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Italian and Jamaican food: Jacqueline Greaves vision

jacqui-cooking-2New York is perhaps the city in North America where the culture is at its best in all its forms, from art, cinema and food. Oh yes, because the food is also culture and perhaps the most important part. Some assert that we are what we eat. In the last years, the attention for food and its ingredients, the culinary culture in general, has definitely expanded not only in Europe, where it was already huge, but also in the American cities, in particular New York. Here We interviewed Jacqueline Greaves, passionate about cooking and researcher of new flavors to combine. Jacqueline was born in Jamaica and raised in New York, where she married an Italian man. The mix of traditional Italian cuisine with the Jamaican colors, the freshness and versatility of its food, makes Jacqueline’s dishes uniques, delicious and aesthetically fascinating.

Hello Jacquie, tell us about your passion for food. Where does it come from?

My passion for food, I believe comes from growing up for the first ten years of my life in a country where food was fresh, to the point where chickens would be killed right before being cooked, fruits and vegetables might have been plucked from the garden, and not purchased in a store. Yet when the large supermarkets appeared, I remember the joy of tasting a plastic wrapped sugary cake that caused my sister and I to be in heaven. However, when we moved to New York I stopped eating fruit and vegetables and I certainly stopped eating ice cream and other sweets. They had no flavor and chicken just didn’t taste the same. I have been on a constant search for the flavors of my childhood, of the flavors and aromas of my grandmother’s pots.

You have developed a unique genre of cuisine, which is the combination between Jamaican and Italian food. How do you mix the two cuisines without losing the identity of each one of them?

It is very simple. It is what we eat. My husband is Italian, and I am Jamaican. My children are Italian-Jamaican being raised in New York. They like both, but they like Italian food with the seasonings and spices of Jamaica. Even my husband is used to those flavors, and Italians who come to my home will be served authentic Italian food, but the hand is always Jamaican.

jacquie-cooking (1)How and where do you find the inspiration on what to cook? 

Inspiration comes always from a memory. So it could be a meal in someone’s home or in a restaurant. Rarely is it from a cook book, because it is the flavors, aromas, textures, presentation and even the expectation that can make a dish intriguing. I want to improve upon the flavor. I am known for taking my bottle of pepper into even the finest restaurants. I have Italian friends who just add cheese to make their dish more tasty. I add pepper, hot pepper to excite my taste buds. Sometimes it is boredom that inspires me. If I am moving around Italy I don’t get so easily bored, but as you say there is a sort of rigidity to how things are cooked, and Italians, I should say in general, don’t use a lot of herbs and spices but I do, and my culinary culture demands it. Jamaica is the land of many people and we are influenced by culinary cultures that include African, Chinese, Indian, Arawak Indian, Sephardic Jewish coming from Lebanon, Syria, etc., Portuguese, Spanish, English, and I could go on.

What do you consider to be your best dish so far?

I have no clue, as I have so many. I do make a Caribbean Tiramisu that everyone likes. Surprisingly enough it is not made with coffee, in spite of Jamaica having one of the most prized coffees in the world. I do it with citrus, oranges, lemons and limes. I use banana bread or lemon pound cake instead of the cookies. It is super yummy.

Is Italian food very popular in Jamaica?

Well, we have some Italian restaurants (meaning Italians own and run them) and pasta is served in most high-end restaurants. I would say we like it but we love Jamaican food. Besides, and I know this will horrify you and your readers, but Jamaicans don’t like their pasta al dente!

People are now starting to say that food in the US is becoming pretty good. Do you think this is true only for the big cities or throughout the whole Country?

jacquie-antonio (1)Oh my food has gotten better. When we first moved back to New York twenty-two years go, we couldn’t even get basil that tasted like anything. The food industry has had to change as food is now a big deal. All of those food shows, especially the reality game shows have moved focus to food. People expect to eat well. When I was in university, between studying all the students watched soap operas. Now, they watch the Food Channel. It is amazing! Even little children are hooked on those shows. Because of what people hear about freshness, flavor, etc.,etc., they expect better products. Food is also super expensive, so I want to get the best for my dollar. We are also an incredibly diet oriented nation, so there are the paleo diets and the gluten free diets and so many more. We read articles every day about food, and there are restaurants and bars and supermarkets everywhere. Outdoor markets like in Europe are popular and people like to think they are eating healthier and shopping better.

Do you like using alcohol, such as wine or beer, when you cook? 

Oh no, not at all. Even my tiramisu has no alcohol. Unless you are doing something special like risotto with a Barolo, or a Panamanian arroz con pollo that uses beer there is no reason to use alcohol as far as I am concerned. A lovely glass of wine or two with your meal, or a beer with your pizza is all you need. Why use it for cooking?

You often use the expression “food for talk”. What do you mean by that?

Actually that is my logo: Jacquie’s Food For Talk. What it means is that there are two sides to cooking. One is that the food is so good that people will be amazed and will talk about it and want to return. The other thing is that the food is so good that people will naturally relax and enter into a conversation with each other. Ideas will flow freely because your food has created an ambiance of conviviality. The table has always been the center of discussion, whether political, religious or familial. Food and talk are going together, and a lovely heart warming meal can create an atmosphere of harmony, allowing for even the most difficult of topics.

You have created a food-blog named Jacquie’s Food For Talk. What is your goal with it?

My goal really is to show how important our culinary cultures are. Society is based on rituals and traditions, and one of the things I really love about both our countries are the strong culinary traditions. We in Jamaica can trace some of our dishes to Africa, to the Portuguese Sephardic Jews, the Chinese as well as the Arawak Indians, and that is just to name a few. Our country’s motto is “Out of Many One People”. Do you know what that means? It means stop with the nonsense and value all of the races and cultures that make us up. Italy is fantastic because every region has it’s own culinary tradition that reflects the people who were originally there and those who slowly but surely entered in, bringing their flavors and traditions with them. That is the beauty of humanity, and I want people to return to those roots and to celebrate them.

Would you please share with us an exclusively recipe for our starving readers?

I would love to share this chicken dish, which seems difficult, but is not at all really.

Caribbean Stuffed Chicken with Coconut Ginger Rice 

Serves 6 – 8

Preparation: Marinate overnight better yet, two days

Roasting: 1 1/2 hours

This sweet and sour chicken dish has a combination of spices and sweet flavors with the addition of a stuffing made from rice with rich coconut milk, sweet currants, freshly grated tangy ginger juice and citrusy orange juice.

Chicken

4-5 lb. whole roasting chicken

2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. powdered ginger, + 4 Tb juice of freshly grated

2 large garlic clove, diced

3 scallion, diced

2 Tbsp. honey or lemon syrup

½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice

2 Tbsp. soy sauce

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or better yet, coconut oil

1 Tbsp. Jamaican Jerk Seasoning

Rice

2 cups white rice, possibly long grain or jasmine

3 Tbsp. coconut oil

1 large garlic clove, diced

3 scallion, diced and set aside 1 Tbsp. 

½ cup yellow currants

1 can coconut milk (approximately 13 oz.)

1 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed

1½ cups of water

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 country pepper

4 sprigs of fresh thyme

1 hot pepper, to be removed at the end

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp allspice

3 inches ginger, cleaned and grated

zest of 2 oranges, set aside half of it

¼ cup parsley, chopped and stems set aside

salt and pepper to taste

In a Jamaican cuisine the chicken is thoroughly cleaned. This means cutting away as much fat as possible, then washing the chicken in very hot water, followed by the juice of lemon or lime. The chicken should be dried with paper towels.

In the meantime, mix all the ingredients together and allow the chicken to marinade overnight, or better yet a couple of days. This allows the marinade to really soak into the flesh and the fowl will remain moist and juicy, not to mention really enhancing the flavors. Place slivers of garlic in strategic places and small incisions can be made into the breast and thighs and filled with the garlic for more flavor. Do remember to coat the inside and outside as well as beneath the skin.

Prepare the stuffing. I love seasoned rice, so I sauté first the garlic and scallion together with the stems of the parsley and the golden currants. I then add the rice sautéing for a minute. Then I add water, orange juice, coconut milk, thyme and spices as well as hot pepper. The latter should be removed before stuffing the chicken. Bring the rice to a boil and then lower the temperature and cover until rice is cooked. Don’t overcook and stir occasionally. This should take about 20 minutes. Once cooked, add half of the parsley, orange zest and squeeze some of the ginger juice over the rice. Stir and set aside the rest of the latter ingredients until time to serve. Let the rice cool. Voila!

Preheat the oven to 425 F/220C. The chicken needs to be cooked for 1½ hours, because of the stuffing. The chicken is again dried off but please save the marinade to make the gravy and to baste the chicken. Jamaican men love their gravy. Fill the cavity of the chicken with approximately ¾ cup of rice, and leave the remaining stuffing on the side. Tie the legs together.  I like to cook my chicken on a rack. This allows me to add water and the steam also keeps the meat tender. The drippings drop down as well into the water. Baste the chicken before putting it in the oven.  I try not to baste more than three times thereafter because opening and closing the oven causes the chicken to be less crispy on the outside, and increases cooking time. I like to end up with the breast side down. When the chicken is tender and there are no more juices flowing from the thigh area (use a skewer to test) remove the chicken and cover with foil to keep warm.

The juices from the chicken and the remaining marinade are joined in a saucepan and slightly reduced. Remove the stuffing from the chicken cavity if you wish to carve the chicken before serving. It would then be added to the remaining stuffing and add approximately 1/3 cup of gravy to the stuffing. If not, just add the gravy to stuffing that was set aside and place in a serving platter. Don’t forget to add the remaining ginger juice, orange zest, scallion and parsley. Sometimes I place the stuffing in the middle of the serving platter and place the carved chicken around it. Or, place the whole chicken on a serving platter and garnish with sliced oranges and parsley. Or you can decorate with slices of fried or baked plantains.

Substitution:  If you can’t find Jamaican Jerk Seasoning you can substitute using a mixture of fig jam mixed with Hot Pepper Sauce and Worcestershire Sauce. Also, if you can’t find allspice increase the amount of nutmeg and ginger powders, and add cinnamon.

For anyone who is intolerant to gluten, do be careful to use gluten free soy sauce, or substitute with Coconut Aminos Sauce, which is also soy free.

by Gabriele Scarfone

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