A traditional Caymanian Christmas dinner table might have featured pork, turtle meat, conch and crab, but it was Christmas beef that was the star of the show – and still is in many Caymanian households.
For many, it was the only time they would eat beef since it was so expensive. Families would save for it all year and then splurge on the special treat.
The butchering of the beef usually took place the day before Christmas and the meat was quickly distributed to families since there was no refrigeration in days gone by. Often it was given as a gift for a family. The beef would be cooked slowly in iron pots on low fire until it was succulent and moist. Many rich and flavorful stews could be made from beef and pork; added to them would be locally grown vegetables such as cassava, yam, plantain and pumpkin, and the dish would be seasoned with various herbs and hot peppers like Scotch bonnet.
Some children would re-enact their mother’s prepping in the kitchen in miniature thatched huts built for them in the yard to act as their very own house. They would cook and bake their own food creations using their imaginations – and keep out of their mother’s hair.
As for the sweets, dark rum-laced fruitcakes were often made days in advance by the women of the house, as well as heavy cakes made with cassava. Spiced sorrel (similar to hot apple cider but made with the sorrel plant) was also a popular drink.
Of course, just like today, bake sales and church bazaars were an important tradition and a great way to raise money for the various churches. Many items sold included those made of thatch or sisal, such as hats, baskets and purses.
Some of these old-time traditions may no longer be in practice, but others have been passed down through the generations and carry on today. One thing is for certain: Memories of a bygone era remain in the hearts and minds of many Caymanians.
(From “Miss Cleo’s Cayman Kitchen: Treasured Recipes from East End,” re-printed in 2010)
8 cloves fresh garlic
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 large sprigs fresh thyme
4 large scallions, white and green parts
1/2 seeded Scotch bonnet pepper or 3 mutton peppers, including seeds
4 seasoning peppers
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Pickapeppa Sauce
For the beef
4-1/2-pound boneless rump roast or sirloin tip roast
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon Garlic & Herb Mrs. Dash seasoning blend
1-1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons browning or Kitchen Bouquet
1 large onion, chopped
3 seasoning peppers, chopped, including seeds
beef broth (as needed)
Rinse the beef in cold water and vinegar and pat dry. Trim off any thick sections of excess fat, but leave a nice layer on one side. Pierce beef all over with a sharp knife, making cuts deep enough to hold seasoning. Combine the garlic, thyme scallions and peppers in a small chopper or food processor and chop fine, or chop by hand. Use a rubber spatula to scrape this into a small bowl. Add the salt, ground pepper and Worcestershire sauce and Pickapeppa Sauce and mix well. Before you begin seasoning the meat, put on disposable vinyl gloves if you have them – the hot pepper will irritate your skin. (If you don’t use gloves, then remember to wash your hands immediately after handling the beef, for sanitary reasons as well).
Put the meat on a platter, and using your fingertips, stuff some seasoning into each cut in the beef. This takes time to do properly, and be sure to push the seasoning in deep enough so the flavors will penetrate the meat. Spread any remaining rub over the surface, top and bottom and ends. Cover the beef tightly with plastic wrap (not foil!) Refrigerate overnight, or even better, a day or two.
When ready to cook the meat, remove roast from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove wrap and heat oil in Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium high heat until hot. Place the beef in the hot oil and use a large, heavy fork to turn meat, browning well on all sides, turning as each side browns. Turn off the heat and remove the roast from the pot to a clean platter and sprinkle with Worcestershire Sauce, salt, Mrs. Dash and pepper. Now sprinkle the browning and smooth evenly with a knife over the roast.
Preheat oven to 325 F. Add the onion and carrots to the pot, stirring so any browned bits stuck to the bottom are loosened and mixed with the vegetables. Return the roast to the pot and heat over medium high heat for 3 minutes until vegetables being to soften. Add the broth, to make a half inch, and stir again – I throw in a few more sliced seasoning peppers too.
Cover beef and bake about 2-1/2 hours. The vegetables and broth should provide enough cooking liquid (and gravy base). However, you should check the roast from time to time to make sure it isn’t drying out, and turn it as well. This is very important if you aren’t sure of your exact oven temperature.
Add a little more broth if necessary.
Remove cover during the last 30 minutes of roasting. Beef is done when you can pierce easily with a fork – some prefer even “falling apart” for shredding. Remove from heat and transfer the roast to a serving platter. Cover with aluminum foil and let stand for 20 minutes before carving. Make gravy if desired from the cooking liquid or taste. Adjust seasonings if desired, and spoon over beef as is.
Cleo states: “After you go through all the work of browning the beef, you can also cook this recipe in a 6-quart crock pot or slow cooker for 12 hours on low, or 5-1/2 to 6 hours on high and walk away for the day! It won’t have as nice a crust, but it will still be delicious.”
(Courtesy of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association)
You will need
1 lb sorrel sepals
1 tsp of ginger, minced and crushed
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp orange zest
2 liters of water
8 tbsp sugar
Separate sepals from seeds and rinse. Add sorrel, ginger, orange zest into large container (or six canning jars). Add boiling water and cover with cloth. Set aside for at least 24 hours. Add sugar (and rum) to taste. Set aside for another 24 hours. Bottle and chill.