Robert McGrath’s Jamaican Feast
It’s the beginning of a Tex-Jamaican food adventure. Robert McGrath, executive chef of Houston’s Four Seasons Hotel, and I are sitting in Caribbean Cuisine, a bare-bones Bellaire lunch-room filled with a handful of tables and the sound of an oversized calypso beat. Mock pickle barrels with stools make up the seating in a side room that doubles as a West Indian grocery. Noting a countertop TV, McGrath says, “I don’t know how they do it, but they actually have TV reception like they do in Jamaica.”
McGrath was born in Kentucky but grew up in Jamaica, where he first learned to cook. An alumnus of Cordon Bleu in Paris, he returned to the United States (“I lived in the Keys for a while – that was my transition”) and ran kitchens in New York, at the Disneyland Hotel, and at Austin’s Four Seasons. For the past year he has worked at the Houston hotel.
Although he is best known for his accomplished New Southwestern cuisine, McGrath has never severed his island roots. At the Four Seasons he has created light spring and summer menus in which island briskness meets Texas staple in dishes such as skillet-seared mahimahi on Pecos melon, and lobster-and-mango salad with poblano peppers. Looking for inspiration from an authentically earthy Jamaican lunch, McGrath is planning a meal incorporating island tradition and his own inventive touches. The result illustrates the perfect adaptability of Caribbean cooking to this neck of the woods.
“Texans should find Caribbean food pleasantly familiar, because ideally it’s cooked outside on the grill, it can be spicy, and a successful meal depends on fresh foods,” McGrath says. “The two cuisines are compatible because it’s the same philosophy – food that goes very quickly from field to kitchen to table.”
Texas, in fact, with its own tradition of hybridized cuisines and its stretches of balmy coastline, is a natural for the fresh, piquant tastes of Caribbean cooking. And the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean in recent years (especially to Houston, where reggae supersedes rock and roll in some neighborhoods) has established the kind of cultural base that can keep ethnic flavors alive. West Indian markets are springing up, and Caribbean specialty items are appearing in other Texas groceries. With a grill and a few exotic items, Texas cooks can try their hands at summery tropical magic.
To get started with our culinary research, we order fresh ginger beer, iced sorrel tea, and each of the entrées on today’s menu: oxtail, cow’s foot, kingfish, curried goat, and salt cod with akee fruit. McGrath, an energetic, impulsive man – fingers drumming on the tabletop, feet tapping on the floor – is a little wound up from running a big kitchen. His shirt is starched so heavily it crackles when he moves. “It would take a concerted effort to mellow out again,” he says. But there’s an island attitude at Caribbean Cuisine. Soon after we order, McGrath unwinds, sitting back in the booth and bobbing to the beat. Even his shirt looks softer.
Red-pea soup (made with pigeon peas) arrives in Styrofoam cups on a plastic tray. McGrath explains the special chemistry of Jamaican cooking. “By nature, it’s already an alternative cuisine,” he says. “You don’t need to add a lot of cream or butter or things from a can or a jar. Everything you need comes from the market or the sea. I find a lot of ways to get flavor from things with ginger and lime, garlic and bonnet peppers [fiery Caribbean chiles].” Caribbean food celebrates the blending of Spanish, French, British, African, East Indian, and Dutch cookery with the indigenous foods and techniques of native islanders. The flavors, recognizable and yet mysterious, reward the adventurous palate.
Our waitress delivers a plateful of fried plantains and white rice, which McGrath douses with the soup. Of the plantains (large greenish, slightly sweet bananas), the chef says, “They’re served as a starch, as an accompaniment to the meal – they’re treated the same way we treat carrots.” The second plate sags with entrées. The flavorful kingfish is crunchy with black pepper, and it whispers of bonnet peppers, a bright heat that jalapeno fanciers should find appealing. “Of the one hundred and twenty-five or so peppers that are rated for hotness, jalapenos come in only about seventy-fifth,” McGrath says. “Bonnet and Jamaican bird peppers are just about the hottest I’ve ever come in contact with.”
After a palatable cow’s foot we move on to curried goat, more tender than any cabrito. “What’s interesting about the curries is that they’re part of the tremendous influence of Indian and African cuisine on Jamaican cooking,” he says. We both skimp on the oxtail, tasty but gelatinous, then tangle forks over the national dish of Jamaica, salt cod and akees. The meat of the bland, oblong, yellow akee fruit looks like scrambled eggs and has a nutty, custardlike flavor when boiled and sautéed with fish, tomatoes, and white and green onions. McGrath accepts the suggestion that British colonialists might be responsible for the dish: salt cod and akee as the island equivalent of kippers and eggs.
We settle back to the ginger beer and sorrel tea, a claret-colored brew of dried tropical blooms (also called jamaica) simmered with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Before we leave Caribbean Cuisine, we buy a tin of akee fruit, some fresh coconut cream, and a jar of Jamaican Country Style Boston Jerk Seasoning.
The shopping continues at a Fiesta Mart, one of a chain of Houston stores that are international, almost interplanetary – jam-packed from door to rafters and abuzz with a multilingual cast of thousands. Flashing neon signs lead us from dairy to bakery and past plantains piled to the ceiling, banana leaves for sale by the yard, and acres of callaloo, a spinachlike green featured in pepper-pot soups. McGrath passes up the malanga and cassava, which are starchy tubers, but lingers over mangoes. Bird peppers are unavailable, but we do find cachuche, a gum-ball-size variety of the brassy-orange bonnet pepper. Day-Glo-green gnarly chayote squashes are plentiful, as are tamarinds, acid-tasting fruit with a brittle brown shell like a pod. The raucous scene takes McGrath back to his shopping days on the islands.
“They have a saying in Jamaica: ‘Soon come,’” McGrath says. “I call to say I need fish. They tell me, ‘Soon come.’ ‘Soon come’ can be today or tomorrow or a week from now. So you wander in markets and heap your basket with what’s fresh and plentiful and lusty ripe.”
On an aisle labeled “England Nigeria Jamaica” we find ground cassava leaves and red palm oil next to tins of tea biscuits. McGrath, who collects lethal hot sauces, nabs a bottle of Matouk’s, a West Indian relish. Finally we wheel round to the jam-up of carts at the fish mart and pick up the kingfish.
Back in McGrath’s kitchen-office at the Four Seasons, the chef surveys the afternoon’s haul. He calls a purveyor, instructing him to deliver a conch. A menu much lighter than our lunch evolves, with an emphasis on seafood and distinct flavors: baked plantains, crowder peas and rice, grilled kingfish with a coconut-and-tamarind sauce, chayote squash, and grouper with bonnet peppers in banana leaves. Giving a New Southwestern twist to Jamaica’s national dish, McGrath will smoke a salmon, break it up, and sauté the fish with akees. The conch will be central to a marinated salad. The Boston Jerk Seasoning will be slathered on a chicken before it is grilled. (In the islands, jerk men – as revered as our barbecuers – combine herbs and spices into a marinade for meats or poultry in a centuries-old tradition; Boston Jerk is heavy on chiles.)
The preparation is an easy amble of chopping, sautéing, and grilling, and the entire menu is dished up in a little more than an hour. The kingfish comes off the grill pale gold with charbroiled stripes, the heat of the bonnet peppers balanced by a smooth sauce of coconut and figgy tamarind. More volatile, but still manageable, is the spicy, smoky jerk chicken. Flecked with pale-peach slivers of bonnet peppers, the crowder peas – which have a flavor similar to that of black-eyed peas – are almost as lovely as the colorful crunchy-chewy conch salad. When banana leaves are peeled back, the grouper emerges moist and fragrant with the seaside aroma of lime and cucumber. Rich and flavorful, the smoked salmon with akees is simply elegant.
We eat in a kitchen avalanche of silverware, popping grills, and clattering china, and still McGrath’s magic works. He has prepared basic food that is finished a little finer than our lunch, with flavors more distinct and sauces more complex. The conch salad is essentially a ceviche, yet it takes on depth through the musky flavor of the mollusk. The gratin of acorn and chayote squash is delicate and custardy, a respite from the barrage of exotic flavors.
Sharing our round table is McGrath’s staff of eight chefs, who sit down together once every day for a meal. “The thing I try to promote the strongest is having fun,” says McGrath. “And the meals are the one time I really require that we stop and sit down together.” In the spirit of things, one of the cooks crowns the table with orchids. Another shies away from the peppery jerk chicken, while a sous-chef urges him on to a taste: “Hot food gives you energy!” Compliments follow the dishes as they make the rounds, and no one hesitates to fork into a neighbor’s plate. McGrath seems more than pleased. “It’s not every day I get to cook Caribbean,” he says. There are sighs of encouragement all around.
Recipe ingredients for this Jamaican feast for eight may be found in Fiesta Marts in Houston, Simon David in Austin and Dallas, most West Indian or Latin American groceries, and some oriental markets. Jalapeños or other hot chiles may be substituted for bonnet peppers. Canned Coco Lopez (sweetened coconut milk) may be substituted for fresh coconut cream; omit sugar where called for.