When I think of a tropical salad, the first thing that springs to mind is some horrible combination of pineapple, oranges, coconut shavings and maraschino cherries with a gloppy dressing based on bad mayonnaise, probably a flashback to some early ‘70s pseudo luau I was dragged into, or to some side dish tasted at a Tiki-type restaurant of the same vintage. Caribbean? Hawaiian? Polynesian? It was all the same to me and to a lot of clueless mainlanders, back then.
That these dishes were wildly inauthentic and had nothing to do with any island cooking is obvious. But when I recently went looking for “real” Caribbean salad recipes for non-island climes, I ran into the problem that these early attempts at exotic salads were trying, however grossly, to solve.
Many of the recipes I discovered required ingredients--fruits, vegetables and herbs--so exotic as to be unobtainable outside the West Indies, or at least rarely available and only at great cost, both to wallet and ecosystem. I have eaten Star Fruit on rare occasions, but I must admit never to having seen, let alone tasted, callaloo, pawpaw, breadfruit or ortaniques, which may be widely exported from Jamaica but not to my local grocery store.
Then I discovered The Sugar Mill Caribbean Cookbook by Jinx and Jefferson Morgan. Perhaps because these innkeepers are transplants to Tortola from California, the Morgans’ recipes are notably friendly to cooks attempting Caribbean dishes outside the West Indies.
A delicious case in point: This recipe for Green Papaya Salad uses unripe papayas, “much as you might use zucchini.” Since unripe papayas (and unripe, pallid fruit in general) are relatively easy to obtain in the northeastern United States, this is an authentic Caribbean salad that is possible to reproduce nearly anywhere. Here it is:
6-8 small servings.
3 green papayas (with no yellow streaks if possible), peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes or julienne strips.
2 Tablespoons rinsed dcapers
1 Tablespoon celery seed
2 chopped red bell peppers
1 whole egg
1 Tablespoon grated parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup olive oil
Green loose-leaf lettuce or spinach leaves
- Cook the papaya in a covered pan with as little water as possible, so that all the moisture will be absorbed by the time the papaya is done. Simmer the papaya until it is tender, usually about 15 minutes.
- Let the papaya cool, then chill it.
- Toss the capers, celery seed, peppers and onions in a bowl with the chilled papaya.
- In another bowl, whisk together the dressing ingredients. Add just enough dressing to the salad to moisten it, and toss the salad. (Refrigerate any remaining dressing to use on tossed green salads.)
- Spoon the papaya salad into a bowl lined with lettuce or spinach leaves, and serve.
Another unusual unripe fruit salad from the Morgans uses green bananas.
Green Bananas in Olive Vinaigrette
Makes 6 servings.
4 lb green bananas
2 quarts water
2 cups milk
1 Tablespoon salt
½ cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 ¼ cups olive oil
1 ½ cups pitted Kalamata olives
4 bay leaves
½ cup minced fresh parsley
- Trim the ends off each banana and make two lengthwise slits in the peel, on opposite sides. Do not remove the peel or cut into the flesh.
- Put the water into a large pot with the milk and salt.
- Bring the liquid to a boil and add the bananas.
- Reduce the heat and simmer the bananas until they appear cooked but are still firm, usually about 15-20 minutes.
- Drain the bananas, peel them, and cut them diagonally into 1 inch pieces.
- To make the dressing, combine the vinegar, salt and pepper in a glass bowl.
- Slowly whisk in the oil, then stir in the olives, bay leaves and banana slices.
- Allow the salad to stand at room temperature for at least an hour. Remove the bay leaves and stir in the minced parsley before serving.