sour cocktail mix
  • 1/4 cup concentrated orange juice
  • 30 ice cubes
Yeah, a little frou-frou I know. But it does contain the required rum.

My kids were home all day Monday, which meant I had all morning and most of the afternoon to pursue this little venture. I started with the carrot cake, since it needed to bake and then cool completely before it could be frosted. As cakes go, this one is pretty easy:

First mix the sugar with the oil and eggs. You'll end up with a big schloopy mess like this one:

This is just eggs, oil and sugar.

Next, add the dry ingredients and mix well. Fold in the carrots, walnuts, coconut, pineapple, raisins and vanilla extract.

Yum. Don't you just love cake batter?

Pour the batter into a greased 13x9 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

Here's where I ran into a bit of trouble: my hour was up just as I was supposed to be leaving the house to take Dylan to his Kung Fu class. I opened up the oven and discovered that my cake was still jiggly in the middle. Dang. I set the shut-off time for another 20 minutes and then hoped for the best. Fortunately, when I got home the cake was just a little crispy around the edges but solid in the middle, so it worked out OK.

Mine was a bit too dark around the edges, but it didn't affect the cake experience at all.

Let the cake cool completely, then make the frosting:

Cream the butter with the cream cheese, then gradually add the sugar and vanilla. Try not to eat it all before you have a chance to get it on the cake. Now just slather it on the top of the cake and put it on a high shelf in the fridge, far, far, far out of the reach of your children. And husband.

Damn you, and your deliciousness.

I did the Johnny cakes next. They are better served warm, but as always I didn't think I was going to have time to bring it all together at the same time so I did mine in advance. The recipe is kind of weird and I had a hard time believing it was going to come out OK. Here's how it's done:

Mix all the dry ingredients together, then cut in the shortening. Work the mixture with your hands until the grains are about the size of rice. Then add milk until you get a soft dough (I had to use a bit more than the recipe called for).

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. I did not actually use my bread machine for this. I know you are shocked.

This is a lot like a pastry dough.

Let the dough rest for 10 minutes, then transfer it to a greased 9x9 inch pan. You will have to press it down so it fills in all the corners. Poke the top of the dough a few times with a fork.

Now put it in the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. You can tell it's done when it starts to turn a little golden around the edges.

Johnny cakes taste a little bit like a traditional English scone.

The next thing I did was prepare the crab. I started by chasing my kids around the house waving dead crab bodies at them. This was a lot more fun than actually cracking the crabs, which is what I had to do next. I'm really bad at cracking crabs. I can never get all the shell out of the meat.

I chased my kids around with these. Hahaha.

After you're done cracking the crabs, you can use the shells to make stock, which is what I always do with crab shells since seafood stock isn't usually readily available in the market where I shop, and it comes in handy when making fish curries. In this case I also used it to make the crab 'n rice, which was a bit of a cheat since I couldn't find any recipes that called for anything other than water. But I just felt like it might be bland if I didn't use a stock to cook the rice, so I deviated. 

In case you're interested in making crab stock, here's how it's done:

Dump all the crab shell into a big stockpot and cover with water. Quarter an onion and drop it in the pot with about 10 whole peppercorns, a half cup of dry white wine, 3 or 4 sprigs of parsley, 1 teaspoon of salt and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the stock through a piece of cheesecloth (I usually just use a fine-mesh strainer). Use it up in a day or two or you can freeze it to use later.

Crab stock is made with crab shell, onions, tomato paste, peppercorns, some parsley and a little white wine.

Next chop up the vegetables and fry them in the oil until they are soft. Stir in the tomato paste and seasonings, adding a little more oil if you need to. Saute for a few minutes until the flavors are incorporated.

Saute the onions and peppers.

Add three cups of water (I used non-traditional crab stock) and bring to a boil. Add the pigeon peas (Remember the pigeon peas from back in Anguilla? I still had half a bag left over, which was pretty convenient) and crab and let boil for five minutes or so.

(Note: I had to add liquid since the mixture seemed really dry before I'd even put the rice in it. I ended up using about twice as much as the recipe called for).

My mix was pretty dry, so I had to add extra liquid.

Add the rice, return to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Let simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed (about 20 minutes).

While the crab 'n rice is cooking, you can work on the fritters. I did all the prep work in advance so I'd be serving the fritters just as the crab 'n rice was finishing. Here is the method for the fritters:

First pulverize the conch meat. I used my handy little food processor, which has pulverized many a meat including ham, lamb and kangaroo.

This is ground conch.

Now sift the flour over the bowl containing the ground conch meat. Stir until the flour coats all of the meat.

After you add the flour, the conch should look like this.

Gently fold in the chopped vegetables and the herbs, then add some water. The trick is you want just enough to bind it all together but not so much that the batter becomes runny. Here's what it ought to look like:

The batter should be pasty, but not too wet.

Heat up the oil in a stockpot. You want about two inches worth in the pan. It's ready when it bubbles up around the non-stirring end of a wooden spoon.

While the oil is heating, you can make the dipping sauce. Just whisk the three ingredients together in a small bowl.

Scoop up some of the fritter batter and flatten it out into the spoon. You kind of want them to be a little thin because you don't want to end up with fritters that are burned on the outside and raw in the middle. These aren't sushi fritters.

Heap the batter onto a spoon--you'll probably want it a little flatter than pictured here.

Now drop them into the oil. Flip them once during cooking so they will cook evenly.

There's something really satisfying about watching food in a deep fry.

When they are a nice golden color on both sides take them out and drain them on a paper towel.

Finished fritters. Mine were slightly overdone, but still really tasty.

Serve hot with the dipping sauce. Don't forget to serve the dipping sauce or you'll be annoyed when you see it sitting forgotten on the counter top next to the cooking oil.

The fritters work pretty well with the banana orange daiquiri if you can manage to squeeze it in between all the other things you're doing. Fortunately it's pretty simple:

Put the banana slices, the rum, sweet and sour mix and orange juice concentrate into a blender and pulse until smooth. Add the ice cubes one at a time until you get a nice slushy texture.

Frou frou, anyone?

A couple of notes about this recipe: I think it really needed more rum. I couldn't really tell I was drinking a cocktail. Also, this recipe is supposed to make six drinks. I halved it and barely got enough mix to fill two margarita glasses. So I think you could probably keep two people happy if you did the recipe in its entirety. With more rum.

The verdict--conch fritters: yum. Except that the meat was so mild, I couldn't even tell I was eating shellfish. Though very basic, the dipping sauce (when I remembered it) was actually a nice compliment though it further disguised the flavor of the conch. The crab 'n rice was also delicious--it was kind of earthy, which was quite different from most of the rice dishes I've done recently. Sadly, my lack of crab-cracking prowess kind of put Martin off the rice since he found a few bits of shell in his. Note to readers: Make sure you pick through your crab meat carefully. Or just buy it already cracked, which is what I'll probably do next time.

The cocktail was really good and I particularly enjoyed having it in the kitchen with me while I finished making the meal. Maybe I will have to do this every time I cook. (Hmm, a good idea or just the first step down a long, sad road?)

The Johnny cakes were probably the biggest surprise of the meal. They were tasty. I mean really, really tasty which was unexpected considering how simple the recipe was. I'm definitely putting these in my side dish rotation. I also think they would be great for breakfast, warmed up with a little honey and butter.

Finally the Bahama Mama carrot cake. Oh my god, yum. I had to ask Martin to get the leftovers the hell out of the house to share with his coworkers, which he forgot to do, which meant I ended up eating like five pieces of it, which meant my quest to lose another 20 pounds got shelved for another week. This was also the only part of the meal my kids really got to try. Hailey ate a slice then had a complete spaz attack because I wouldn't let her have seconds. This was quite possibly the best carrot cake I've ever had.

So yeah, it was like my billionth culinary trip to the Caribbean this year but one of the better ones, and definitely a lot of fun to prepare.

Next week: Bahrain.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. I just received in my email that you have completed Bahamas. Firstly, Yum! Re: Johnny Cakes, we have own Johnny Cakes, completely different from Bahamas; similar in the ingredients but instead we rolled it up in balls (the size of a meat ball) and fry it. I know u have plenty of resources via internet but there's a book we have in our family and I always recommend it to friends "The Real Taste of Jamaica" by Enid Donaldson. I keep have to be going to the bookshop and buy one because my friends keep taking them (yes the same Jamaicans who probably master most of the dishes already) but it's just a really great book. I was on my way to get another (for myself) and I thought of you. Now I don't know how you'll get it, and for safety reasons you and also I don't want u to just give out your mailing address. So discuss it with your husband and get bk to me on a safer way to get it to u if u're interested. Amazon has it but it's a bit more expensive than what it actual cost in Jamaica. I'm on Facebook, you can message me there DarrenRoyena Murphy (my husband and I share same a/c :) I know some think it's corny...we don't care). Let me know, ok.

  2. I checked out the price again. On Amazon it's going for US$99.98, in our bookshop it's for JMD$1,800; that's approx. US$20.

  3. Hi Royena, thank you for posting and I actually am interested in that book ... one of my husband's favorite meals is Jamaican jerk chicken with peas and rice. They actually do have the paperback version on for quite a bit less than the hardcover one, so I'm going to pick up a copy and use it when I get to Jamaica (and probably before, since my husband is so partial to Jamaican food). Thanks so much for the tip!


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