Jamaican seasonings flavor the pot
Second career mixes ethnicities with their dishes
WEYMOUTH - When Jamaican-born Patricia Kiernan named her catering company Stir It Up Cuisine for a Bob Marley song, she thought it reflected both her career change and her intent to, well, stir the pot, and offer full-flavored, home-style Caribbean cooking.
With Boston’s budding populations from Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, Kiernan thought the area was ready for her native specialties, such as chicken fricassee, jerk pork, Creole shrimp, and oxtail stew. For side dishes, she might prepare cabbage cook-up (a slow-cooked slaw of shredded cabbage, bell peppers, and carrots), plantains baked with rum glaze, sweet potato puree, and sauteed callaloo (a leafy green similar to spinach). And for starters, there are Caribbean meatballs, jerk chicken wings, and coconut fried shrimp.
But it’s Kiernan’s signature pepper jelly cheese torte - a savory cheesecake glazed with spicy jelly - that usually steals the show. In fact, when she’s not catering, Kiernan can be found stirring up pots of the brilliant orange, piquant-sweet jelly made from a blend of red, yellow, and green Scotch bonnet peppers. The spicy spread is perfect for jazzing up chicken, fish, beef stew, and sandwiches. She sells it at local markets.
As the cook admires a table laden with some of her favorite foods, she smiles and says, “Let’s nyam!’’ a Jamaican expression meaning ‘‘let’s feast.’’
Kiernan has ancestors from Spain, England, Syria, Lebanon, and Jamaica. She came to Massachusetts at 18 and graduated from Boston College in 1978. After raising three children with her husband, Steven, a painting contractor, and spending over 20 years in the medical transcription business, Kiernan, 57, was itching to do something more creative. In 2006 she started the catering company.
“Cooking was my love to begin with,’’ she says. A childhood friend, Charmaine Brown, cooks with her. A third chef, Gabriella Scippa, who spent most of her childhood in Aruba, came on board part time a year ago.
“We really don’t cook according to recipes,’’ says Kiernan. “You have to have a feel.’’ Jamaican food is typically spicy, but she adapts the heat scale to her clients’ tastes. The spice mixture known as jerk seasoning, which often coats grilled meats, can be mouth-burning hot. “We make our own [jerk seasoning],’’ says Kiernan, using Scotch bonnets, cherry peppers, scallion, thyme, allspice, garlic, and other seasonings. In a pinch, she will use Walkerswood brand.
Jamaican cooks are fussy about bottled spices and sauces. Some of Kiernan’s favorites are Badia Complete Seasoning, Sazon tropical seasoning, Grace Caribbean Traditions, and Blue Mountain Chicken Seasoning. An absolute must-have is Pickapeppa sauce, a zesty brown sauce added to food the way some people use steak sauce or ketchup. (These items are in well-stocked supermarkets.)
One test of a good Jamaican meal is the balance of flavors. If the meat is highly seasoned, Kiernan keeps the accompanying rice bland. “You don’t want the flavors to fight,’’ she says. She also likes a touch of sweetness, typically from ripe plantains or sweet potatoes, paired with spicy meats that marinate overnight. “We like to season ahead of time so the flavors can soak right in,’’ says Brown.
The majority of the weddings Kiernan caters are for couples from the Caribbean or West Africa, which is where many island dishes originated. This summer, Kiernan cooked for Nicole Seaton and Junior Mitchell’s wedding, whose families hail from Jamaica, Barbados, and Grenada. Their menu featured jerk chicken wings, Creole shrimp, chicken fricassee, plantains in rum butter, and rice and beans. “It tasted so authentic, like my grandmother cooked it,’’ says Seaton.
Amma Asare, who was born in Ghana and raised in Massachusetts, wanted an unusual menu for her June 2010 wedding to Amir Jaima, who is from Antigua. “We were looking for food with a Caribbean flavor,’’ she says. Their feast included the pepper jelly cheese torte, salmon in cream sauce, jerk pork with shallots, and cabbage cook-up. “The food looked beautiful and captured that summertime feel,’’ says Asare.
Some people choose a Caribbean-style party just for the fun of it. One woman’s 50th birthday was just that: a casual, lively celebration with spicy foods that were a novelty for many guests. The decor at most Stir It Up Cuisine events includes tropical-themed table settings, floral arrangements of bird-of-paradise and palm leaves, palm trees decorating the room, and, of course, island music.
For dessert, Kiernan often makes trifles, which are pretty confections layered with pound cake, fresh fruit, custard, and whipped cream. She flavors the custard with a Jamaican rum liqueur. When her family visits, they all know they have to bring bottles of Sangster’s Jamaica Rum Cream.
The spicy warmth of Caribbean food makes it well suited to cold-weather climes - as is the music. “Stir it up, little darlin’, stir it up.’’
Stir It Up Cuisine 617-448-0295, www.stiritupcuisine.com. Stir It Up Cuisine Caribbean pepper jelly ($6.49 for 6 ounces) is available at the Fruit Center Marketplace, 10 Bassett St., Milton, 617-696-5274; 338 Granite Ave., Milton, 617-698-1900; 79 Water St., Hingham, 781-749-7332.