CARIBBEAN CORNUCOPIA Island food offers fresh, assertive, spicy flavors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's easy to put yourself in a Caribbean state of mind. Just close your eyes and imagine blue-green water so clear that you can see your toes, the perfumed scent of tropical flowers, the gentle rhythm of reggae. Then savor the food -- jerked pork from Jamaica, flying fish from Barbados, calalu from Trinidad.

During the spend-it-all '80s, many of us satisfied Caribbean cravings by cruising there or heading out to one of the ever-so-trendy Caribbean restaurants.

But, now, in the stay-at-home '90s, Caribbean mania has shifted from vacations and restaurants to the home kitchen. The reason: The one-two punch of more readily available tropical ingredients and a variety of new cookbooks has made it easier than ever to bring the islands home.

The cook-at-home-Caribbean craze has been sizzling on the back burner for a few years -- with the debut of 10 new cookbooks since 1989, according to an electronic search of the Library of Congress database. Suddenly, though, Caribbean cuisine is front burner -- with half of the books published in the past six months.

That's quite a change from when Joyce LaFray Young wrote "Tropic Cooking: The New Cuisine from Florida andthe Islands of the Caribbean" (Ten Speed Press, 1987). At the time, she says, publishers were worried that Caribbean food wouldn't play in Peoria. She's now under contract with William Morrow to write a second Caribbean book, "The Art of Cuban Cuisine," a topic once thought of as being of little interest outside of New York City and South Florida.

"My publisher liked the idea, but wasn't sure the time was right," she says of her first Caribbean book. "A lot of the skepticism had to do with the ingredients not being readily available, but now you can get them almost anywhere. Availability has changed even in St. Petersburg. Within three blocks of where I live, I can find almost every tuber I want, calalu greens and Key limes. I wouldn't dream of finding them 10 years ago. People will probably soon be cooking this way in Des Moines if they aren't already."

But despite the glut of cookbooks, Caribbean cuisine isn't easy to define. This is the cuisine of some 7,000 islands, reaching from Cuba to Guyana. Residents have absorbed the culinary influences of myriad invaders -- from French and English to Spanish and Danish.

All the islands rely on fresh fish (as well as some pork, goat and chicken), tropical fruits (such as mangoes and Key limes) and fiery peppers (such as the Scotch bonnet). They prefer combinations of rice and beans, curries, rum drinks and the ubiquitous calalu, the classic Caribbean soup that pops up in different forms from Guadeloupe to Tobago. The bottom line: Caribbean food offers fresh, assertive flavors laced with plenty of spice, and tantalizing aromas.

So, how do you begin?

"Just start," was the answer most of the authors gave. Pick a recipe you like and do it. Here's a quick synopsis on each of the most readily available new cookbooks with interview comments from the authors.

"Down-Island Caribbean Cookery" (Simon & Schuster, $24.95) comes from Virginie F. and George A. Elbert, a husband-and-wife team who have been in the islands for one to two months each year for the past 20 years. Their 351-page hardcover book is the most comprehensive of the recent offerings, providing recipes from Aruba through the Virgin Islands as well as an informative listing of ingredients and equipment for stocking a Caribbean cupboard. You'll find helpful sections on preparing salt cod, cleaning conch and roasting flour. It's more than a cook- book; it's a cooking class.

But it's also a book for those who buy cookbooks the way they buy novels -- to read. They write about the influence invaders have had on the cuisine and give examples of "down-island" -- authentic dishes served in homes rather than the watered-down versions that are dished out to tourists in restaurants.

"We try all the recipes more than once until we get them right," Mrs. Elbert says. "When we are in the islands we rent a cottage or apartment and cook for ourselves. If we are eating in someone's house, we ask for the recipe and then go home and make it. When we eat in a restaurant, we pick apart the ingredients and try to make it until it's right."

Jessica Harris, author of "Sky Juice and Flying Fish: Traditional Caribbean Cooking" (Fireside Books, $12.95), also focuses on what she calls the "real food" of the islands -- in people's homes and in the shack restaurants, where food and decor are simple.

Her 236-page paperback starts with a culinary history of the islands -- from the Arawaks who grew sweet potatoes, maize, peanuts and cassava to today's rediscovery of traditional Caribbean cuisine. It gives an island-by-island summary of cooking styles and explains the basics of ingredients and utensils in an adequate glossary.

Most of the 150 recipes seem easy to prepare and some are simplified from more complex versions. For example, the traditional Cuban ropa vieja that has 12 ingredients in another Caribbean cookbook has nine ingredients in "Sky Juice." Likewise, her version uses leftover pot roast and cuts the cooking time from 2 hours to 15 minutes.

"What I hope my book does is give a history of the food of the Caribbean and place the food into context," says Ms. Harris, a professor of English and French literature at Queens College in New York who has written extensively about Caribbean food for the past 15 years.

"The Sugar Reef Caribbean Cookbook" (Dell, $9.95) is probably the least authentic of the latest offerings, but it's the most fun. Author Devra Dedeaux, co-owner of the trendy, hip Sugar Reef restaurant in New York City, has offered a mixture of authentic recipes as well as innovations that have been created by chef Pablo Rosado. The result is 200 recipes that you'll really want to cook -- from grilled shark with orange sauce to the dark and stormy, a dark rum and ginger beer concoction.

This 217-page paperback is a book for cooking rather than reading. If you really want a primer on Caribbean cuisine, this won't fit the bill. The two-page list of ingredients barely scratches the surface of what you'll need to know; the Elbert or Harris book will be needed as a primer. But don't pass this one up. These are the recipes your dinner guests will rave about.

Ms. Dedeaux says the book gives the reader a good cross-section of the islands and a lot of fun references about songs and island life, but it also makes island cooking more approachable for the way we live today.

"We have definitely lightened the recipes," she says. "We certainly wouldn't use lard in the restaurant and we took out much of the fat and the salt as well. . . . You don't have to be a great master chef to make these recipes. You can go right to the store and find the ingredients. It's easy, fun and impressive."

Linette Creen's "A Taste of Cuba: Recipes From the Cuban-American Community" (Dutton, $19.95), the first Cuban cookbook published by a major house, has been criticized in a review in the Miami Herald as not being authentic. Yes, it may be true that the majority of Cubans in Miami would not serve paella and flan for Christmas Eve, that the orange-raisin cornmeal stuffing in her roast pig isn't traditional, that she uses white rice in her arroz con pollo instead of Valencia and that she uses butter instead of lard. But the bottom line is most of Ms. Creen's readers won't know the difference and frankly won't care. What they will care about is the fact her "Cubano nuevo" interpretations make Cuban food a heck of a lot more approachable to the American kitchen than the real thing, which often takes too long to cook and contains too much fat.

Ms. Creen, a Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., caterer and cooking teacher, bases her book on her years of growing up in Miami and eating at friends' homes and her recent return to study with young restaurant chefs who have attracted national attention for their blending of traditional ingredients and contemporary techniques.

The 310-page hardback book includes a history of Cuban cooking and a brief glossary of ingredients. It also gives substitutions for ingredients that cooks may have a hard time finding if they don't have Latin specialty stores nearby.

"If somebody does not know Cuban food, they are missing out on a lot of fun," Ms. Creen says. "It's a festive cuisine, great for entertaining friends. The recipes are generally healthy, new and different and sound very appetizing. I wrote the book as I would want cookbooks to be written -- with a nice introduction to each food, notes on confusing things to look out for, shortcuts and what you can do ahead."

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