Making Salt Fish and Ackee

Ackees, photo by kaiton

On Sunday, my boyfriend and I are hosting a fundraiser brunch at our apartment for the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation and their Friends for Life Bike Rally. We’ve done this brunch twice before and we always serve a full Caribbean meal — jerk chicken, ox tail stew, patties, ackee and saltfish, rum punch (!), plantain, rice and peas and so on. My mother is from Jamaica, so this food is near and dear to me. It’s like my mac-and-cheese or meatloaf — a deeply comforting reminder of childhood.

I particularly like ackee and saltfish. A fry-up of onions, tomatoes, scotch bonnet peppers, cod and ackees (a vegetable that looks and tastes a bit like scrambled eggs), it’s a tangy, spicy and savoury dish that has a fiery orange colour with pops of yellow. When I make it, I almost always use a recipe based on the one in Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz’s 1977 book, Caribbean Cookery. Her recipe calls for a lot of fat and bacon, but I’m a bit paranoid about my weight, so here’s what I do to make it a bit healthier:

1 lb. salt cod
1 tin of ackees
2 medium white onions, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 scotch bonnet pepper, seeded and finely chopped
4 green onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
4 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Freshly ground pepper
1 or 2 tablespoons coconut oil, for frying

Fill a large pot with cold water, add the saltfish and bring it to a simmer. When the water gets cloudy, dump it out and repeat until the fish is tender. Remove any skin and bones and flake with a fork. Set aside.

In a heavy pan over medium heat, fry the coconut oil then add the chopped white onions and green bell pepper. Sautée until they are soft and lightly browned.

Add the scotch bonnet pepper, thyme, green onions and the tomatoes. Fry until the tomatoes are nice and soft.

Add the flaked cod, and fry for about half an hour, adding water as necessary to prevent drying out. The longer the mixture cooks, the more flavour it has, so I sometimes keep it going for quite awhile. As long as it doesn’t burn, you can’t hurt it.

If you are eating right away, add the fish mixture to a serving dish. Drain, rinse and gently steam the ackees, then gently toss them into the fish mixture. Season with fresh pepper and enjoy!

If you are preparing ahead of time, transfer the fish mixture to a serving dish, cover and freeze. When you are ready to serve, pop the mixture in the oven and reheat it through. Meanwhile, gently steam your ackees and lightly toss them into the fish mixture just before serving. Season with freshly ground pepper, and enjoy!

Ackee and saltfish goes well with dumplings, bammy cakes or rice and peas. I like it straight up, though.

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