In the quest to keep some semblance of cool this summer, a lunchtime buffet of chicken pulsing with dark, multi-dimensional spice might seem an unlikely ally.
But as the sweltering season rages on, as the heat index starts to read more like a stock index than a reasonable temperature, you take help from any corner. And lately I’ve been looking to Caribbean cooking.
On weekdays, Boswell Atkinson augments his regular menu — escovitch fish, akee with saltfish and the like — at Boswell’s Jamaican Grill with a lunch buffet, and jerk chicken is always the star attraction. Moderately spicy on its own, it’s a ready vehicle for more of the thick, swirling, earthy-brown jerk sauce Atkinson keeps handy in squeeze bottles on the plywood bar and glass-topped tables of his Tulane Avenue restaurant.
“It’s the most popular dish, and I try to make it as authentic as possible,” said Atkinson, a native of Jamaica who has run his Mid-City restaurant since the 1990s. “It doesn’t have to be really spicy — some people like it mild — but it’s part of its character to be spicy. When people get jerk, they want that heat.”
The chicken is not mind-bendingly hot, but it is assertive, fully capturing your attention, building both in heat and in complexity. Your face may flush. You may start sweating. But then, after the initial onslaught, the heat draws back in a long finish that feels cooling as your body adjusts. The taste experience can be exhilarating and, after the initial onslaught, even refreshing and reviving.
That’s part of the appeal of spicy food from across the world’s hottest climates, as Indian, Thai, Mexican and other cuisines aptly demonstrate. Each has its nuance, and the one emanating from our Caribbean neighbors across the Gulf adds its own distinctive flavors and tenor.
Chile heat is more than a traditional element of Caribbean cooking. It’s also a point of pride in many Caribbean kitchens, and around New Orleans that finds different expressions at some widely divergent restaurants sharing island heritage.
Two miles from Boswell’s, the tiny Bayou Road restaurant Coco Hut is another outpost for jerk. The proprietress, who goes by the name Mother Nature, holds court in an open kitchen behind a narrow counter, and on a recent afternoon she showed off a paper grocery sack filled to the brim with the various chile peppers she uses, tumbling a few through her fingers as if brandishing precious doubloons. Ghost peppers, Scotch bonnet peppers and habaneros are all part of her jerk recipe.
Their presence is evident enough in the final result, as the potent blend of peppers and spice are worked into chicken or pork or various fish, sometimes whole tilapia (other times cuts of tuna or red snapper) all served in foam cartons packed to capacity.
High end, high heat
While Boswell’s and Coco Hut are homespun affairs, a Caribbean penchant for peppery spice also extends to Compère Lapin, the Warehouse District restaurant from the famous “Top Chef” alum Nina Compton. One of the most high-profile restaurants to open recently, Compère Lapin has a contemporary design and carefully composed dishes with French and Italian overtones. But Compton, a native of St. Lucia, did not hesitate to bring a dose of island heat, threading her menu with a handful of boldly spicy dishes.
“It’s just something I grew up with,” she said. “We had habanero plants growing in the backyard. We have Scotch bonnets peppers growing.”
This shows most vividly in her hot fire chicken, a lunchtime entrée that seemed to be on at least every other table during a recent visit. It’s a dish conceived in heat, thanks to the Calabrese chiles imbuing its overnight brine. Once fried, the chicken’s craggy crust is thickly painted with a rusty-red sauce giving flavors of paprika, ginger and allspice and revved up with cayenne and potent Fresno chiles. Bite in and the flavorful juices of the chicken bursts through, carrying a lingering, spicy warmth, with ribbons of squash and carrot and pickles and mango gleaming with vinegar for contrast.
“It’s one of those cases where you go big or you go home,” Compton said. “I don’t like food that’s just one taste. I want food that tastes a little spicy, a little acid, a little bright.”
Another angle on Caribbean flavor sits quietly at the back of a strip mall in Gretna, and it takes a little sleuthing out. Elianne Charles and her family initially opened their storefront café Taste of the Caribbean here in 2010 with dishes from their native Haiti front and center, and Haitian Creole written all over the menu. In a bid to entice more of their Latin American neighbors, however, they decided to rebrand in Spanish as Sabor del Caribe and add more Mexican and Central American dishes.
But an island backbeat remains in dishes like the whole fried fish and especially the mofongo, a Puerto Rican staple of mashed plantain also common in Haiti (where it goes by tumtum).
The food does not always begin spicy at Sabor del Caribe, but Charles delights in requests to rev up her base recipes. So for a spicy shrimp mofongo, Scotch bonnet peppers ripple through the thin red tomato-based sauce, bringing their fiery touch to the onions, the garlic and the otherwise sweet red peppers.
“At home, that is how we do it,” Charles said. “In any kitchen, there are always chiles within reach.”
A thick mango drink can temporarily tame the edge, but really there’s nothing else to do but keep eating, wipe away the sweat and wait for the relief of equilibrium. This approach is not for the timid, but it sure is more fun than just waitingfor autumn.