The food of the Caribbean is a melting pot. The flavors and cooking methods of India, Asia, Europe and Africa are all reflected in the dishes served in the 13 island nations and 12 territories of the more than 7,000 islands in the Caribbean.
When Jacob Thomas opened West Midtown's Rock Steady in November 2019, he and chef Christian "Lucke" Bell created a menu based on dishes of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. "My mother is from Haiti and I've been eating Caribbean cuisine ever since I can remember. When I was opening this restaurant with my partner Joe Russo, I wanted to present authentic food but using high-quality ingredients. I'm from the generation where we want Whole Foods, organic everything." The business partners chose to include food inspired from Haiti, Martinique and Jamaica, paying homage to West Africa, where many of those dishes originated.
If you’re looking for a menu that lists the dishes from Jamaica as distinguished from the dishes of Haiti and those of Puerto Rico, you won’t find it here. Rock Steady’s menu is not laid out by country. “We let our servers have fun explaining the menu, and we’re constantly educating them on the inspiration behind the dishes.”
Some dishes, like their hugely popular griot and pikliz, are absolutely traditional. “You’ll find griot served with pikliz and plantains in every Haitian household, prepared exactly the same way we make it. But we also serve Oxtail Pappardelle, which uses a traditional Jamaican oxtail preparation and pairs that with Italian noodles. It’s a great marriage and not something you’ll find anywhere else.”
Thomas notes that the epise that seasons the griot is essentially Haitian sofrito, a mixture of onions, garlic, red pepper, green pepper and Scotch bonnet peppers blended with citrus juice. “It’s the foundation for Haitian cuisine. Start with epise and you can make stews, rice, marinades, use it to season fried snapper or fried goat. Haitians use it for everything.”
He says just as you would expect a food shack in Jamaica to serve jerk chicken, in Haiti, “It’s almost guaranteed to be griot. It’s the comfort food of Haiti.”
And served on the side, you’ll find pikliz, a vinegar- and citrus juice-dressed salad of cabbage, onions and carrots for a little color. “There’s acidity and sweetness and you’ll find it served with any Haitian dish like stewed chicken or griot. It’s like when you go to a Southern barbecue restaurant, you’re always served slaw.”
It’s the kind of thing, like griot, that benefits from being made ahead of time. At Rock Steady, they rest their pikliz at least 48 hours and make a new batch at least once a week. “It can sit longer. At home, my mother has jars that are probably 3 years old. It’s still good because the vinegar keeps it pickled.”
Jacob Thomas and Joe Russo are pondering the reopening of West Midtown’s Rock Steady, which they closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, cooking these recipes is the only way to enjoy several of the most popular dishes on their menu.
Rock Steady Griot
At Rock Steady, they prepare this recipe several times a week using 80 pounds of pork butt at a time. We scaled this recipe down to about a sixteenth of that. Like any good braise, it benefits from being prepared at least a day in advance of serving.
At the restaurant, it’s served with pikliz and tostones (fried plantains), the pikliz providing exactly the right tangy counterpoint to the richness of the pork.
This mixture of onions, peppers, garlic and herbs will remind you of sofrito. This recipe makes enough for the Griot recipe here, but you can scale up or down as needed. The traditional Haitian version would use Scotch bonnet peppers, but as they can be difficult to find, Jacob Thomas suggests the habanero listed here.
When they make it at Rock Steady, they use 3 1/2 pounds of onions, 3 pounds of red and green peppers and 2 1/2 pounds of garlic. The result is 2 gallons of epise.
Consider this the summer slaw you’ve been dreaming of. Crunchy, tangy with citrus juice, just a little bit hot (with the amount of pepper we’ve included), it’s just the right side for rich dishes or anywhere you want something with a peppery punch.
When first made, the pikliz is pretty hot, but the heat mellows as it sits and we found the final result perfect for folks who appreciate a little heat, but don’t want something overwhelming. Rock Steady’s Jacob Thomas notes that when his mother makes this, “she throws all the hot peppers in there.”
Keep the pikliz in the vinegar-citrus liquid until you’re ready to use it. And don’t discard the liquid when the pikliz is gone. You could use it in place of vinegar, lemon or lime juice in any recipe. It would be great in vinaigrettes, adding just that little bit of heat.
Again, at the restaurant, they make a big batch, starting with 15 pounds of cabbage, 10 pounds of carrots and 8 pounds of onions to yield 22 quarts. We’ve scaled way, way back. You can cut it further, but it’s so delicious you just might not want to. “I joke and say that we might serve more pikliz than anywhere else in the country,” said Jacob Thomas.
Rock Steady Haitian Fried Snapper
Jacob Thomas of Rock Steady shared the restaurant’s recipe for fried snapper, a dish he says is probably the most popular item on their menu.
We started with a snapper that weighed just over 2 pounds. Removing the fins and spine gave us about a little more than a pound and a half of fish, including the head. When you remove the head after serving, the yield is about a pound of fish.
To re-create the look of a swimming fish, as they serve this at Rock Steady, you’ll need to curl the fish into a circle as you place it in the oil, and have a cooking container that will help it hold that shape. At the restaurant, a deep fryer basket does that work for them.
Rock Steady Gluten-Free Flour Mix
It’s another recipe the restaurant prepares in bulk: They batch 6 pounds of this at a time. It will store perfectly on the pantry shelf, so consider making up a little more for breading anything you’re going to saute.
Rock Steady Seafood Seasoning
We liked this seasoning mix with the unusual addition of marjoram, which is actually really great with seafood. Use some for the snapper and save the rest for when you’re cooking other fin fish or shellfish.
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