Ainsley cooks up a taste of the Caribbean
Is it even possible to look at a random collection of ingredients in your fridge and not think: What would Ainsley Harriott do?
The TV chef, known for presenting absolute classics Ready, Steady, Cook and Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, is back on screens with a new ITV food/travel series and accompanying cookbook of the same name.
Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen sees him visit seven of the Caribbean’s sunshine islands: Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Antigua, Grenada, Dominica, Trinidad & Tobago, which are all close to his heart.
Ainsley said: “It’s where your parents come from, and as you get a little bit older, we all get drawn back a bit, there’s that sort of reconnection.”
As a region though, however disparate the Caribbean might be, sprawled across the ocean in bite-sized tropical pieces, it’s often lumped into one: one climate (hot and sunny); one cuisine (jerk chicken, rice and peas, goat curry) – but that ignores the nuances, says Ainsley
“Everybody is very, very different and has their own style of food,” he explained.
“Every island you go to, the people have their own personality, their own way of cooking things, and they’re very proud of it.”
That said, certain ingredients are ubiquitous. For instance, staple items, like yams, sweet potato and cassava, are used in countless dishes.
Ainsley calls the food he’s created for the book – think Tobago curried crab, chargrilled watermelon with slaw, plaintain and chickpea hotcakes – nice and casual.
“It’s not too intricate on the plate,” he said.
And when it comes to controversy over jerk seasoning, and people keeping their recipes top secret, he’s magnanimous.
“When my late mother was cooking, I’d say, ‘Mum, what are you putting in?’ And she’d just say, ‘A handful!’
“You have to have a look at the size of someone’s hands and guess how much a handful is, because they just don’t know,” he explained.
“It’s more to do with instinct and ‘just knowing’, than measuring quantities exactly. And when you taste it, you think ‘My god, there’s 40, 50 years or maybe generations of experience in that one little dish’, and it tastes great.”
Ainsley first visited the Caribbean with his family at the age of eight.
He said: “I remember going to see my grandad and asking him for some money to go buy a Coca Cola.
“He said to go and pick two or three fresh limes from the tree, mix them with sugar, ice and water.
“That was my first experience of fresh lemonade, literally picking limes from the tree, squeezing out the juice and adding shavings of ice. By the time we left, there wasn’t a bloody lime left on the tree – it was fantastic!”