The Blistering Bahamas: A Travel Retrospective, 1994

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By Nancy Gerlach

Graycliff Hotel


Conch Chowder
Grouper Soup in Puff Pastry
Chicken Breast Stuffed with Minced Lobster
Spiced Boiled Fish
Sheila’s Sunday Fish
Peas ‘n’ Rice
Guava Duff

My first trip to the Caribbean back in the 1970’s also happened to be my first visit to The Bahamas.  At that time I was so taken with the beauty of the island that I spent more time diving into the water than delving into local foods. So when the opportunity came up to join five other food and travel writers for a culinary tour of Nassau in , I couldn’t pass it up. Diet be damned–my mission was to taste as much local food as possible. Even with four4 hours of airline delays, including a couple of hours sitting on the runway in Dallas waiting out a thunderstorm, I didn’t get discouraged. I just didn’t want to miss my first dinner which was hosted by the Graycliff Hotel, in their five-star restaurant. (The only five-star restaurant in the islands!)

I finally arrived at Graycliff, late, but still in time for a fabulous meal. Walking into this elegant hotel is like being transported back in time. The story of the Graycliff parallels the history of The Bahamas. Built by Captain John Howard Graysmith, a famous pirate, it became a public inn in 1844. Through the years it has hosted everyone from the British military to blockade runners selling Southern cotton to British mills in exchange for guns for the Confederacy.  And it has always been the gathering place of royalty, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the kings of Norway and Greece, as well as a resort for the rich and famous, including Winston Churchill, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, and the Beatles.

For my first Bahamian meal, I was served food worthy of the Graycliff’s reputation. It was a meal combining European cuisine with Bahamian influences to produce truly gourmet food, a trend that was evident in many of the finer restaurants and resorts on the island. Grouper Soup in Puff Pastry, Lamb Medallions with Three Peppers, and Peas n’Rice were just a few of the dishes served us by chef Philip Bethell. After dinner we were treated to a tour of the wine cellar located below the hotel in the former dungeons by Paolo, son of owners Anna Marie and Enrico Garzaroli. With vintages dating back to the 1700’s, the collection has been rated as one of the finest in the world. Believe me, I was very careful not to bump into the $16,000 bottles of 1865 Chateau Lafite, or trip over the Rothschild magnums with the Picasso labels!
Bahamian cuisine has been influenced by the all of the different groups that were a part of the island’s colorful history. The English, Africans, Americans, and the indigenous people all had an impact on the culture as well as the food. The original inhabitants, the Lucayan and Arawak indians, were the first people to greet Christopher Columbus in the New World. Spanish conquistadors quickly followed, and when they didn’t find gold in the coral, they enslaved the entire population and sent them to the mines in New Spain or Hispaniola where they were totally wiped out by disease and hardships. So their contributions are lost forever.

The next group to discover The Bahamas were the English. One group, fleeing religious persecution, settled on an island they named Eleuthera, the Greek word for freedom. The other group, plundering gold from Spanish galleons, were pirates. The most notorious of the lot was Edward Teach–or Blackbeard–who made Fort Nassau (later to became the British Colonial Beach Resort) his home. There was a period of time when the Skull-and-Crossbones was the unofficial flag of The Bahamas.

Even the United States played a role. In 1776, the Navy led by John Paul Jones captured Nassau and held the governor hostage. After a two-week -long party, the governor was returned and the Navy left. Following the American Revolution, thousands of British Loyalists emigrated to the Bahamas; then, during the Civil War, many Southerners arrived bringing their slaves with them. After Prohibition ended and bootlegging was no longer profitable, The Bahamas began to develop what remains today as its biggest industry: tourism.  

Whether we’re talking about gourmet meals or local specialties there are some common ingredients in all Bahamanian dishes, including seafood, tropical fruits, and hot chiles. Locally grown herbs are also prevalent, with sage and thyme being very popular. Traditionally dishes were prepared from foods that could either be gathered, grown, or raised on small farms, including okra, peas, tomatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, corn, pigs, and goats. Spiciness and heartiness are the cuisine’s most dominant characteristics, and hot peppers play an important part in the flavoring of the food.

There are three types of chiles used in Bahamian cooking and all are mostly homegrown. It is only recently that they have started being produced in commercial quantities. The first is a small bird pepper that grows wild and is obviously spread by the birds. I did not see this chile in any of the market stalls I visited or in any of the dishes that I ate. The second chile is called a goat pepper and is a pale orange relative of the Scotch bonnet and habanero. I was told that this chile originated in Jamaica and probably got its name because goats do eat them. This is the chile that is used in all curries, and particularly in goat curry. Is that poetic justice, or what? It is also used in locally made hot sauces that are combinations of chopped goat peppers, onion, and vinegar or lime juice.

The native chile is a red, slender, elongated chile called by a number of names–cayenne, lady finger, or just “hot pepper.”  This chile was found fresh in the markets and is the most popular one used in Bahamian cooking. According to a local cook, fish is always prepared with this chile.
Since The Bahamas is comprised of 700 individual islands and cays with a total land area of about 5,400 square miles scattered across 100,000 square miles of ocean, it is natural that fish and seafood are very important in the cuisine. Grouper is the fish of choice and is served every way imaginable: in stews, grilled, boiled, baked, and fried. Crab and shrimp are also popular as is a lobster with feelers instead of claws, called crawfish. But there is nothing more synonymous with The Bahamas than conch.

Conch (pronounced konk) has always been the specialty of the entire Bahamas because it is so plentiful. It’s a mollusk that is removed from its large, beautiful pink shell by either crushing or breaking into the pointed end to release it; it is simply too strong to simply pull out of the shell. It is then served either raw or cooked.

It is served just about everywhere, and it gets cooked in just about every possible way. Conch Fritters and Conch Chowder were on menus as appetizers, and it was also served steamed, cracked (coated with a batter and fried), creamed, in burgers, curried, in “souses”, and grilled; I think I tried just about all of them during my short visit. Since conch is considered an aphrodisiac by the Bahamians, I got a lot of ribbing about what was going to happen when I returned home. (Don’t even ask!)

If you’re in Nassau and want to try raw conch, head for Arawak Cay by the bridge to Coral Island Marine Park and Underwater Observatory. There you will find a collection of food stalls serving Scorched Conch, Conch Salad, fritters, fried fish, jerk pork, the local beer (Kalik), and the tasty but potentially lethal combination of coconut milk and gin. Just pull a chair up to the counter and watch the ritual of preparing the conch.

First it is removed from the shell, then cut in a cross-hatch to tenderize. If it is to be served as a salad it is then chopped with tomato, onion, bell pepper, goat pepper, and lime juice. To prepare Scorched Conch, after it is cross hatched, it is sprinkled with sour orange or lime juice and chopped goat peppers. According to Freddie Lightbourn of the Poop Deck Restaurant, this is how it is eaten when out fishing. Just dive down, bring up a conch, prepare it on the deck, and enjoy it with a Kalik beer! Either way it is wonderful.

At Potter’s Cay, the local market by the bridge to Paradise Island, I saw conch prepared a third way, dried as “hurricane ham.” During hurricane season it is difficult for people in the “out islands” (those other than the main tourist islands) to fish or to boat over to Nassau to buy provisions such as meats. So before the weather turns bad, they put up a supply of conch by first pounding to flatten it and then hanging it in the sun to dry, where it turns the color of pale ham. Hence the name. It will keep for a year this way and can be minced and added to fritters and other dishes.
A Bahamian welcome usually consists of a home-cooked meal of fish or chicken, peas n’ rice, potato salad, fried plantains, a refreshing glass of switcher (lemonade), and guava duff for dessert. But for our group, it turned out to be a farewell meal. On our last day, we were invited into the home of People-to-People volunteer, Sheila Rolle to enjoy such a meal in her home.

This is a great program that connects tourists with locals and can even assist in arranging weddings in the islands. Sheila, with the help of her family and friends, served us a wonderful meal, and a highlight of the trip was when she took me into her kitchen and showed me around. She was, as are most Bahamians, a warm and friendly person and one I could really relate to as she used chiles in virtually all of her dishes!

What a way to end a wonderful trip! With an invitation to come back and join Sheila in her kitchen for some Bahamian cooking lessons, our culinary tour of Nassau ended. I must admit, these were some of the most pleasurable pounds I’ve ever gained!
(Special thanks to Carla Lockhardt, Priscilla Williams, Sheila Rolle, Anna Marie Garzaroli,  Joy Williams, Mariaon Adare, Freddie Lightbourn, M.A. Sissa Wassitsch, Rhon Wood, Addiemae Farrington, Millie Sands and Roiy Adams for their gracious hospitality.)

Conch Chowder

Conch Chowder is on most menus and should be tried. Since conch is tough, it is usually tenderized by bruising (pounded) before being cooked. Someone on the tour reported that it is available canned, but if you are unable to find it, try substituting clams. Note: You can make this chowder in large amounts as it freezes well.

1 ham bone
2 quarts water
4 conchs, diced   
1/4 pound salt pork, cubed
1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, stem and seeds removed, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 small tomatoes, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 large potatoes, diced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 carrot, sliced
2 whole dried cayenne chiles (or other hot dried chiles)
1 tablespoon dry sherry (optional)
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
Bring the ham and water to a boil in a pot, reduce the heat and simmer for  30 minutes. Add the conch and continue to simmer for 2 hours or until the conch is tender. Remove the ham bone and discard.

Fry the salt pork and butter in a pan. Add the onion, green pepper and celery and saute until the onions are a light brown, stirring constantly to prevent them from burning. Add tomatoes and tomato paste, simmer for 1 minute.

Add this mixture to the pot with conch along with the remaining ingredients, except the roux. Simmer until the vegetables are almost done.

To make the roux, melt the butter in a small pan and stir in the flour. Continue to saute and stir to prevent from burning and cook until it is a dark nut brown color.
Add the roux to the other ingredients and cook for an additional 15 minutes to thicken.  Remove the cayennes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

Grouper Soup in Puff Pastry

This soup, served at the Graycliff, is not only tasty but makes a truly elegant presentation.  

1 pound fresh grouper fillet
Juice of 2 fresh limes or lemons
4 slices bacon, diced
2 small potatoes, peeled and diced
1 stalk of celery, diced
1 onion, diced
2 fresh cayenne chiles, stems and seeds removed, diced (or substitute serranos or 1/2 habanero)
2 tablespoons pimientos, diced
1 quart water
Salt to taste
1 egg, beaten
4 6-inch circles of puff pastry

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Dice the grouper and season with the juice of 1 lime and salt. Place equal portions of the fish in four small ovenproof cups and set aside.

Fry the bacon in a skillet for a couple of minutes, add the potatoes, cover, and simmer over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the celery and onion and continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Add the quart of water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, season with lime juice and chile, and simmer until the potatoes are done.  

Divide the ingredients, including the broth, into the cups and add the pimientos.

Brush one side of the pastry with the egg and place the egg side down over each cup. Brush the top side with the egg and place the cups in the oven. Bake for about 10 minutes until the dough rises and is golden.
Serve the soup hot.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

Chicken Breast Stuffed
with Minced Lobster

We were treated to this entree by our host Joy Williams at the Radisson Grand Resort where we ate in the penthouse overlooking the Caribbean. This dish is representative of one that combines traditional foods, in this case “minced lobster,” with non-traditional foods to produce a new dish.
1 6-ounce lobster tail, boiled, minced
1 small onion, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon thyme
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 fresh cayenne chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped (or substitute 1 habanero)

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Garlic salt
White pepper
Lime juice, fresh preferred
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup flour
Vegetable oil

In a lage skillet, saute the onions in the butter until soft. Add the tomato paste, thyme, garlic, and chiles and continue to saute for an additional couple of minutes. Stir in the lobster, season with salt and heat through.

Season the chicken with the garlic, pepper, and lime juice. Combine the cheese with the flour, dip the chicken in the seasoned flour and shake off any excess.  

Heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the chicken until golden brown on both sides. Remove.

Let chicken cool, split and stuff with minced lobster. Heat before serving.
Yield: 2 servings
Heat Scale: Medium  

Spiced Boiled Fish

Boiled fish is typically served on Saturdays and Sundays for breakfast along with grits and johnnycakes. Grouper is the most popular “boiling” fish, and the Bahamians are masters at cooking the fish just long enough, without overcooking it. Some prefer to cook the fish in sea water which they feel brings out the flavor.

2 pounds grouper fillets
2 tablespoons butter
Juice of 2 lemons, limes or sour oranges
2 onions sliced
4 whole fresh cayenne chiles (or substitute 1 habanero)
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Place fish in a pot and add water to 3/4 of the way up the sides of the fish. Add the remaining ingredients to the water, except the onions. Place the onions on top of the fish. Cook over medium heat until fish is just tender. Avoid cooking too long as the fish will fall apart.

Serve with extra chiles on the side.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium

Sheila’s Sunday Fish

Sheila Rolle always prepares her fish with the cayenne chiles. She seasons the fish with a paste made from chopped chiles along with salt or oil. This paste will keep in the refrigerator for a long period of time.

1 whole fish, grouper preferred
Chile paste (chiles of choice blended with a little vegetable oil)
Juice of 1 lime
Vegetable oil
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 small bell pepper, stem and seeds removed, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon fresh thyme

Make slashes in the sides of the fish and rub the chile paste in the slashes and in the head. Squeeze the lime juice over the fish and marinate in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

Saute the celery, onion, and bell peppe in a skilletr until soft. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and thyme and simmer until thickened.

Either pan fry or grill the fish until just done. Place the fish in the pan with the sauce and simmer until the fish is coated with the sauce.
Yield: 2 servings
Heat Scale: Hot

Peas ‘n’ Rice

A dish commonly associated with The Bahamas, peas ‘n’ rice is believed to have originated with the African slaves. Since pigeon peas are grown in just about every back yard in all the islands, it’s no wonder they make an appearance at almost every meal. They are dried before using, and when boiled, the water becomes dark brown and is used to both color and flavor the rice. We were served this dish at almost every dinner from The Shoal, a popular local Bahamian restaurant, to the Pick-A Dilly Inn and Restaurant and the Radisson Grand Hotel.

1/2 cup pigeon peas
1/4 pound salt pork, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons thyme
2 fresh cayenne chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped (or substitute 1 habanero)
2 cups rice
1 quart chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fry the salt pork in a pot to render the fat. Add the oil, onion, bell pepper, and celery and saute until soft. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, thyme and chile and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the rice, peas, and broth. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat cover and simmer until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 35 minutes.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings  
Heat Scale: Medium

Guava Duff

Guava duff can be considered the national dessert of The Bahamas since everyone makes it, and everyone has their own recipe. The dessert probably has its origins with the English steamed puddings and traditionally was cooked in cotton pillowcases.

1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups guava pulp (guava put through a sieve or food mill)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

Cream the butter with the sugar in a bowl. Add the eggs, guava, and spices and beat until smooth.

Sift together the flour and baking powder and add to the butter mixture. The dough should be stiff.

Place the mixture in the greased top of a double boiler and cook over boiling water; or use a can with a tight fitting cover and place the can in a pan of boiling water about 2/3 from the top of the can. Steam for 3 hours.

Slice and serve with Butter Sauce.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Butter Sauce

1/4 cup butter or margarine
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
Brandy, optional

Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl. Add the egg and brandy and blend well.

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