By Nigel Spence
As you may have read, multiple times I am sure, my favorite time of year is December, my favorite month of the year is August but my all time favorite weekend event of the year happens every September – Labor Day to be exact – right here in the Big Apple. I am referring to the New York Caribbean Carnival and Parade (more popularly referred to as The West Indian Parade) which is held in the city of Brooklyn and happens along the Eastern Parkway.
This year marks 50 years in which our Caribbean brothers and sisters have been coming together, enriching the world with our Culture, Cuisine, Arts, Costume-designing talents, Music and not to mention, “how to get on baaaad!” ; in this area, I can truthfully say I have shared most generously!
One thing Caribbean people are famous for is knowing how to party and this event is just a huge, blown-up illustration of that. From the first drum pan lick, there is no stopping the fun and excitement…
Amidst the noise and celebration, however, I could not help but think back to a time growing up when this weekend was the total opposite for me – my least favorite. This was partially due to the fact that it was the last weekend of our Summer holidays which meant getting ready for school later in the week. I don’t just mean having your uniforms washed and ironed or arranging your school books in your brand new school bag – Nah – more like “wash out” time, “de-worm” time and the killer of all – a visit to Cupid.
In those days, I had no concept of why children had to suffer the atrocities of drinking some smelly, hot substance simply called “herb tea” that tasted like the funeral home of a bunch of insects, then had to spend the rest of the day camping out near the bathroom to give back, at a moment’s notice.
In THESE days, I understand why and now welcome a “likkle herb tea” for those special moments (lol). In addition, now that I am older, my interpretation of smell is a little more refined. It seems the odor of insects was actually the fragrance of the herb leaves – Ha!
As for the visit to Cupid – that was by no means remotely related to being struck by any “love” arrow – instead the weapon of choice here was a huge pair of barber scissors. Cupid was the name of my Dad’s barber of many years and somehow our father felt the need to pass on the tradition. That in itself would not be so bad if the man neva scrape off every strand of hair on our heads!
The whole summer you spend grooming the new growth – brushing it slick with a little vaseline for good measure so when you made tracks you were looking fine… all that workmanship wiped away in a single chop at Cupid’s.
If anyone had ever taken a photo of the three of us (Dad, myself and my brother) leaving the barber it would closely resemble the three monkeys “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” – not by looks of course, but have you seen their ears? I can laugh now, but trust me there was nothing funny about it when you looked in the mirror and the only thing you could see was “Mr Spock” (Star Trek) staring back at you! You ever got boxed on your ears? Or had an “ear full” of jokes at your expense? (no pun intended).
The trouble is nowadays, I would definitely welcome the need to visit a Cupid since of late I seem to be maintaining a permanent trim (lol) – things and time bwoy…
All that end of summer activity always included reaping of the scotch bonnet peppers we had growing in our yard. My mom loved the heat and fragrance they produced during the end of August into the first few weeks of September and boy did they flourish during that time.
I would pick a whole basketful in the morning before school and it would seem like there was a whole new batch ready to be picked by the time I returned home. We would always end up with more than enough for the neighbors and friends who came to visit, and I would sneak a few to the new teacher for a few points in his/her books. Apart from bribing the new teachers, another trick with peppers that I learned over the years was how to preserve any particularly fragrant batch of peppers by making a scotch bonnet salt.
Yes, one could argue that it would be just as easy to make a batch of pepper sauce using vinegar and/or lime or lemon juice and the other usual suspects, but there is something to be said for the simplicity of this preparation.
I find that it does a superior job of preserving the natural flavor profile of the pepper without the added input of the other ingredients popular in a pepper sauce – mustard being one of the most common. When that curried goat seems to be lacking the punch you remember from the last memorable plate you may have consumed, it’s usually that fragrance and flavor from a good scotch bonnet that’s missing. Neither pepper sauce, nor a frozen whole pepper you saved from the summer can match the love coming from salted scotch bonnet peppers, which is actually preserved by the salt anyway.
The recipe for this could not be simpler. You SIMPLY add the peppers to a mortar and pestle along with your choice of salt and pound away until it turns to a chunky paste.
Put in a clean bottle and store in the fridge until ready to use.
Remember to adjust the salt requirement in your recipe if using this salt.
It works great when rubbed all over a whole fish when roasting in the oven or in foil.
My choice of salt is kosher salt or slightly coarse sea salt.
The coarser salt crystals work better to form the paste in the mortar and pestle or a few quick pulses in a food processor. The blender doesn’t work well nor does regular fine crystal table salt, as it changes the texture completely into a smooth paste which somehow doesn’t do as great a job of preserving the flavors over time. I guess it may be because too many of the oils from the pepper have escaped and get oxidized.
You should still be able to identify pieces of the peppers’ flesh mixed in with the salt, so I still think the mortar and pestle should be your first choice albeit more labor intensive.
Scotch Bonnet Salt
20 Whole Fresh Scotch Bonnet Peppers roughly chopped
1/2 Cup coarse Kosher Salt (or sea salt)
Put both ingredients in mortar and pestle and pound until it is the texture of a chunky paste.
Work in batches if your mortar and pestle is not big enough to hold everything at once.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 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 cook offs 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.