I can’t say my mother loved to cook. I would rather say, my mother was adept at feeding her two young sons. I was 9 and my brother 7 – both too young to know or even understand – when my mom was going through a bitter divorce. I’m sure she did her best to keep our lives as normal as possible, but necessity created what I have come to call “The Bitter Divorce Menu.” It consisted of whatever was easiest to prepare and required the least amount of cooking.
Shopping in the produce and meat sections of the supermarket became a thing of the past; instead she would head to the convenience aisle and load the shopping cart with oatmeal, cereal, milo, Vienna sausage, corned beef, hot dogs, ketchup, macaroni and cheese, and bread. Dinner from a box, cans, and whatever was quick, didn’t spark our culinary appetites, but it got the job done. The “Bitter Divorce Menu” meant cornflakes with milk and sugar in the morning and corned beef with steamed rice for dinner. I can’t recall how many times we had Vienna sausage with a fried egg for breakfast, but it was all stuff we liked. As long as we didn’t complain, we could have as much as we wanted, when we wanted.
The “Bitter Divorce Menu,” didn’t last for long; as with many families in times of trouble, we were sent to stay with our grandparents. One thing about grandma, actually two things about her: she was happily married, and she loved her kitchen. Grandma loved to cook, and nothing pleased her more than to prepare a meal and sit and watch as we licked the plates clean. Grandma’s kitchen was small with plain brown cupboards and a utilitarian countertop, but the space had the patina of happy memories from feeding her family.
The kitchen had a cheery glow from sunlight streaming through the clear glass windows over the sink and the wall adjacent to it. There was always a length of orange peel hanging on the burglar bars, and on the shelf a knob of nutmeg resting in its own special grater. Years later, I would learn, these were the magic ingredients to her delicious cornmeal porridge. In her kitchen everything had a place, and grandma could close her eyes and point to every dish, glass, spoon, knife and fork as unerringly as a compass pointing north.
Grandma didn’t believe in a light breakfast; instead we got cornmeal porridge, toast and half an orange for each of us. We would wake up to steamed callaloo, roast breadfruit and mackerel cooked in coconut oil; we cried all the way to school. The evening meal fared no better; gone were my favorites, like Vienna sausage with baked beans and white rice, instead dinner read like a litany from the farmers market: brown stewed beef, rice and peas, boiled green bananas, pumpkin and yellow yam.
As soon as she set the plate down, I would promptly pick all the peas out of the rice. My brother and I would sit through dinner pushing the food around with our forks and watching grandfather noisily plow through his plate. My grandmother was keenly aware of how little we ate. I’m sure it must have burned her soul as she scraped the food from our plates into the garbage.
To say I was a finicky eater was an understatement, but grandma knew the way to my heart was through my belly. Cornmeal porridge, ackee and saltfish with fluffy fried dumplings and roasted breadfruit, stew peas made with coconut milk, oxtail with butter beans: she instilled each dish with love and it opened my appetite. I even began to leave the peas in the rice. The commingling of rice with red kidney beans, coconut milk, scotch bonnet pepper and pimento has become one of my first indelible memories of Jamaican home cooking. As I grew older, we spent many a Sunday cooking and baking in her cozy kitchen. Grandma never wrote a recipe, everything was in her head and she could add a bit of this, and a bit of that, and it would be perfect. She taught me many of the dishes I still cook at home today. Rice and peas is a special side dish that Jamaicans like to serve as part of Sunday dinner. It’s a tradition that I’ve always observed and I share this recipe with fond memories.
Jamaican Rice & Peas
½ cup red kidney beans (we say peas, but it is actually a red kidney bean)
8 cups water
4 pimento seeds
2 cloves garlic
1 scotch bonnet pepper
1 stalk green onion
2 stalks fresh thyme
¾ cup coconut milk
1 cup white rice
½ tsp. salt
It is best to soak the beans overnight, but I’ve soaked them as little as three hours before cooking them. Soak the beans overnight in 8 cups water; it’s the same liquid you’ll be using to cook the beans in. In a pot with a thick bottom add the soaked beans, water, pimento seeds, garlic and a whole scotch bonnet pepper. Do not pierce the pepper, but allow it to boil with the beans.
It takes about 90 minutes for the peas to be cooked enough to add the rice. The cooking liquid should be reduced to 1 ½ cups. It’s important to get this ratio correct because too much liquid will make the dish soupy and not enough will undercook the rice. Remember the ratio to cook white rice is 2:1, two parts liquid to one part rice.
Measure the rice and rinse 3 to 4 times with cold water to remove as much starch as possible.
The pot with peas should be simmering as you add the coconut milk, thyme, green onion and salt. It’s best to taste the liquid at this point to make sure it seasoned to your liking. Add the rice to the pot, do not stir. It takes about twenty minutes for most if not all the liquid to dry out, don’t worry if the rice does not appear fully cooked. When the liquid is almost gone, turn the flame to low and cover the pot with plastic wrap and a lid, allow to steam for a further ten minutes until the rice is cooked.