Cindy Hutson’s Thanksgiving dinner table looks a lot like Miami.
The turkey is brined in jerk seasonings. Stuffing is made out of mofongo, mashed plantains. Traditional yams are replaced by breadfruit.
And gathered around the New Jersey-born transplant are loved ones who both influenced and benefited from the cuisine that is her signature at Zest, in downtown, and Ortanique, in Coral Gables: her “Jamericans.”
Her three children, American born to a Jamaican dad whose family is from the coffee-growing Blue Mountain region, are the ultimate symbol of Hutson’s love for an island that shaped her “cuisine of the sun.”
“I fell in love with the place the second I got there,” Hutson said. “I fell in love with the island, the people, the topography, the soil ... .”
The flavors that spring from her kitchen are a poem to multicultural Miami and her family. They speak to the region’s residents who adopted a uniquely American holiday with a universal theme — stopping to give thanks — and made it their own.
So Hutson wrote a menu for a Thanksgiving meal that represents the flavors of Miami with a nod to its — and her — American roots.
Hutson’s jerk-brined turkey is redolent of allspice, cinnamon, ginger and thyme, as well as jerk seasonings. It uses scotch bonnet peppers for a kick, and Hutson said the secret is brining the bird with brewed medium-roast coffee, a nod to Jamaica’s tradition of producing some of the world’s best coffee.
“Those seasonings have the flavors of the holidays,” she said. “They’re very aromatic. It smells like the holidays when it’s cooking.”
Irish and Danish in background, Hutson says her childhood home was always the neighborhood gathering place. “When people showed up, you just fed them,” she said.
She found those same qualities in Jamaica, a country influenced by African, British, Chinese, Spanish and indigenous cultures, where “there are always gatherings, always an event, it seems,” she said. And food was at the heart of it.
“And Miami is like that. I wanted to reach all different palates,” Hutson said.
That’s why for years her stuffing has been replaced by a version of Puerto Rican mofongo. She uses a mix of ripe and green plantains with Applewood-smoked bacon and toasted almonds and pecans.
Nothing on her Thanksgiving menu references Miami’s mix of cultures like her take on a yam casserole, which combines sweet yams, Caribbean ñame and breadfruit. She experiments with the starchy breadfruit in everything from vegan dishes to desserts, and she is an avid proponent of using breadfruit, which grows prolifically in the tropics and is common in Jamaican, Haitian and Cuban cooking, as a staple to stamp out hunger in developing countries.
“It isn’t as known as it should be,” she said. “It gets me thinking out of the box.
Which sounds like a very Miami thing to do.
Cindy Hutson’s Jerk Turkey Brine
4 cups water
4 cups brewed coffee (medium roast is best)
3 tablespoons jerk paste
10 bay leaves
4 cinnamon sticks, bruised
2 inch piece of ginger, sliced thin
24 allspice berries
20 cloves garlic, smashed (skin on is OK)
4 Scotch Bonnet peppers, each poked with a knife)
1 3/4 cups kosher salt
2 bunches fresh thyme
2 yellow onions, coarsely chopped (skin on is ok)
1/2 cup sugar
4 oranges cut in half
4 limes cut in half
Bring all the ingredients to a boil in a large pot. Let the ingredients boil lightly for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add 4 quarts of ice to the hot brine to help cool it quicker. When cooled, submerge the turkey in it and place in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours. The longer the time, the greater the spice it will have. Once removed from the brine, pat dry and place the turkey in a roasting pan and externally season the skin with a bit of butter or olive oil, and place some underneath the skin as well as some fresh herbs. Roast for the recommended time according to the weight of the bird.
Cindy Hutson’s Mofongo
2 large semi-ripe plantains
3 large very green plantains
1 large diced onion (about 1 1/2 cups)
20 cloves chopped garlic
10 ounces Applewood-smoked bacon
1 cup toasted almonds pulverized
1 cup toasted pecans pulverized
1 bunch chopped cilantro
1/2 cup lime juice
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
1/4-1/2 cup fat from bacon
Dice bacon and slowly cook in sauté pan and reserve the fat. Peel the plantains and cut in 2-inch pieces. Fry the green and ripe plantains separately until golden brown. Remove from fryer and allow to cool. Meanwhile, saute diced onion and chopped garlic in the bacon fat. After toasting the nuts, pulverize them along with the green plantains in food processor. Place green plantain mixture in a stainless steel bowl. Now place the ripe plantains along with the remaining ingredients into the food processor and blend to a paste. Using your hands, mix the paste with green plantain mixture in stainless steel bowl. Add the salt and sugar, mix thoroughly. Place in a Pyrex baking dish and cover. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for approximately 15 minutes or heated through.
Hutson’s Caribbean Yam Gratin
1 1/2 pounds sliced breadfruit
1 1/2 pounds sliced ñame, (Caribbean yam)
1 1/2 pounds sliced sweet yam
1 1/2 cups yellow onion
1 cup carrot
1/4 cup salted butter
1 teaspoon black pepper, ground
1 bunch fresh thyme, picked
3 tablespoons Kosher salt or to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 quart heavy cream
10 large whole eggs
1 pound cheddar cheese grated (For cheesier gratin add another 1/2 pound)
1 1/2 cup parmesan, grated. Reserve 1/2 cup to top gratin
Sauté the onions, garlic, carrot, salt and pepper in a small stock pot with butter. On low heat, stir frequently until tender. Meanwhile wash the breadfruit, yams and ñame, leaving the skin on but removing any bruises. Slice them on a French mandolin about 1/8-inch thick. Place them in a very large bowl. Return to onions and add heavy cream, stirring. Bring to a slight boil and then turn off.
Whisk the eggs in a second large bowl. Slowly drizzle the hot cream mixture while continuing to whisk, taking care not to pour too quickly or you will scramble the eggs. Once it is all incorporated, pour the hot liquid over the sliced yams and breadfruit. Once they are all coated, begin layering in a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. After each two layers, sprinkle with both cheeses. Add a few tablespoons of the egg mixture on each layer. Repeat procedure, layering again until you have filled the baking dish. Baked covered in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes. Check doneness with a fork and once tender, sprinkle the half cup of grated cheese evenly on top and continuing baking until golden brown. Remove and let stand for 10 minutes before cutting.
Note: Breadfruit is available most of the year at Caribbean markets. If out of season, substitute with regular potatoes or yam.