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Love and Jamaican Food

February 17, 2013 | 7:11 pm | Print

By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

A few months ago I was approached to film an episode for a cooking channel. The idea behind the show was to highlight typical aphrodisiac dishes from across the globe to showcase for a Valentine’s Day airdate.

It got me thinking about what food we Jamaicans would cook or order from a menu for that special interest in our life on a date night.

With our naturally enthusiastic love for our cuisine, it was difficult to make that call as to what would constitute a true aphrodisiac date night food.  After all, which other country’s national airline uses ads with captions of food markets and Ackee and salt fish to drum up business?

Jamaicans breed food.  Pardon the pun.

So I had to dig a little deeper to come up with the only thing that made sense to me — conch.

From my past experience with fishermen around the fishing villages in Jamaica, I remembered that coming back to the shores after a long night on the water meant a morning full of scaling and cleaning of the night’s catch.

If that included conch, it involved cleaning these oversized snails’ meat pulling the meat from the shell raw, whole and intact.  As the meat released itself from the shell with a firm tug, it would then reveal what is called the “tail” or the “rod” or the “pistol,” each name correct depending on what part of the island you were experiencing this fisherman’s ritual, with the newest name in town being “Nature’s Viagra.”

It is a long, gelatinous, slimy looking piece of gooey meat like part of the flesh that is only consumed raw when it is immediately removed from the shell, to impress all onlookers — in particular those of the opposite sex — and done ultimately to improve performance in bed and boost the chances of conception.  Yes, all of these promises come from a piece of gooey snail meat.

So, this was to be my featured dish … well, almost.  The producers also requested an aphrodisiac drink to be added to the mix.

That wasn’t too difficult to come up with, as Jamaica probably has more concoctions to heighten libido than anywhere else on the planet, but the difficulty was finding one sexy enough to serve on a date.

Front End Lifter, Bedroom Bully, Lead in the Pencil and others were just a bit too straight to the point as far as the names were concerned, without even approaching the ingredients, which were sure to scare even the most open-minded partner.  As such, these drinks were not going to fit the bill for a fancy drink to order from the bar to enhance the evening’s possibilities.  Curative came to mind rather than sexy.

Then I had a break through. While thinking of all of the wild Jamaican aphrodisiac blends out there, Irish Moss stood out.  Irish Moss was the talk of the town amongst us teenagers as the thing to drink to make that girl especially akin to wanna be with you again.

Ahhh, the good old days of being carefree and young.

Still consumed in great quantities across the island as a supposed libido builder, I have never seen a recipe for it being used as an ingredient for a dish.

My “cheffy, spidey” senses starting buzzing immediately!

I reasoned that Irish Moss is an algae that grows on rocks near to the seaside, and when boiled, it thickens in texture and has a quite briny flavour, just as most mollusks do, including conch!

I figured, logically, that if the Irish Moss had all of these properties, it would probably be a great ingredient in any seafood dish, where you were looking to add to the flavour, and texture.   So my experimental concoction was born.

I now had a successful date night in the making.

I just brought two most unlikely ingredients together to solidify the perfect union.   I am a matchmaker.  I am the Jamaican Culinary Cupid.  Conch and Irish Moss, finally finding each other together in one dish.

Work with me here, this was a process…

Irish Moss, to most Jamaicans, is strictly a health drink made by soaking the plant in water overnight, then boiling with gum arabic and isinglass to create a thick consistency, which is then cooled and sweetened with sugar, cow’s milk and/or condensed milk and a combination of other flavourings including but not limited to strawberry syrup, linseed, cashew and peanuts, etc; all of which is meant to increase the potency of the potion.

As with most recipes that claim to boost sex drive, there are many variations all of which claim to be the original and the best and is surrounded by a bit of mystery and hype.

The only thing different about this particular recipe, is that I couldn’t get a definitive answer as to why gum arabic or isinglass was added to the mixture, yet it was a standard ingredient in every recipe I found.

After countless enquiries and dissecting many a recipe, I came up with my own theory. General consensus had it that the thicker the concoction, the more potent it was thought to be.  Irish Moss thickens as it is boiled in water and has a distinctive briny taste of the sea before any other ingredients are added. But, as  physics has generally taught us, the viscosity of a liquid slowly weakens the more it is diluted.

Gum arabic and isinglass are primarily used as thickeners in baking and confectionary, without contributing  any appreciable difference in flavour.  By adding these two inexpensive thickening agents to the mixture, you need a lot less of the more expensive Irish moss to keep the thick texture. My not-so-scientific conclusion is that it was economics that created that recipe.

Since the curried conch dish I planned to make was already considered a stew, and already touted to be an aphrodisiac in its own right, I only needed a small amount of Irish Moss to take the dish to that next level of sexual prowess, and also thicken the stew even more as a bonus.

To take it a step further, instead of discarding the bits of Irish moss left behind after boiling, I instead added it to the stew for some additional textual complexity and to further boost the flavour of the finished dish. Additionally, instead of adding cow’s milk as is done for the beverage version, I instead used coconut milk since the flavour marries well with any curried dish.

In my own humble opinion, it was a marriage made in heaven.

I tested the recipe on all who were willing to try and kept getting requests for seconds and thirds.  Of the dish that is! Success?  Maybe. Hopefully.

I can’t say for sure if this unlikely combination would yield any additional benefits on a date night, but it sure makes for a happy partner while consuming, as it is delicious and has great eye appeal with the addition of the colourful vegetables that you will see in the recipe that follows.

So with this in mind, why not explore the possibilities of this (or any other) unusual combination of textures and flavour from the sea this Valentine’s weekend, or any other weekend that you’re feeling sexy.

You never know, it just might get you to that next place where you want to be.

Caution: if all fails, get chocolates!

RECIPES

Curried Conch

1 1/2 lb Conch, peeled, cleaned, pounded to tenderize.

10 cloves Garlic, sliced thin

3 tablespoons Curry powder

3/4 cup chopped Spanish Onion

1/2 cup chopped Red Peppers

1/2 cup Green Pepper

1/2 Scotch Bonnet pepper, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Butter

1/3 Cup Cilantro, finely chopped

1/4 Cup Coconut Oil

2 Tablespoons Butter+ 1 Tablespoon butter

1/3 cup Irish Moss Mixture (optional)

Directions:

Place Conch in Large Saucepan and cover meat by 2 inches with water. Add Butter.  Bring to a boil (watch for foaming over onto stove). Turn down to a simmer for approximately 20 minutes or until conch is tender to the bite. Allow to cool in the water.  Remove conch and cut into bite sized pieces.

Return the pot to a boil and allow the juices from the cooking process to reduce to 1 cup.

Heat another saucepan with coconut oil and add garlic, onions, peppers, and cook over medium heat till soft and onions are translucent.  Add curry powder and cook an additional 5 minutes stirring occasionally to incorporate all and allow curry to toast slightly.

Add the 1 cup of cooking juices and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.  Add Irish Moss mixture, salt and pepper to taste and continue cooking stirring occasionally for 15 more minutes.  Curry will thicken after adding the Irish Moss mixture.  Turn off heat and stir in 1 tablespoon butter and chopped cilantro and serve immediately over steaming white rice.

Irish Moss Mixture

2 oz Irish Moss (washed well to remove salt, sand and grit, then soaked for at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours in cold water to re-constitute)

2 Cups Coconut Milk

3 large Ice Cubes (or about 1/4 Cup very cold Water)

Directions:

Drain Irish Moss and discard soaking liquid. Irish Moss should be almost translucent, soft and pliable.

Put Irish Moss, Coconut Milk and ice cubes in blender and blend well until all the Irish moss pieces have been pulverized.  Stop blending half way through and scrape down the sides and lid of blender of any remaining pieces of Irish Moss.  The warmer the mixture gets, the thicker and more pasty it becomes, and will begin to stick to the sides of the blender, so try to keep it cool. The coconut milk can be put in the fridge to stay cold before blending.

Jamaican Vegatarian Style Irish Moss Drink

2 Cups Water

2 Cup Almond Milk (can substitute any milk, coconut, soy, cow, goat, sheep)

1/3 Cup Irish Moss Mixture

6 strands Isinglass (optional, can be eliminated for vegans, but mixture will be less thick, so more moss will be required to keep the consistency the same)

3 pieces Gum Arabic

1/4 Cup Ground Linseed (flaxseed)

3/4 Cup Sugar (or to taste)

2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract

1 Teaspoon ground Nutmeg

2 Tablespoons Jamaican White Rum (optional)

Directions:

Heat water in saucepan over medium heat with milk, Irish moss mixture, isinglass, and gum Arabic and flaxseed. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer till all ingredients have been dissolved and incorporated and mixture thickens – about 30 minutes.

Turn down to low heat and add sugar, vanilla and nutmeg and continue cooking, stirring occasionally for another 10 minutes.

Remove from heat.  Any tiny pieces of moss remaining in the mixture are edible but can be strained out at this point if preferred.

Allow to cool in the fridge for at least 3 hours, as the beverage is traditionally served cold.  The mixture with thicken more as it cools off.  Depending on your personal taste, you may loosen the mixture slightly with water and/or milk, and adjust sweetness before consuming/serving.

Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.


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