Spence: Ackee, Saltfish and Coconut Oil

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By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

Ackee and saltfish.  These are the words that every Jamaican, from before they could walk until they can’t walk anymore, knows and loves.   For most, it was and is our comfort food; our breakfast, lunch and dinner

It’s the great culinary equalizer, being just as much the poor man’s food, as it is the rich man’s food, omnipresent on tables of every class and hue.

Whether it be the firm soldier (or cheese) ackee or the softer butter ackee variety, we all have our preference.

However, there are many who are not even aware that there are different types.  But I am an ackee aficionado.

Only the firmer soldier ackee will do for me (hence the name), as it stands up to cooks’ whirling and twirling of the spoon or spatula as the other requisite ingredients are incorporated into the Dutch pot or, simply, the Dutchie. It doesn’t break apart and keeps its shape and delicate flavor as a singular component of a more complex dish.

The perfect and most authentic ackee recipe, in my opinion, consists of freshly- picked, cleaned and scalded soldier ackee, reconstituted salt codfish with bones and skin on, the requisite diced onions and tomatoes, crispy fried pieces of corn pork cut in bite sized pieces such that each bit displays a section of lean, fat and skin, some fresh thyme leaves, a pungent scotch bonnet and a considerable dash of  black pepper.

Last, but certainly not least, is the most important ingredient and the one that seems to be missing from the renditions I come across today: coconut oil.

Authentic old time ackee and saltfish was always swimming in coconut oil. That was the element of the dish that was used to perfectly marry all of the ingredients together creating a balance with an aroma that would tantalize and pull you out of bed on a Sunday morning.

How did this authenticator of our national dish, this omnipresent medium for cooking all things Jamaican get demoted from the highest ranks of the kitchen and all but disappear?

It turns out that politics, economics and a smear campaign against saturated fats in general, and coconut oil in particular, led to its demise. Cooking with coconut oil became un-cool and unhealthy. The only questionable part about all of that was that incidence of heart disease began to skyrocket once the use of these newer, so-called healthier oils were introduced.

OLD TIME SOMETHING COME BACK AGAIN!

Luckily, with modern lab testing, independent, in-depth research studies and a renewed interest in holistic medicine, coconut oil is has emerged as a highly-recommended daily nutrient, aiding in all areas of health and nutrition from fighting tooth decay to aiding in weight loss. This confirms what our elders already knew all along; that coconut oil is of top benefit to your health and well being in addition to being one of the best and most flavorful oils to cook with.

So brush off that old recipe from your mom or grandparents, get a hold of some virgin coconut oil and get started on the tastiest ackee and saltfish you have had in years.  I have provided a favourite recipe of mine below.  Feel free to steal it and make it your own. Cheers.

Ripe’s Ackee & Codfish Recipe

Serves 4-6

1/2 lb Dry Salted bone-in, skin-on, Codfish

14 Fresh Soldier (also called cheese ackee) ackee or 1 can of ackees (drained)

1/4 pound corn pork (boiled to remove some of the salt and cut into bite sized pieces)(optional)

1 medium onion, sliced thin

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 stalk scallion, chopped fine

1 large tomato, med dice

1/2 scotch bonnet pepper

2 sprigs fresh thyme, hard stems removed

1 Tablespoon black pepper

1/3 cup coconut oil

Salt-to taste

Codfish Preparation:

Codfish can be soaked in water overnight, then put to boil when needed, but that’s the long method.

Instead, it can be boiled twice just before cooking to achieve the same result quicker, which is to remove the excess salt from the flesh and soften the codfish for flaking.

Wash the excess salt from the dry codfish and put in saucepot filled with water and bring to boil, then remove from heat.

Drain water and repeat process using fresh water and this time boil till tender and the codfish looses a significant amount of its “saltiness”, or to your personal taste, about twenty minutes. Codfish fillets and salted Pollock fillets* are usually more tender and less salty than bone in codfish, so shorten cooking times accordingly.   Depending on how salty the codfish is, you may not need to add any additional salt to the recipe.  Remove fish from water and cool.  Flake into small pieces and hold. If using bone-in salted codfish, remove as many bones as possible while flaking.

*Salted Pollock fillets are a good substitute for salt cod and can be used as a substitute in this dish, though the flavor is a little less complex.

Ackee & Codfish Preparation:

Add half the coconut oil to large sauté pan over medium heat and add chopped salt pork.  As pork begins to sizzle, add onions, garlic, scallions, tomatoes and thyme.

Reduce heat and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, till onions are softened, about 15 minutes.

Add ackee, flaked codfish, scotch bonnet pepper, salt and black pepper.  Gently fold over to incorporate all ingredients, trying not to break up the ackee, as it can quickly turn mushy if over stirred. Check for spiciness, and remove scotch bonnet pepper if your heat level has been met. Cover and cook over low fire for another 10 minutes till ackee and codfish is warmed through and all ingredients are well incorporated. Remove from heat. Add remaining coconut oil for additional flavor and texture.

A simple trick to create a wonderful scotch bonnet pepper aroma in the dish without adding too much heat is to just gently rest the scotch bonnet pepper on top of the ingredients in the sauté pan for the last ten minutes of cooking, covered, and remove it when the simmering is completed.

Though this dish uses a lot of coconut oil, it is actually good for you.  Coconut oil is one of the only stable cooking oils which does not lose its rich nutrient content when heated, unlike other vegetable oils including olive oil. Omit the pork and you have a healthy vegetarian dish.

Serve with any variation of the following: boiled yam, green banana, Irish potato, fried, roasted or boiled breadfruit, or rice.

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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