As a single mother to my two young children it’s sadly safe to say that I don’t have a stash of pennies large enough to be jetting off on a luxury holiday to the Carribean anytime this decade, yet with summer upon us I can’t help but dream about white sandy shores, crystal blue waters, sunshine, reggae music and mouthwatering fresh food. When the children are a little older hopefully one day I’ll get my trip to paradise, and so for now paradise will just have to come to me, and my kitchen is the ideal place to host it. With the average daily spend during a holiday to Barbados being a whopping £109.00 per day without including the cost of the hotel, it’s no wonder holidays come at a price in paradise, as costs on the Carribean island have risen by 38% in the past four years alone. Yet in comparison, the pocket friendly £30.00 average daily spend in countries such as Poland and India make it possible for families to holiday on a shoestring, it all just depends on what you’re after.
Santander have very playfully challenged me to bring the Carribean to my kitchen for under £75.00 by rustling up a Barbadian banquet from my local supermarket, which I have to say that until today I knew absolutely nothing about Barbados’s cuisine at all. Add the fact that I’m vegan and this becomes no mean feat! But I gave it my best shot and I realise as I know nothing about this cheerful culture then surely I have everything to learn, and learning is undoubtedly the best way for a person to grow.
Speaking of growing, I’ve got some holiday facts that will give you food for thought, as interestingly 60% of people use cash or current accounts to pay for their holidays, 30% dip into their savings, 18% use a credit card and 8% take out a loan or borrow money from friends and family. But if you’d prefer to spread the cost of a holiday across a period of time then it’s actually the safest way to book a holiday on a credit card, as any purchases between the cost of £100-£30,000 are protected by law, so should anything go wrong with the hotel or airline your money is safe which wouldn’t be the case if you paid any other way. Santander have a handy 123 credit card which provides 1% cashback at supermarkets, 2% cashback at department stores and 3% cashback at petrol stations, national rail and TfL, which is pretty practical for daily spends and shopping as well as when you want to get away. It pays to be a clever shopper!
But enough of the facts for now, let’s get to the food shall we, as I’m a big fan of spice with a great love for Indian and Chinese dishes, from fresh root ginger to elaborate spices, seeds and textures. I can’t say that I’m a great lover of sweets because I’m not, before turning vegan I loved a nice sticky toffee pudding with custard, ice cream and fresh cream combined, but I’ve never been one to just eat a packet of sweets, drink fizzy drinks or go crazy over coconuts, in fact I hate desiccated coconut because it’s so sickly and the first and last time I attempted to eat a Bounty bar I gagged and spat it out. So considering I’ll be cooking with three cans of coconut milk today it will be really interesting to see if my taste has changed with time.
Making my dishes vegan friendly is a lifestyle choice on my part, but it’s also highly beneficial to a healthy diet and well maintained body that can see you living longer with more energy and ability to go about your day. However everything I’m making today can accompany the meat of your choosing, you simply have to pan fry some chicken or marinade some goat to eat along with it and I’m sure meat eaters know what would work best for them. I’m also breaking another milestone today by cooking with tofu for the very first time, and I’ll be treating it exactly as I would if it was meat as it takes on the flavour of whatever you add it to.
I plan to serve six Carribean dishes for dinner today for a summertime feast for the senses. My dishes are rice and peas, chayote slaw, mango and chilli salsa, vegetable rundown, jerk tofu, banana fritters and a tropical fruit smoothie. So we should probably start with the smoothie right? Because nothing gets you in the mood for a mouthwatering meal than a fresh and fruity Carribean drink. Now I have to hold my hands up and confess that I’m a little hungover from one too many glasses of wine last night, as I was originally intending to serve pina coladas with dinner today but a fruit smoothie is far more family friendly as a mocktail, and if you’d like to add a splash or two of rum then I’m sure it will be just as accommodating on the palette.
Smoothies are seriously good fun to make and take seconds to whizz up in a blender; I start by roughly chopping up a mango, banana, two passion fruit and a glass of fresh orange juice which I blend for a few seconds to blitz into a juicy-bits thick drink before adding a handful of ice that crushes up into slush. As I don’t have cocktail glasses I’ve served my tropical smoothie in a wine glass with a coriander garnish and it looks beautifully colourful and fresh. If you’re a bit of a fancy pants then a glacier cherry and little umbrella would finish it off a treat! The smoothie is unsurprisingly smooth, thick, light, refreshingly citrus, mild and sweet because of the banana and mango. With punches of pomegranate seeds that crunch along with the blocks of crushed ice, it’s like drinking sunshine in a glass, fresh, uplifting and mouthwateringly moreish. Now onto the starter.
For starters I am making a chayote slaw on warm fried apples, a Carribean equivalent to the classic prawn cocktail if you will. I start by slicing up the chayote which is a tropical green fruit that looks like the love child of an apple crossed with a pear in appearance, yet it tastes much like a cucumber or melon. I then slice up a carrots, a raw apple, a piece of scotch bonnet chilli, a handful of cranberries and a sprig of coriander, drizzling over some lemon juice and olive oil with salt and pepper to season before placing it in the fridge. Next I take an apple and slice it into 1cm thick rings, laying them in a frying pan with olive oil to sizzle and crisp until golden brown on both sides. I serve the apples warm with the chayote slaw piled on top and it’s both refreshing and unusual.
The raw apples and pomegranate are acidic, sharp and citrus thanks to the lemon which compliments the sweet cranberries and mild chayote fruit. The scotch bonnet chilli kicks off a metallic taste which is bold and strong but develops into sweet and fruity after you swallow. This is certainly a dish of contrast and after the first few bites that startle the taste buds it’s pleasingly refreshing and spicy.
Next I move onto the mango and chilli salsa which is a side dish to cool the hot jerk meat, or rather tofu main. I’ve never eaten mango chutney and I don’t tend to use sauces with my food because I prefer to make my own. You can make the salsa as delicate or robust as you like depending on how you chop it, if you like a kick of heat and texture then leave it chunky like I have, or if you like an all encompassing flavour then chop it really fine or even blend it into a pouring sauce. To make my salsa I dice a whole mango, one red onion, a few freshly frozen slices of lime, a sprig of coriander and a chunk of scotch bonnet chilli.
The mango is soft, sweet and succulent which is a wonderful contrast to the crisp and mildly hot red onion. Adding lime gives the dish an acidic sharpness to counteract the mango, and catching a bite of raw chilli really turns up the heat sending your sense into overdrive, from hot to cold, juicy and firm. This dish is so moreish on its own I’ve almost eaten a third of it before it’s made it to the fridge to chill!
I love vegetable-only dishes and so the vegetable rundown is literally a medley of everything fresh and green from within my fridge. I’d perhaps use the same ingredients in an Asian stir fry with some vegetable stock, rice noodles and soy sauce, or in a curry with some homemade naan bread, ground spices and coriander seeds. But for this dish I’m using nothing but the vegetables for flavour and coconut milk. This should be interesting!
I start by slicing up my vegetables into strips, using a few baby corn, asparagus stems, vine tomatoes, a red onion, green beans, broccoli, a courgette, carrots, a pinch of dried thyme and some scotch bonnet chilli again, I know, literally every dish contains chilli but if you’re not one for heat then you can leave it out or add it separately. I place all of the vegetables into a frying pan and drizzle with olive oil allowing them to simmer on a low heat until they are soft and succulent. If I were making a curry or stirfry I would cook the vegetables on a high heat to flash fry them, caramelising the flavours and lightly charring the skins. But cooking them gently allows them to release their flavours, and once I add the tin of coconut milk it gradually turns from bright white to a glossy golden brown from the juices of the vegetables, and the longer you leave it the more flavoursome it becomes.
The dish has a strong taste of scotch bonnet chilli, almost metallic with heat but the smooth coconut cream cools it down leaving a burn that doesn’t overrule your sense but catches and tweaks at your tastebuds instead. The vegetables are beautifully soft, succulent and fall apart with each bite, and they’re surprisingly not sickly sweet as I was expecting from the coconut milk, instead they’re naturally flavoursome and refreshing, a naturally uplifting taste that would have been masked by adding spices and stock.
Rice and peas is perhaps the most recognised dish of the Carribean, and ashamedly something I’ve never tried before. I have to confess that when I’ve heard of rice and peas I had a vision of boiled white rice with garden peas and perhaps some battered cod, like at a chip shop only replacing chips with rice. I didn’t realise that the peas were infact kidney beans, nor that it is peppered brown coconut rice, but hey you learn something every day right?
The ingredients certainly don’t have to be specific for any of these dishes as it’s all down to taste and preference. I start by rinsing two cups of brown basmati rice to remove the dust and grit, and dice a red onion and a couple of cloves of garlic into a saucepan to fry in a little olive oil along with a teaspoon of black pepper and dried thyme. Once the onion turns transparent I tip in a drained can of red kidney beans and allow them to sizzle for a few minutes before adding in the strained rice and whole can of coconut oil, turning up the heat to bring it to the boil. You can add the juice from the kidney beans if you like, but as the coconut milk was enough to cover my rice I didn’t need any extra liquid. After a few minutes at a rolling boil I turn the rice down to the lowest heat and leave it covered with a lid for 15-20mins until the coconut milk is absorbed and the rice is light and puffy.
I then take my tofu from the fridge which comes in a squishy pale brown block floating in liquid. I slice off a piece about the size of a portion of cake and place it onto kitchen towel to squeeze out the moisture. The less wet the tofu is the better it will fry and gain texture, as it can easily crumble and fall apart, looking a little like scrambled eggs when you begin to turn it over with a fork. I fry it in a pan with olive oil on a high heat to brown it and it separates of its own accord into little chunks that resemble mince, only finer. After several minutes the tofu is golden brown with a crisp coating and squishy centre, and it tastes oddly of nothing when I try a forkful. Made from soya bean the tofu works as a healthy meat free substitute to dishes taking on the flavour of the food it is added to, and its texture resembles nuts that have gone soft when left out in the air. So today I’m treating it like chicken, as I’ve marinaded it in a jerk sauce that is tomato based, spicy and zingy and it instantly tastes amazing. I serve my jerk tofu over my rice and peas and can’t help but drool over every last bite.
The rice is light and fluffy and peas are soft and succulent with a glossy and mildly creamy coating that isn’t overpowering or even half as sweet as I expected. If I didn’t know that the rice was cooked in coconut milk I don’t think I would have guessed the secret ingredient, as it’s so beautifully flavoursome without any stock-cupboard flavouring which is entirely alien to me. It makes such a difference from having plain boiled rice or standard stock, and I don’t think I’ve ever finished my plate so quickly.
After stuffing myself silly with dinner I finish up my Carribean feast with banana fritters served over vegan friendly – shop bought – ice cream with a scattering of cranberries. I saved three of my most ripest bananas to use in my fritters, along with a cup of self raising flour, a cap of vanilla extract, a sprinkle of ground cinnamon and nutmeg and three tablespoons of brown sugar. Again the measurements aren’t too precise as it all depends on the ripeness of your bananas as to how much flour you need. I tip it all into a mixing bowl and mash it and mix it with a fork, if the mixture is too moist I add another dusting of flour to make a dough like tacky texture, and if it’s too dry you can add a splash of milk or water for a vegan friendly alternative.
Thankfully my batter was nicely moist and tacky enough to stick together and I didn’t need to add anything else to it. I then heated about a third of a pan of cooking oil until smoking hot and gently dropped little balls of batter into the oil which puffed up much like doughnuts and bobbed on the surface turning a crispy golden brown after a few minutes on each side. Placing the banana fritters onto kitchen towel allowed them to drain off any excess oil whilst cooling down a little ready to eat. You can dust them in sugar, top with peanut butter or go for an ice cream and dried fruit side as I have, whatever takes your fancy. The batter is light and fluffy with a savoury crunch, whilst the brown sugar and soft bananas are gooey and sweet throughout. I really enjoy the contrast of the hot fritters and cold ice cream, and although it’s something I’ve never thought of making before it’s incredible quick and easy and far less hassle than making cakes, so it’s certainly something I’ll do with my children more often.
My Santander Carribean vegan staycation has been a great success and I’ve learnt some amazing flavours and dishes that I’ve never experienced before. It’s shown me that food is delicious on its own without all of the additives and preservatives found in ready made meals, and although I’ve always lived on adding spice and stock to my meals I’m now more inclined to bring out the natural flavours of my food with coconut marinades more often. For something I thought would be sickly and overly sweet I’m pleasantly surprised to have found it to be mild and mouthwateringly moreish. It’s a simple, honest and wholesome, colourful and natural diet that is welcomed to my family dinner table with immediate effect. And it’s a lesson to never judge a book by its cover! So what country are we off to next?