It’s the dead of winter, and most of the fun holidays are behind us—but there’s still months of cold and slush to get through. So we’d like to welcome you to Tropical Staycation, a week of island-inspired recipes and other stories that will transport you to much warmer, sunnier places. Just don’t look out the window while reading.
A perfect bite of food has the power to make the world around you fall away. That’s what happened to me last fall in the sun-streaked atrium at the center of the Baltimore Museum of Art, where four female chefs gathered to celebrate the bounties of the African diaspora. It was here that Chef Lee Bentick brought me, for a fleeting moment, to her home of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Saint Vincent is the largest of the 32 small islands that make up this nation in the southern Caribbean Sea that I, sadly, have never had the privilege of visiting. Bentick told me that though the country welcomes tourism, it’s not the nation’s primary industry as it is in nearby Barbados and Saint Lucia. Over two-thirds of the land is still covered in vegetation, and what land that has been developed has primarily been cultivated for agriculture. Saint Vincent is, quite literally, a food lover’s paradise.
When you ask Bentick to talk about Saint Vincent, her eyes light up. It’s a country where time seems to pass a bit slower, she tells me; where each and every one of the 110,000 people who call the islands home is, in some way, connected. Growing up behind the counter of Caribbean Magic, her mother’s restaurant located in the capital city of Kingstown, Chef Bentick knows that all food is a celebration of sorts, and in Saint Vincent, life is too beautiful not to be celebrated. Every morsel of her food seemingly radiates this philosophy, and when I eat it, I’m transported by its botanical herbs, invigorating spices, explosive jolts of atomic chili peppers, and pungent ginger.
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I have greedily asked Bentick for every recipe she’s willing to share, as her cooking has made it clear to me that there’s an entire universe of flavors I have yet to experience. She says that when she misses home the most, she’ll make codfish buljol, a classic dish of cured or salted cod, sauteed peppers, and onions that is the very definition of comfort food in Saint Vincent. Bentick is a vegan chef—a way of eating she says is natural, or even unintentional, when one comes from a place where the finest fruits and vegetables grow wild at every turn—so she substitutes the traditional dried codfish with meaty, tropical jackfruit. If you’d like to use dried salt cod, you may; just remember to soak it well for at least 48 hours, changing the water every 12, before starting this recipe.
Start to finish, this buljol is done in under 15 minutes, and is often devoured in a fraction of that time. It needs little as far as accompaniments go, though I personally like drowning mine in scotch bonnet hot sauce like a woman with a death wish. My real wish, though, is to visit a place as lovely as Saint Vincent.
Courtesy of Lee Bentick of Plated By Leshé
- 2 (10-oz.) cans jackfruit
- 3 Tbsp. cooking oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 colorful bell peppers, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- Juice of 2 limes
- 2 Tbsp. minced dried seaweed
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp. garlic powder
Begin by rinsing the jackfruit in cold water. Next, remove the tough or fibrous tip of the jackfruit, then squeeze the remaining half to remove the seeds. Once the seeds are removed, flake the jackfruit into smaller pieces that resemble flaky fish.
In a skillet, heat the oil and begin to saute the onions and peppers for about 2-3 minutes until translucent. Add the flaked jackfruit along with the chopped garlic, garlic powder, seaweed flakes, salt, and lime juice.
Continue to saute over medium heat until everything is combined, typically 5-7 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.