Vanessa Bolosier’s Sunshine Kitchen: Delicious Creole recipes from the heart of the Caribbean is a cookbook whose photos lift your soul every time you open it. Sea turquoises, sky blues and sunshine yellows predominate, punctuated with scotch bonnet reds and vivid jewel greens. Just flip through the book and you feel Vitamin D3-ed. Never has a book been so perfectly judgable by its cover.
Interestingly, I think Sunshine Kitchen was a secondary choice of name – the Introduction (Welcome to my Creole Kitchen) refers throughout to the name of the book as Creole Kitchen, and the cuisine as specifically based on classic dishes from Guadeloupe and Martinique. Chapter titles and recipe names are given in Creole as well as English (the index includes them too); just reading them gives a sense of the myriad of influences involved in Creole language, history and cooking. [Postscript: Thanks to the knowledgeable Catherine Phipps for pointing out that Sunshine Kitchen is indeed a slightly updated reissue of Vanessa’s Creole Kitchen.]
Four pages of introduction to Creole culture and cooking felt a bit measly for what is obviously an immensely historically rich tapestry and I would have loved to have more to read, or even been recommended a short reading list. Just from this limited intro, it’s utterly striking how deeply the impact of slavery, indentures and plantation life is imprinted on the ingredients, recipes and cooking techniques of the islands.
Vanessa starts each chapter of recipes with a short but evocative couple of paragraphs, and each recipe with a small personal insight and these, along with the photography, are what bring the book to life. She weaves the stories of her life, her family and her community through these glimpses.
Choosing recipes was an interesting process. Here in the rural north I’m not blessed with Caribbean food specialists so many of the more intriguing ingredients were mail order only. Vanessa provides a decent glossary and an online shopping directory (for the UK and the US) but I found I would have had to buy small volumes from several sources for the less widely-stocked items. I was able to go with more locally readily-available ingredients for the recipes I picked, and there are plenty in that category so don’t be put off if you’re living out in the sticks. The ‘What’s in my Creole Kitchen’ section was helpful in giving me an easily obtainable set of pots, utensils and food items to kick off with.
I was happy to see that the Drinks chapter (which often doesn’t exist, or seems like an afterthought in most cookbooks) is proudly first in this book. I was brought up in Trinidad and rum punch was a big, big thing, believe me! Thereafter, chapters follow a more traditional path: Starters; Fish and Seafood; Meat and Poultry; Sides; Soups; Sauces and Condiments; Syrups (for cocktails and desserts); Desserts.
There are some enticing punches in the Drinks chapter, and several drinks that need to macerate or mature (so reading ahead is vital or you might get caught out). There are peppy non-alcoholic options too, like Hibiscus Drink and Ginger Juice. I made Ti’punch, a Creole institution and not for the faint-hearted, just unadorned lime, sugar and rum (adding ice is frowned upon). Refreshing, but beware, a couple will lay you out!
Starters include slaws, salads, fritters, tarts and little pies. Some of these, like Green Mango Souskaï, Creole-Style Okra and Coconut Slaw would sit as neatly in the Sides chapter. Crab Matété (a rich rice dish tempered with lime) appealed from the Fish and Seafood chapter but a mysterious absence of crab claws on my trip to the fish market pushed me towards the fabulously named Prawn Blaff. This deceptive recipe has a few aromats, the prawns, water and nothing else yet was probably my favourite from the whole book. It sparkled with flavour, was well balanced and stupidly easy to make. I served it with some roasted sweet potatoes and it was bowl-lickingly great (if you’re reading this mum, I apologise for my appalling table manners).
Mutton Columbo from the Meat and Poultry section is so intrinsic to Gaudeloupe and Martinique life that it’s got to be up there on my to-make list, but I chose the Chicken Fricassée to try first. One of the relatively few recipes without a photo, it lived up to brown food’s reputation as some of the best things to eat: warm spices and pings of lime and chilli complemented the thighs I used. The timings seemed off on this recipe though. Thighs survived the 50 minute simmer, but I doubt the bird’s breasts would have been as accommodating if I’d used the portioned whole chicken Vanessa recommends.
I served this up with Rice and Beans from the Sides chapter and it worked well – the Rice and Beans is umami as hell, and I would comfortably eat it all on its own, greedily, with a big spoon, guarding it with my life. In fact, I plan to.
I also made the dull-sounding Stewed Lentils from the Sides chapter, served up with oven-baked sea bream. It may have a simple name but it’s another richly savoury dish packed with layered undercurrents of flavour. Vanessa suggests serving rice alongside too but you’d have to have the appetite of an ox. Word to the wise, I needed more water than Vanessa suggests and nearly had a burnt-bottom disaster, so do be a little wary when she says “you can watch a movie while these are simmering”. I’m also planning Mamoune’s Plantain Gratin from this chapter when I can get hold of the main ingredient.
There are half a dozen options in the Soups chapter, primarily meat or fish based, like the excellently named Fat Soup (a huge bowlful made typically on a Sunday with “fatty meats”), and a handful of condiments, primarily chilli- and garlic-based in the Sauces and Condiments chapter.
From the Desserts chapter I’m determined to try the Wine Pineapple (pineapple marinated in red wine sounds weirdly brilliant), and there’s also an abundance of fritters, cakes, flans and pastries using coconut, pineapple and bananas. There’s also a delightfully named Love Torment dessert. I couldn’t resist Flambé Bananas (Vanessa makes hers with plantain but I had bananas to use up). It’s a very simple pud but like everything I tried from this book, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in flavour. It was darkly spiced and decadent, with a pop of lime to lift it.
Sometimes cookbooks leave you with a “yeah, I’ll probably make a few things from that” feeling, and inevitably spend more time gathering dust than spreadeagled and spattered on the kitchen bench, but I genuinely enjoyed every dish from this ray-of-sunshine book. Vanessa is a lovely wordsmith, drawing you into the recipes with her little island vignettes, and the flavours fulfil the promise the photos make.
Recipes from Sunshine Kitchen
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Kavey Eats was provided with a review copy of Vanessa Bolosier’s Sunshine Kitchen from publisher Pavilion Books. Book cover image provided by publishers, all other images by Nicky Bramley.