By Nigel Spence
The Northeast has been experiencing a very wet winter. Every other day has been a mix of snow, sleet, rain, ice and generally gloomy weather. It is at these times that I begin re-thinking my decision to live here, with my mind conjuring up images of ice cream, the beach or playing in the pool in my backyard in Jamaica. That pool I dream of is actually a ginormous old rusty cast iron bathtub that we would fill with water from the hose and pretend that we were living the life of the rich and famous. It worked in the summer heat and I would settle for sun and heat that came with that makeshift pool right now. But without the sun and fun, this frigid weather just screams for a big pot of soup!
Trying to maintain the Flexitarian lifestyle pushed me to get away from the meat-based soups and chowders, and got me thinking of a satisfying vegetable soup preparation. I suddenly had a flashback of making cream less carrot soup for a party while working in the kitchen at my Alma Mater, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
It is here that I encountered the first American chef that enjoyed scotch bonnet peppers as much as I did or dare I say even more than I did. He was the instructor in one of my “skills kitchen” classrooms, and one of only a handful of chef’s who hold the title of Certified Master Chef. The requisite exam to gain such a title is the equivalent of the “Iron Man Challenge”, except in the kitchen, and to date only 67 chefs in the entire country have been able to add that title to their resume. He was also a freak for anything Caribbean, including the ladies.
This was in the mid 1990’s when Caribbean flavors and high levels of spice and heat were not yet a part of the culinary scene, much less in the CIA’s professional kitchens. Most of the chefs I encountered during my time at the Institute knew very little about Caribbean cuisine nor the ingredients and frankly didn’t care much about it either. I was immediately impressed by this particular Chef’s vast knowledge about scotch bonnet peppers in particular and Caribbean cuisine as a whole. Caribbean students were few and far between at the school during my time there, so once this chef identified me as being Jamaican, he singled me out with special intensity and would have a new list of questions to ask me each time we encountered each other. He would talk about ingredients from other parts of the Caribbean that even I knew nothing about.
He instilled in me the importance of travel, and encouraged me to taste everything, and to ask as many questions as possible to get the best understanding of a particular cuisine or culture in order to respectfully represent their ingredients and style of cooking. In addition, he said the food knowledge required to truly elevate your craft comes from experiences that cannot be learned from a textbook.
I now understand more clearly why he zoned in on me the minute we met. He immediately saw value in me to get that very information about the cuisine he was secretly passionate about, that he also felt was on the verge of making a huge impact on the culinary scene. I began to appreciate that it was this insatiable hunger for knowledge that truly made him a master of his craft. Here is a man who had gone through all the rigors of what it takes to pass the most grueling examination in the industry, yet still humble enough to hang on to every word pertaining to Jamaican cuisine from a novice kitchen worker who barely knew how to hold a chef’s knife correctly!
Whenever I went home for the weekends I would return with fresh scotch bonnets for him and whatever other obscure ingredient he had never seen or worked with before, such as fresh sorrel. Each time I showed up with a bag of goodies, he would open it with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas morning – with that look of curiosity, surprise and happiness all in on facial expression, as he snatched up the fresh breadfruit from the bottom of the bag.
It turned into a game between us where I would stump him with a new ingredient fresh from a store shelf in the Bronx Caribbean market and he would stump me with how he chose to prepare it.
I truly cherish those moments with this chef, and the many techniques I learned from him and feel very privileged and lucky to have worked under him.
The recipe below is extremely simple to prepare but is so rich and complex and delicate in flavor. Apart from the obvious ingredients, a trick with kosher salt plays a major role in the texture and flavor of the finished product.
The idea of using salt to make something taste sweeter was taught to me by this chef and I have used the technique in many subtle ways in a myriad of preparations. This is one of the things that you don’t learn from a textbook, but rather from experience, and I think the best example to learn how this “magic” happens is in this simple carrot soup. ENJOY!
Cream-Less Carrot Soup
2 Tbs. coconut oil
1 large yellow onion, small dice
2 stalks celery, small dice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp scotch bonnet pepper, minced
2 tsp. fresh grated ginger
2 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch rounds
1 bunch thyme, tied together with kitchen twine with enough rope to tie on the handle of the pot, also a few leaves for garnish
2 Quarts vegetable stock,
Coconut milk for serving*
Kosher salt to taste, after cooking is completed.
In a stockpot over medium heat, warm the coconut oil. Add the onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and scotch bonnet pepper, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add the stock, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the sachet of thyme and tie the rope to the side of the pot for easy retrieval at the end of cooking. Cover and simmer until the carrots are tender – about 20 minutes.
Remove the sachet of thyme, then using an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth. Add more stock if needed to reach the desired consistency.
Now comes the secret technique. Slowly add kosher salt to the pot and stir. Magically the soup will begin to taste a bit sweeter and a bit creamier. Keep adding till the soup reaches your desired sweet/saltiness and soup’s texture a bit creamier. The science behind it? I dunno! An American Master Chef taught me this in culinary school about 100 years ago and the science behind it slips this old alcohol abused mind.
Ladle the soup into warmed bowls. Get a spoon in that coconut milk* and put a nice dollop on top of the soup and garnish with thyme leaves and serve immediately. Vegan. Gluten Free. Deliciosa!
*To use the coconut milk as a replacement for crème fraiche or cream, use the canned version, do not shake the can before opening, as the liquid would have separated from the cream from the can sitting undisturbed. This makes it easy to pour off the liquid leaving the thick cream in the can which is used in place of crème fraiche or cream.
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 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 endeavor.