While the snow piles higher and the thermometer hovers around freezing, dreams of warmer places and cozier climes beckon the winter-worn. Visions of tropical environs expand in the imaginations of the mountain-bound.

The beach. Snorkeling. A cruise.Exotic opportunities to escape seasonal doldrums.

For most of us, however, escape is limited to our dreams.

But with a bit of creativity, a touch of the tropics pays a local call. Transform your kitchen with the tastes and sounds of the Caribbean. The peppery pots of the ocean isles are guaranteed to raise the temperature of your house. Add a remnant of Belafonte's calypso, a palm leaf, a limbo stick and a pina colada and you might as well be in the isles of the sea.

Penetrating rhythms of steel drums pulse out a background for the vast sensory experience involved in an island eating adventure. Up tempo menus include centuries-old recipes like Pepperpot Soup or Escovitched Fish (a pickling preservative process). Leisurely indulgences like Island Lime Cheesecake or Papaya Pineapple Ice combine the best of native ingredients.

Caribbean food is a combination of numerous ethnic influences.

As John DeMers, author of "Caribbean Food," says, "The food of the Caribbean islands is a marriage of the bitter and the sweet - not only in the flavors themselves but in the pain and progress that produced the union. It is an oversized cauldron into which generation after generation could pour frustrations and inspirations. As a result, the foods served from this cauldron beat the unmistakable stamp of many, many hands."

Colonists from diverse backgrounds carried favorite ingredients from island to island, leaving an imprint on native cuisine.

Arawak Indians, the original residents of the Caribbean, utilized available products, but relied on barbecue cooking techniques. Island barbecue is called jerk, a pit-cooked meat highly seasoned with a combination of scallions, onions, thyme, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, peppers and salt.

"The taste of jerked foods is hot with peppers . . . like a carnival where all the elements come together in your mouth. The combination of spices tastes as if they were quarreling and dancing and mingling in your mouth all at the same time," explains Helen Willinsky, author of "Jerk, Barbecue From Jamaica."

Fiery peppers also heighten the taste of the traditional Indian soup known as Callaloo or Pepperpot. The soup contains ingredients that are readily available in local gardens or markets, then personalized by the individual cook. As the spelling of callaloo (callilu, calalou or callau) varies from island to island, so does the combination of seasoning spices. Callaloo is a big, leafy green found throughout the islands, but must be replaced with spinach on the mainland.

Spanish settlers stamped their native touch on Caribbean food. Spaniards brought a jungle full of trees and tropical plants like banana, sugar cane, lemon, lime, date palm, pomegranate, coconut and orange as well as introducing the technique of frying.

Indians pickled much of the fresh catch in a time-worn recipe called Escovitched Fish, but the Spanish up-dated the creation with frying. Until their arrival, fish was marinated in the Mexican ceviche manner; the new colonists tossed the seasoned fillets into the skillet.

Each wave of settlers contributed its own collection of ingredients to the cuisine of the islands.

The French brought a heritage of classic cooking coupled with a dash of Creole. The Danish cooked with cheeses and expanded single course meals with the "Danish table," or smorgasbord. Portuguese introduced the eggplant; while the British contributed a wealth of raw ingredients like rum, roast beef, breadfruit, mango, mandarin orange and black pepper.

African settlers, though primarily confined as slaves, were prohibited from eating fresh meat, and thus perfected the technique of salting meat and fish.

DeMers relates, "Dishes made with these ingredients became incredibly popular, explaining the wide variety of uses for saltfish up to the present day."

To survive beyond meager handouts, Africans planted gardens of okra, yams, corn, pumpkins, callaloo and coffee.

Rural kitchens in the islands are still outfitted in the old African way, with an earthenware pot called a yabba, a gourd called a calabash and a basket for smoking foods called a krengkreng. Huge wooden mortars, used by slaves to pound corn, are still found at the end of winding country roads.

Winding through a Caribbean recipe requires a glossary of explanations. Ingredient names are as colorful as the ingredients themselves - hot peppers called Scotch Bonnets; annatto, an orange-red seed; ackee, a pod-like vegetable that resembles scrambled eggs; cassava, a root vegetable used as an addition to soups and meat dishes or chayote, a relative of the cucumber served with meats, soups or stews. Lyrical names like papaya, guava and mango describe the rich tropical fruits of the region.

Unusual ingredients, readily available in the islands, often line up locally in specialty produce sections. Others can be found in neighborhood ethnic markets.

When the mountain temperatures create endless shivers, it's time to break out the Belafonte and heat up the kitchen with a flavorful Caribbean menu.



Sweet Potato Muffins

1/2 cup margarine

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1 can (16 oz.) sweet potatoes, drained and mashed

3/4 cup raisins

Glaze: (optional)

1 cup powdered sugar

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons milk

1/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped

Beat margarine with sugar until light and fluffy; blend in eggs and vanilla. Add combined dry ingredients alternately with sweet potato; mix well after each addition. Stir in raisins. Spoon in greased or paper-lined muffin tines. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

For glaze, combine sugar, cinnamon and milk. Spoon over warm muffins and sprinkle with chopped nuts. Makes 1 1/2 dozen muffins.

Callaloo Soup

1/2 pound smoked ham hocks

1 pound stewing beef, cubed and browned

4 quarts cold water

1 1/2 pounds fresh callaloo or spinach or 2 packages (10 oz.) frozen spinach

12 fresh okras or 1 package (10 oz.) frozen okra

1/2 cup coconut milk, optional

3 potatoes, peeled and sliced

1 whole hot pepper

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 scallion, chopped

1 sprig fresh thyme

Salt. Soak the ham hock in water for two hours; drain. Combine with fresh water to cover and bring to a rolling boil. Drain and discard the water; repeat if the meat is still salty.

Add 4 quarts cold water to saucepan; add browned beef, callaloo or spinach and okra. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour or until meat is tender. Stir in coconut milk. After 15 minutes, add the potatoes, hot pepper, onion, garlic, scallion and thyme. Stir, taste for flavor, and add salt if needed. Allow soup to simmer over medium heat for another 45 minutes, or until thickened. Remove the whole pepper and thyme sprig before serving. Makes 6 servings.

- From Island Cooking.

Note: Callaloo is a broad-leafed spinach grown in the Caribbean region and is closely related to Swiss chard. To make coconut milk cut coconut meat into small pieces, moisten with hot water and puree in food processor. Pour 1 cup hot water over coconut puree and allow to stand for 30 minutes, then pass through a cheesecloth or sieve to separate milk for the solids.

Basic Jerk Seasoning

2 ounces allspice, crushed

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

12 scallions, cleaned and chopped

6 Scotch Bonnet or 12 Jalapeno peppers, halved with seeds

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Hot pepper sauce, optional

6 loin pork chops, 6 chicken thighs or 6 fish fillets

Lime or lemon juice

Combine all the seasoning ingredients in a blender or food processor, adding hot pepper sauce to taste. Process for 1 minute to liquefy. Pour into a jar and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 1 cup.

Select one or a combination of meats and wash in lime or lemon juice. Place meat in a non-aluminum baking dish and pour half of the jerk seasoning over. Rub the seasoning evenly over all. In another baking dish, use 1 tablespoon of the seasoning mix for each pound of meat and rub carefully. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight.

Slowly cook meat over hot coals or on a gas grill about 6 inches from the heat source on a very low setting. Cover with foil or lid; allowing two hours for pork, 1 1/2 hours for chicken and about 20 minutes for fish (depending on thickness). Baste frequently. Remove meats from the grill and allow to stand for 10 minutes for meat to absorb the juices. Makes 6 servings.

- From Jerk, Barbecue From Jamaica

Papaya Pineapple Ice

1 jar (7 oz.) marshmallow creme

1 1/2 cups pineapple juice

2 cups papaya, finely chopped

Mix marshmallow cream and juice until well blended. Stir in papaya; pour into 9-inch square pan and freeze about 1 1/2 hours or until almost firm. Coarsely chop mixture; spoon into chilled bowl. Beat with mixer until smooth; freeze until firm. Makes 6 servings.

Rum-Nut Cheesecake


1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/4 cup nuts

3 Tablespoons, margarine, melted 3 Tablespoons brown sugar, packed


2 pkgs. (8oz.) cream cheese, softenend

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

2 eggs

1/2 cup sour cream

3 Tablespoons rum or 1 teaspoon rum flavoringa 2 Tablespoons margarine

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed

1/2 cup nuts, coarsely chopped

For Crust, combine crumbs, nuts, margarine and brown sugar; press onto bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.

For Filling, mix cream cheese, sugar and 2 Tablespoons flour, mixing at medium speed until well blended. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in sour cream and rum or rum flavoring; mix well. Pour over crust. Cut margarine in to remaining flour and brown sugar until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in nuts. Sprinkle over cream cheese mixture. Bake 50 minutes at 350 degrees. Loosen cake from rim of pan; cool. Serves 10-12.

Island Lime Cheesecake


1 3/4 cups coconut

3 Tablespoons flour

3 Tablespoons margarine, melted


1 envelope unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup cold water

1/4 cup lime juice

3 eggs, separated

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lime peel

1 pkgs (8oz) light neufchatel cheese, softened

Few drops green food coloring

2 cups thawed non-dairy whipped topping

For crust, mix coconut, flour and margarine; press onto bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

For Filling, soften gelatin in water; stir over low heat until dissolved. Add juice, egg yolks, 1/4 cup sugar, and peel; cook, stirring constantly over medium heat for 5 minutes; cool.

Gradually add gelatin mixture to cream cheese, mixing at medium speed until well-blended; stir in food coloring. Beat egg whites until foamy; gradually add remeining sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites and whipped topping into cream cheese mixture; pour over crust. Chill until firm; garnish with additional lime peel. Makes 10-12 servings.

Rice and Peas, Jamaica

1 can black-eyed peas

4 cups coconut milk

1 cups rice

1/4 teaspoon thyme

2 slices hot pepper, chopped

1 clove galic, crushed

2 scallions, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Place all ingredients except black-eyed peas inb large pot. Bring mixture to boil; turn to low heat and simmer 20-30 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed. Mix in black-eyed peas; heat 2-3 minutes and serve. Makes 4-6 servings.