Winter: a time of quiet frosts, evenings by the fire, solitary walks. That’s the UK, not the Caribbean! Typically colourful, loud and festive, Christmas is a time like no other, even in these islands renowned for their party lifestyle.
Naturally, the Caribbean Christmas isn’t just one thing. The parties on different islands are as diverse as their individual histories. On some islands there are parades featuring huge papier-maché figures: witches, women with cow bodies, men on stilts twirling garlands and throwing flowers. In others there are street celebrations with dancers, jugglers and reggae. St Lucia holds a Festival of Light, and in the Grenadines the party lasts for a whole nine days with different events leading up to the climax of Christmas morning. In the French heritage island of Guadeloupe, the party goes on until the 6th January, with the arrival of the Three Kings, distributing presents to the children. It’s a bewildering variety of celebrations, tied together by scent, music and of course, food and drink.
Invoke the Caribbean Christmas feeling by cooking up a party time feast for family and friends here under the grey skies of England. Use warming spices to make you feel festive and spicy chillies to sparkle your tastebuds, whisking you away to warmer climes and scented air.
Start with a choice of cocktails based on Caribbean flavours: punchy minty Mojito, invented by Sir Francis Drake when he dropped anchor off Havana, or a fruity creamy Banana Daiquiri.
Move on to shredded slow cooked jerk pork,spicy black beans and rice set off by citrus glazed carrots and the juicy tang of grilled pineapple salsa.
Follow that by Cake de Ron – Cuba’s famous Rum Cake, oozing with sugar and delicious spiced rum. Calypso dancing optional but add some Caribbean sounds and garlands of paper chains to make your party really go with a swing!
Simple and sophisticated all at once. Mint, rum, limes and sugar, that’s all you need. And ice. To serve a crowd, you will need either a bartender working full speed or make up a whole jug of Mojito ahead of time and have someone ready to stir and pour, although the genuine cocktail is made carefully each in its own glass, taking the time to muddle the mint into the syrup. I quite like to set up a cocktail station and hand the task over to a guest who I know can be a bit shy – giving them something to do and keep their hands busy is a great ice-breaker and there’s the bonus of being extremely popular as people taste the cocktail and shower the creator with compliments. You will also need to assign a “runner” to the cocktail station to fetch more mint or crush more ice on command.
Makes one Mojito
50ml white rum
25ml sugar syrup (can be bought or made yourself ahead of time)
Handful of fresh mint
½ lime in chunks
Place the rum, syrup, lime and several sprigs of mint in the bottom of quite a large heavy glass and “muddle” them with a proper muddling tool or with the end of a wooden spoon. You should take your time over the muddling; you aren’t smashing or pureeing it. Add crushed ice to the brim of the glass, then top up with sparkling water. Serve with a straw so your guests can choose how to mix up the layers – strong rummy sweet minty liquid at the bottom or lighter icy sparkle at the top. Garnish with another sprig of mint and maybe a jaunty slice of lime.
Creamy, delicious and fruity. The original Daiquiri, invented in Cuba in 1900, consisted only of lime juice, rum and sugar combined with shaved or crushed ice. It must have been very like the original Mojito too, but now the two cocktails are delightfully different. Along the way, some genius decided to add fruit to the blended mixture and the Daiquiri we know and love was born. You can use many fruit flavours, but banana was made in heaven to pair with rum and gives such a lovely creamy texture, it has to be the best. You can make up a jug full by multiplying the quantities; stir well on serving to mix up the layers as it might separate if left to stand. Although it seems unlikely that any party with interested guests is going to let this jug of wonder stand for any length of time. It’s a deceptive cocktail. Feeling gentle and fruity, it slips down easily; if you wanted to reduce the alcohol content you could substitute another shot of sugar syrup for the Cointreau.
Makes one Daiquiri
50ml white rum
25ml banana liqueur
25ml fresh lime juice
25ml sugar syrup
A handful of ice cubes
Simply blend all the ingredients together until a smooth creamy liquid can be poured out of the blender into your tall frosted glass.
Caribbean Slow Roasted Jerk Pork
A real party centrepiece and an ideal dish for a celebration! A Caribbean breath of allspice and nutmeg rises from the roasting tin along with the hot tingle of chilli. Guests serve themselves to the tender spicy meat, enjoying the rich aroma. Spoon the meat over freshly cooked rice, add a scoop of black beans, a dollop of charred pineapple salsa and a dab of creamed avocado and you have a meal to please all the crowd. You can make the pork up to two days ahead, warm it up in the oven when you need it. It’s very tolerant of standing for an hour if covered, so there’s no last-minute dash or standing over a hot stove while your guests drink all the Mojitos.
Serves 10 Timings: Overnight marinade, then 4-5 hours cooking
3kg piece of belly pork, with the rind scored
Marinade: 2 teaspoons ground black pepper, 2 teaspoons ground allspice, ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg, 2 teaspoons dried thyme, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 3 Scotch bonnet chillies, de-seeded, 4 cloves garlic, one medium onion, peeled.
2 tablespoons of Chilli sauce and Sweet Chilli Sauce, 1 tablespoon of balsamic sweet vinegar
Put all the marinade ingredients in bowl and blend to a paste. Cover the pork with the paste, massaging into the flesh, and in the gaps of the rind. You might want to wear cooking gloves to do this or be sure to wash your hands extremely well afterwards as you’ll regret touching your eyes with hands that have been peeling Scotch bonnets.
Place the pork in a dish (you can cut it in two if it makes it easier) and leave overnight in the fridge, turning occasionally.
Pre heat the oven to 165°C. Place the pork in a roasting tray, skin upwards, and cover with kitchen foil. Roast for 90 minutes, then turn up the heat to 180°C. Roast for another 2 hours. Every now and then pour off the cooking juices into a jug - there will be quite a lot and it will separate into the fatty part and the meat juices which carry a lot of flavour.
Take the cover off the meat and roast for another hour to let the skin start to cook down into the meat.
Take the roasting tray out of the oven, drain away the juices and carefully separate the skin away from the pork. Remove the skin and discard. (You can separately sizzle up the crackling later by frying in deep fat if you like.) Pull the bones and any cartilage parts out of the soft and tender meat and tear the meat into shreds with two forks. Place back in the oven while you make the sauce.
Separate the meat juices from the fat. Pour the juices into a pan and boil down until reduced by at least half – taste as you go along and experience how the flavour deepens. Add the chilli sauce and sweet chilli sauce and the balsamic vinegar. Continue to simmer for a few minutes. When you have a glossy sharp-smelling sauce, pour it over the meat in the roasting tin and mix well. Roast for a further 30 minutes, turning every now and then so the sauce is absorbed and the meat is starting to char at the edges of the tin. You can add a shake of Tabasco and a sprinkle of salt and pepper before serving if you think it needs extra spice.
Black Beans with Peppers and Garlic (vegan)
A traditional part of the Caribbean Christmas table, a dish of tasty black beans is also a great vegan offering for a party gathering. They’re even better and deeper flavoured made it ahead of time and they freeze well too. It’s worth using dried black beans rather than a tin, they have a stronger flavour, but you could certainly use a tin or two if you’re short of time. A tin of the little darlings is a great storecupboard standby for a quick dish of beans when unexpected visitors land on you. I don’t usually have leftovers from this, but if you do, add them to a ratatouille to change it into a bean stew, with all the goodness and flavour from all those wonderful vegetables.
Serves 8 with some leftovers Timings: overnight soaking, 4 hours cooking – can be done ahead of time and warmed up or frozen
650g black beans, washed and picked over for bits of grit
Soak the black beans overnight in plenty of water.
De-seed and de-stalk the green peppers by cutting round the stalk and pulling out the centre, wash to get rid of the seeds. Peel the garlic cloves and pop them into the green peppers. Place the beans and the garlic filled peppers in a large saucepan and add cold water to cover the beans by about 2cm. Add the bay leaves. Bring the pan to the boil, and simmer over a low heat until the beans are softened – about 3 hours. You could do this in the slow cooker and it would take about 6 hours.
While the beans are cooking, grill the red peppers until the skins blister and char all over, then place them in a glass bowl with a plate on top to steam and cool. When cool, you can rub off the skin very easily and remove the centres and seeds. Set aside.
When the beans are cooked, let the pan cool for 10 minutes. Take out the green peppers and garlic – the garlic should have stayed inside the peppers but search through the beans to make sure you’ve got them all. Put the green peppers, garlic, half the red peppers and a cupful of beans with their water in a blender with the relish and ground spices and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Blend up to a thick paste and add back into the pan of beans along with the remaining red peppers, chopped up into small strips. Stir into the beans and taste. Add a slug of olive oil and more lemon juice, more salt if needed and a good grind of black pepper. Traditionally, they shouldn’t be too spicy, just a friendly warmth.
Re heat the beans, adjust the seasoning as you like, and then allow to cool a bit before you serve – they will thicken as they cool and you want that slightly thicker texture.
Roasted Carrots with Citrus Mojo (vegan)
The flavours of orange and carrot match so well. In the Caribbean you would use sour oranges, similar to Seville oranges, which are ripe at Christmas to make the mojo sauce for these carrots. If you can get Seville oranges, use those, but if you can’t, just use normal sweet oranges and add some lemon and lime juices to the mix.
Roasted carrots have that lovely slightly burned edge and texture which you don’t get by boiling them, and of course the tray of carrots can go in the oven alongside whatever else you’re cooking for an easy side dish to your roast. Carrots are very tolerant things and you can peel and chop them ahead of time – even the day before you cook if you keep them in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the fridge and also make the mojo ahead of time so you can throw it all together as you need.
The only caution I would give is that the carrots cook down to a much smaller portion than you think, so if you have hungry big eaters in your family, add a few more carrots to your bowl!
Serves 8 as a side dish Timings: 90 minutes from scratch but preparation can be done ahead
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic, peeled and squashed with salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
150ml orange juice
75ml lime juice
75ml lemon juice
Peel the carrots and cut them into batons, about chip sized. Par boil them for 5 minutes in plain water, then drain.
Make the mojo sauce by blending the onion, garlic, spices and juices together until you have a creamy sauce. Mix this with the carrots and spread them out on a metal baking tray. Drizzle lightly with vegetable oil.
Pre heat the oven to 180°C.
Roast the carrots for 30 minutes, then turn up the temperature to 200°C and roast for another 40 minutes. You need to stir them and turn them every now and then to make sure they roast evenly.
Charred Pineapple and Red Pepper Salsa (vegan optional)
This just makes any meat dish sing out loud. The fresh pineapple, crunchy pepper and tangy lime juice combine to refresh your tastebuds and enhance the meal. A spicy meat really benefits from the contrast with the juicy sweet salsa. Griddling or charring the pineapple adds a slightly smoky depth which makes all the difference.
Serve as a side dish to the Slow Roasted Jerk Pork.
Serves 8 Timings: 30 minutes
½ a fresh pineapple
50g butter for grilling (or use margarine for vegan version)
1 large red pepper
1 red chilli
1 medium red onion
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 teaspoons honey (or use plant syrup for vegan version)
Peel and core your fresh pineapple and cut it into rings. Melt the butter and brush the rings with it. Fire up your griddle pan and place the rings on the griddle for about 3 minutes a side to get those nice charred stripes and the slightly burned taste. If you don’t have a griddle pan, use a frying pan, you will still get the flavour. Let the rings cool and cut them into slivers, place in a bowl.
Peel, de-seed and chop the red pepper into small dice, and peel and chop the red onion to the same size pieces and add them to the pineapple. Squash the garlic with salt, de-seed and chop the chilli and add to the bowl. Stir in the honey and the lime juice, sprinkle over a good teaspoon of salt. Stir and taste, depending on how sweet your pineapple was you might need more honey or more lime juice.
Stir to combine the flavour and serve at room temperature.
Cake de Ron – Cuban Christmas Rum Cake
A fitting finale to a special meal. Rich and luxurious Rum Cake, drizzled with rum and banana syrup and icing, topped with griddled pineapple pieces. Sprinkled with edible gold dust and icing sugar, it just about dances off the plate. Add a dollop of whipped cream and you’re in Caribbean heaven.
The islands of the Caribbean are quite keen on a dark fruit cake, like our own Christmas cake, which contains rum rather than flavouring with brandy. But Cuba has to be different, and prefers a lighter sponge with no dried fruit, which is ideal for a party. I’ve not come across a cake recipe with double cream in before, it makes the cake very rich and smooth and helps absorb the alcohol. The rum is cooked out in the oven so the taste is quite subtle; even those who are not big fans of rum won’t find it overpowering. If you wanted a stronger taste you could soak the cooked cake in a mixture of rum and sugar rather than the syrup, but in that case take the cake out of the tin first before you drizzle as it would loosen the structure.
Add any decorations your heart desires, the sparklier the better. It is a party, after all!
Makes one 23cm bundt cake, or a normal 25cm cake if you don’t have a bundt mould. Makes 10-12 slices.
300g self raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
350g salted butter
300g golden caster sugar and 3 teaspoons vanilla sugar
2 eggs and one egg yolk
The zest of one lemon
200ml double cream
100ml good dark rum, can be spiced rum if you like the flavour
50ml banana liqueur
For the syrup: 100g butter, 80g granulated sugar, 50ml dark rum, 50ml banana liqueur
Grilled pineapple, icing sugar and water icing for decoration
Pre heat the oven to 180°C and grease your cake tin. If using a bundt tin, grease especially well as they do tend to stick.
Sieve the flour and baking powder. Whisk the butter and sugar together until creamy, add the lemon zest. Add in the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of flour each time. Measure the cream, rum and liqueur into a jug and add this a bit at a time into the mixture along with a spoonful of flour each time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure it’s all mixed well and beat until you get a creamy, slightly fluffy mixture. Spoon this into your cake tin and bake for 50 minutes to an hour until risen, golden on top and a skewer comes out clean.
Meanwhile, make the syrup. Melt the butter in a small pan, add the sugar, rum and liqueur and stir to dissolve. It will bubble up. Cook for a few minutes but don’t let it caramelise. Cool.
Griddle your pineapple slices or pieces. Brush the pieces with melted butter and place on your griddle pan to get those charred lines. If you don’t have a griddle pan just fry gently until slightly golden. You want a charred outside but still crisp and juicy inside.
Remove the cake from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Poke holes with a skewer, being careful not to go all the way through the bottom of the cake and drizzle the syrup over. Leave 30 minutes to soak in and turn the cake out onto a plate to cool further.
When the cake is cool, make a water icing by mixing icing sugar with a couple of spoonfuls of water (or rum if you want that extra flavour) and drizzle over, letting it drip down the sides. Decorate with the pineapple slices and dust with icing sugar and gold dust. The cake will keep in the fridge for a couple of days but is really designed to be eaten that day or the next at a big noisy party.