* Prices may differ from that shown
I love a good cookbook and am always on the lookout for something new. These days, though, it's just as easy to log on and find recipes on line, a particularly convenient way of finding recipes for things you have at hand, rather than browsing cookery books only to be tempted by dishes you don't have all the necessary ingredients for. For me, a cookery book needs to be more than just collection of recipes; it needs to look good, tell me something new and interesting and it needs to fire my imagination.
When I bought Virginia Burke's "Eat Caribbean" there weren't many books on Caribbean cooking to choose from and those I did find concentrated mainly on the well known dishes like 'jerk chicken' for which I could find countless recipes in a number of cookbooks I already owned. I have since bought other books covering Caribbean cuisine but it is "Eat Caribbean" that I keep returning to.
Laughing in the faces of those who would advise against judging a book by its cover, I'm going to talk about the visual impact of this book first. Everything about the bright, bold colours used shouts Caribbean and the brilliant photographs included in the book are exciting and inspiring, capturing the spirit of the countries of the Caribbean and highlighting their diversity. Not all the recipes have illustrations and there are some I'd have preferred to see photographs of, but overall there's a good balance between foodie pics, portraits of people from the islands, and some wonderful atmospheric landscapes. Although Virginia Burke is credited as the principal author, a namecheck is in order for the fabulously monikered Cookie Kinkead, described as an old school friend of Virginia and a respected and influential interiors, travel and locations photographer.
Althought the recipes comprise the majority of the 240 pages, the book starts with a well crafted and informative overview of Caribbean culture and history; it's particularly pertinent to do this before talking about the cuisines of the Caribbean because it is the colonising settlers that have had the most influence of the diverse cuisines found across the islands, much more so than native peoples. There's an interesting look at the tradition of street food in the Caribbean and another equally good short text on Caribbean food markets. Before we get cooking there's a brief 'Cook's Notes' section which is a worthwhile read because it explains some of the most commonly used expressions and techiniques that tend to crop up in regional recipes.
Instead of looking at each island individually, the book tackles groups of dishes but a note next to each recipe tells you where the dishes originates from. I like this approach because it has encouraged me to try my hand at recipes I might not otherwise have taken much notice of. One of the reasons I wanted a Caribbean cookbook was because I wanted to recreate some of the flavour combinations I had enjoyed so much while travelling in Cuba and I could so easily have overlooked some of the great recipes from elsewhere in the region. There are dishes from Jamaica, the Bahamas, Gaudeloupe, Haiti, Cuba and others. Some recipes have an additional note talking about the history of a dish while others have an short text on the opposite page and this additional material takes "Eat Caribbean " from a comprehensive and colourful collection of recipes to something more of a a companion volume.
The sections the recipes are divided into are quite obvious really although you could argue that some of the more hearty soups are practically stews. Stews meanwhile are divided among the meat, fish and vegetarian sections as appropriate. So far I've found all the recipes I have attempted easy to follow and pretty uncomplicated. The stuffed aubergine with curried rice is a brilliant dish and one I now make regularly (as the now grubby page pays testimony to) because it is a quick and easy supper, especially if you have leftover rice. On the other hand, oxtail with rioja is rather more time consuming but is well worth the effort. The vegetarian section of this book appears at first quite limited but if you also take into account the soups, dips, salads and side dishes, many of which are meat free, a veggie wouldn't be disappointed with this collection; in fact, when I first got the book, my partner did not eat meat but we still found plenty of dishes to make.
Some of the dishes do require specialist ingredients but many of these can be found in continental food stores and for some of the more specialist ingredients that can be found in supermarkets, I would still suggest that you head for continental food stores where the prices are more reasonable (for example, scotch bonnet peppers are used widely throughout the book and they are quite expensive for a small packet in my main supermarket, but I can buy a small carrier bag full for next to nothing in a local Indian food store). On the whole the ingredients tend to be fairly cheap - beans and root vegetables feature a lot - but there are one or two pricier items such as ackee that feature in several classic recipes. We used to buy ackee locally in a continental food store but the price has rocketed recently and we now stock up on small tins (don't be tempted to buy the larger tins as an economy measure because once opened you need to use it all pretty much immediately) when in London as the stores in Brixton tend to be the cheapest places to buy ackee.
I would urge caution when trying recipes for the first time as some of them do state large amounts of chilli and as this is usually scotch bonnet chilli pepper, the result can be frighteningly hot. If you don't like too much chilli heat, I would suggest that rather than chop scotch bonnets as instructed, you leave them whole and just make a small piercing with a sharp knife to release the flavour without too much of the crazy heat. There is an excellent section on jerk recipes, that classic Jamaican way of serving meat and fish, that includes some exciting variations; the jerk fish with lime is one of the best recipes and is simple to make. As well as being a food writer, Virginia Burke is marketing director of Walkerswood Foods and naturally suggests that you can use that company's ready made jerk sauces, but really the recipe is so simple that you can knock it up in no time from store cupboard staples.
The dessert section is a little bit disappointing as it doesn't really present any specifically Caribbean desserts but it does offer some good ideas for adapting traditional puds using Caribbean ingredients and flavours. The mango tart is a good example and it's a cinch to make (hurrah for forzen puff pastry).
A glossary at the end of the book is a nice inclusion but hardly enlightening and it is, to some extent, a repetition of some of the material included already. Likewise a short section on dinner planning is nice to have but not really that useful if you are planning a meal for friends and need to take into account different likes and dislikes or dietary requirements.
The main gripe I have about "Eat Caribbean" is that it's larger than it needs to be and takes up to much room on a worksurface. My kitchen is pretty small and I like to be able to have the book close at hand but this one is just too big, all the more annoying when vast sections of page are left blank. The problem is that I want the photographs and background information but I still want a working cookbook, and it's hard to combine the two successfully. To tackle this I've stuck a few pages in the scanner and printed off the recipes I most often use which suits me much better.
"Eat Caribbean" is a book that I use a great deal and not just because I like Caribbean food so much; the recipes are well presented and don't rely on lots of obscure or hard to find ingredients. There's a good balance between quick and easy knock them up after work meals, and the more impressive stuff you might cook for friends or for a weekend meal when you have more time to prepare.
For fans of Caribbean food, I'd say that "Eat Caribbean" is v-Ital. (look it up).
RRP is £18.99 but online retailers have good discounts.