The great thing about living in London is the amazing diversity of international produce. It can get a bit monotonous at the usual supermarkets (although they have been trying recently), but if you're willing to go off the beaten path just a little and shop local there are an abundance of ethnic grocers dotted around your local high street where you might be able to buy something a bit different.
Even without a world class market like Brixton or Dalston on your immediate doorstep, you'll be able to find great exotic produce within a mile of home. Take Caribbean food for example. London has the largest Caribbean population in Europe, and their tastes are very well catered for.
The weather wasn't the greatest this weekend so we took a trip to one of our local fruit and veg shops in Holloway for some dinner inspiration. Seven Sisters' Road supplies a pretty diverse demographic - you can find grocers supplying all sorts of produce from Albanian to Zimbabwean, and many in between. When we spotted some salt cod & hardough bread dinner was solved, and we were inspired to recreate an old Jamaican favourite for brunch the day after.
Salt cod (also known as saltfish) is very common in Caribbean and Latin American cuisines. It was actually introduced to the region via Portugal, where it's known as Bacalhau. 17th century sailors would preserve cod in sea salt for long trade expeditions to their colonies, and before long it had crept into the varying cuisines of the entire region due to its abundance and versatility. Salt cod is very salty, so it's commonly served simply with potatoes and eggs. In Jamaica, of course, they prepare it a little differently.
Jamaica's national dish, ackee and saltfish, is a vibrant celebration and culinary affirmation of the country's rich history; its links with colonialism, its abundance of natural wealth and the ability of its people to make something special out of what they've been given. Ackee and saltfish makes for an irresistibly moreish dinner served simply with a side of rice or fried dumplings and shredded lettuce or, as is tradition on occasions such as Christmas, with sliced plantain on toasted hardough bread (more on that later) for a hearty brunch. Think of it as the Caribbean answer to salmon and eggs on toast. We recently gave birth to our baby girl so we've had to keep our meal prep relatively simple, needless to say we ate a fair bit of salt cod this weekend..
Note: before we delve into how to make this iconic favourite, a few of you are probably wondering "what the fackee is an ackee?"
Synonymous with Caribbean (and particularly Jamaican) cuisine, ackee is a sour berry in the same family as the lychee. It's actually native to West Africa, where it's known in some countries as soapfruit. It isn't popularly eaten on this side of the Atlantic, and is used instead as - you guessed it - a natural soap! Despite being a fruit it is mostly used in savoury dishes, and is basically always found pre-blanched, brined and tinned. This changes its texture and flavour to the creamy and slightly earthy delight that British Caribbeans are all too familiar with. It's a rare pleasure to enjoy the tartness of a fresh ackee outside of the Islands, however. In fact, raw ackee can be poisonous, although you'd have to consume a fair amount. If anyone has actually tracked down fresh ackee in London please do let us know!
Prep Time: 20 mins (plus 5-8 hours soaking time)
Cooking Time: 30 mins
300g Saltfish (cod or pollock)
1x Tinned ackee (540g)
Scotch bonnet pepper (to taste)
3x Sweet peppers (red or green, or both!)
1 tbps Thyme
1 tbsp Black pepper
1. Saltfish requires soaking in water to release some of the preserving salt. Either cod or pollock will work - we're using cod. This recipe isn't necessarily the quickest, but is relatively simple to prepare with a little organisation. If you have time, leave the fish standing in a bowl of cold water in the refrigerator the evening before but if you're pressed for time you can get away with a few hours (at least 3-4) in lukewarm water with a couple rinses in between. After soaking, the fish will soften to a more recognisable texture. Drain and pull apart into flakes and put aside. Note: better to buy boneless fish if you can, however be prepared for the odd bone to slip through the net, so to speak. Just fish these strays out of the bowl if you come across them..
2. With the fish soaked, dice the onion and peppers and throw them in the saucepan with the thyme and black pepper on a low simmer with a splash of vegetable oil. Leave to cook for about 5 mins, stirring occasionally, then add the saltfish and cook for a further 10 mins. Some will argue blind that only red peppers will suffice, others say only green. We've opted for both - to all the Caribbean cooks, which do you prefer?
3. Make a well in the center of the saucepan and add the ackee. Stir gently - be very careful as ackee is delicate; you want to try and keep it as whole as possible (don't worry about it breaking up a little). Once stirred, leave to simmer for another 5 mins then remove from the hob ready to serve.
4. When buying plantain, bear in mind the ripening process. Plantain is edible from underripe (green) to overripe (almost black), however the flavour can vary drastically at each stage. This makes for a very versatile ingredient that is used in a number of ways across various cuisines. Like most fruits, the riper the sweeter, so . It's all a matter of preference, but for this dish we prefer ours slightly sweet without being too distracting. Cut the plantain diagonally into slices, we went for about about 1/2cm thickness. Grill or fry for around 1-2 mins per side, until golden brown (slightly charred is fine).
5. Hardough is a dense enriched loaf, as the name suggests, and slightly sweet. Think Cholla with more kneading. It can be found in most Caribbean/ethnic grocers, or some supermarkets with robust ethnic selections. We've griddled ours to get the fancy lines but simply toasted it's equally tasty! Top with the ackee and saltfish, add a layer of grilled plantain and garnish with spring onion and - if you're a bit more adventurous - some fiery scotch bonnet hot sauce.
And, of course, enjoy.