With Spring in the air, we tend to lighten up on the heavy winter meals to shed those pounds in anticipation of the great unveiling of the summer fashion and the body that fits in them. I start leaning heavily toward plant-based dishes with a little pop of color to match the incoming season.
While shopping at the market, I began to take note of how mainstream some tropical climate products that used to be considered exotic have become.
I am talking about big box supermarkets carrying items such as jackfruit, yellow yam, scotch bonnet peppers and breadfruit to name a few. These were usually available more or less in specialty vegetable markets, but to see green bananas being marketed to be prepared as green bananas in Whole Foods is a new phenomenon. I have to come to learn that the unrelenting search for gluten free starches are partly responsible for the surge in popularity of these items.
Well finally the rest of the world has caught up with what us Caribbean folk have been doing since “Tom was a bwoy” as my mom used to say.
With a twist on that realization at the supermarket, I decided to take a vegetable common to me in Jamaica, but use it in a way that its traditionally prepared here in the good old USA.
I spotted a beautiful, healthy light green mound of cho cho (chayote for the uninitiated) in the supermarket that called out my name as I walked by.
Now I am actually not a big fan of this oddly named vegetable from the squash family. As a matter of fact, outside of carefully picking the pieces out of my soup prepared for me as a kid, and skillfully hiding it and throwing it in the garbage when the Food Police at our table wasn’t looking, I have never really had reason to revisit this unloved vegetable that seems to be ubiquitous in Jamaican soup making.
The adult in me and the relentless search for new and interesting vegan dishes had me loading up the cart and working out that finished dish in my head all the way home.
I decided that since it is from the squash family, and Americans tend to either roast or sauté squash, I would put some dry heat on this exotic cho cho and see how it performed. I remembered it to have a mild, almost bordering on bland flavor, so I hoped that by pumping it up with some high heat, it would start to caramelize and develop some additional flavor. Adding some supporting players for color and texture would take care of the mouth feel and optics, and a powerful sauce would round out the dish and provide some lubrication for whatever starch it would be served with, if any.
My little experiment paid off well. The roasted cho cho caramelized magnificently and completely transformed the flavor and texture of this vegetable I previously considered to be as boring as they come.
Finishing it off with sauteed vegetables in a saffron coconut broth just took the dish to the moon. The total package was much greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s the making of any good recipe. Enjoy!
P.S. I have recently become a huge fan of fonio, a grain from West Africa that is taking the world by storm, thanks to the relentless efforts of a Senegalese chef in NYC named Pierre Thiam. I decided to serve the chayote with this grain, and it was nothing short of amazing! You can certainly use your favorite starch of the moment such as rice, cous cous, quinoa, etc.
ROASTED CHO CHO IN A SAFFRON COCONUT SAUCE OVER FONIO
2 Large Cho Cho, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
½ cup red Bell peppers, julienned
½ cup yellow Bell peppers, julienned
½ cup red Onions, thinly sliced
¼ cup Scallions, thinly sliced
½ cup Coconut milk
1 tablespoon Coconut oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Rub cho cho with ½ tablespoon coconut oil and place on a baking sheet cut side down. Roast in oven for approximately 15 to 20 minutes until there is a light brown caramelization on the tops. Remove from heat and set aside. Add ½ teaspoon of coconut oil to medium size saucepan and over medium heat add onions and sauté for 30 seconds, then add bell peppers and continue cooking for 1 minute more. Remove all from the pan and set aside. Add coconut milk to said saucepan and add the saffron. Stir to incorporate the saffron and bring to a boil and reduce slightly allowing the sauce to thicken to the point where it will coat the back of a spoon. Add the vegetables back and stir to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper
Put your favorite starch in a bowl, then place roasted chayote on top as the star of the plate, then pour the vegetable stew on top and all over. Garnish with the sliced scallions. ENJOY!
1 cup uncooked Fonio
½ cup Coconut milk
½ cup Water
1 tablespoon Butter
1 teaspoon Salt
Bring water and coconut milk to a boil in a medium pot. Stir in fonio and salt, cover tightly with the lid, turn the heat to low. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the water is just absorbed. Turn off the heat and gently fluff with a fork, making sure you fluff the bottom where it’s wetter. Cover again for another 5 to 10 minutes, until tender. Fluff and serve
Yield: 4 cups
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.