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Jamaica’s Most Comforting Routine

Beneath its world-renowned jerked meats and festive seafood dishes lies the beating heart of Jamaican cuisine: stew peas.
By Published Nov. 30, 2021

When I left oceanside Montego Bay to attend cooking school in the hills of New York’s Hudson Valley, making a warming batch of my grandmother’s stew peas always soothed my homesick heart. And whenever I returned to visit, Grandma invariably welcomed me with a pot bubbling with rich coconut milk; perfumed with fresh thyme, scallions, a fiery Scotch bonnet chile, and allspice berries (known as pimento in the Caribbean); and brimming with red peas, salted pig tails, and the simple dumplings known as spinners.

These days, I am again living on the island, and the homey dish is still woven into our routine: After making a batch, Grandma always packs extra in a food storage container for my lunch—a sweet, silent signal that I was on her mind as she cooked.

Stewing It Over

To many Jamaicans, stew peas is a poem written just for them, a story that speaks of childhoods spent cooking at their grandma’s side, and a lesson that teaches proper seasoning of food and the soul. So as I took on the challenge of developing my own version, I felt a deep sense of responsibility. I wanted to create a recipe that would be accessible to cooks in the United States—particularly the Jamaican diaspora—and rise to the level of my grandmother’s. In addition to being an avid cook, she was a home economics teacher for 25 years, so the bar was high. 

I considered the beans first. Many Jamaicans, including Grandma, use local dried red peas, a petite variety that cooks up creamy, with a distinctive earthiness. Cooks living in more rural areas of the country tend to use garden-fresh red peas, and still others opt for dried red kidney beans, citing a preference for their mild taste. 

Nothing could beat the patience, love, and care embodied in Grandma’s stew peas.

Since dried red peas aren’t easy to source in the United States, I experimented with dried kidney beans as well as beans labeled “small red beans” that have a similar color and size to dried red peas. The small red beans cooked up velvety soft, whereas the kidneys were slightly grainy, so I chose the former.   

After soaking the beans overnight, I sautéed some aromatics. Grandma sizzles a straightforward trio of chopped green bell pepper, onion, and loads of fresh garlic in unrefined coconut oil for a potent hit of coconut. In addition to her mix, I included celery for its subtle bitter qualities, along with garlic powder for its roasty tones. 

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Essentials of the Jamaican Kitchen

Stew peas feature many of the foundational ingredients of Jamaican cookery: fragrant allspice berries harvested from native evergreen pimento shrubs; fresh thyme and scallions (these are typically bundled in pairs at markets); fruity, fiery Scotch bonnet chiles; and fresh and powdered garlic. 

This assemblage, along with coconut milk and coconut oil—the fruit is another elemental food of the island—infuses the stew with the vibrant complexity that’s characteristic of the tropical cuisine.

 

When the onion was translucent, in went the beans and their ruddy soaking liquid, along with some chicken broth. (Grandma keeps it simple with water only, but I liked the subtlety provided by a couple cups of the savory liquid.) Next, I piled a combination of herbs and spices onto a swath of cheesecloth that I secured with kitchen twine, creating a tidy bundle that would be easy to retrieve at the end of simmering. A bay leaf offered a faint medicinal quality that would offset the sweet-nutty coconut milk that I planned on adding later. Allspice berries hinted of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg; sprigs of fresh thyme provided an herbal backdrop; and the requisite neon Scotch bonnet flaunted bright, sweet heat.

For the meat, I deviated from the customary salted pig tails or salted beef, both of which must be desalinated prior to cooking and can be hard to find in the States. Instead, I opted for a pair of smoked ham hocks, which, though not traditional, was not a huge leap since some cooks make stew peas using the leftover bone from a Christmas ham. 

Fiery or Mild? It’s up to You

Scotch bonnets are typically dropped whole into a pot of stew peas, where, during simmering, the chile eventually bursts, or “buss,” as Jamaicans say, releasing its potent juice into the broth. But wrapping the chile (first pierced with the tip of a paring knife) in a cheesecloth bundle prevents it from breaking apart, thus offering the cook some control over the spiciness level of the stew. Before removing the bundle, taste the broth. If it needs more zing, use the back of a spoon to press the bundle against the side of the pot, squeezing out the pungent liquid that resides in the chile.

Pressure cooking has become a common method for making stew peas, welcomed by many households because of the time and fuel savings. However, I went with an unhurried stovetop approach because I found that the flavors melded together a bit more elegantly during a leisurely simmer. 

After 1½ hours, the beans had begun to soften and release their plush starch into the broth, which was slightly reduced. I stirred in some coconut milk and continued to simmer for 30 minutes longer until the beans were tender. Jamaicans are partial toward coconut milk powder reconstituted with water, but the canned type is amply satiny and coconutty. 

Going for a Spin

While the beans finished, I mixed up the dough for the spinners. Children are often encouraged to help prepare these rustic delights, kneading flour, water, and a touch of salt together before “spinning” bits of dough between their small palms and gently dropping the tapered oblong shapes into the stew.

By the time I had produced a plateful of spinners, the ham hocks were tender and the beans soft and creamy. I pulled the hocks out of the pot and dropped in the spinners. While the dumplings poached, I picked off the succulent ham, discarded the bones along with any skin and excess fat, and chopped the meat into small pieces before returning it to the stew. 

How to Make Spinners 

These unleavened flour-and-water dumplings, playfully named for how they are shaped, are an essential component of stew peas. As the spinners poach, some of the flour sloughs off, giving the broth body, and their satisfying chew makes the dish even heartier. To make one, pinch off about 1 teaspoon of dough and roll it between your palms to form a 3-inch-long dumpling with tapered ends.

Illustration: John Burgoyne

To finish, I stirred in more fresh thyme—chopped this time—along with a generous handful of chopped scallions, before letting the stew simmer for 10 to 15 minutes longer until the allium just wilted, providing a grassy freshness that most versions lack.

With creamy red beans, smoky ham, and hearty dumplings floating in a silky broth redolent with coconut and bold herbs, spices, and aromatics, my stew peas recipe was complete. To celebrate, my family held a good-natured cook-off: my stew peas versus Grandma’s. It was a close battle, but after careful deliberation, my entry was crowned the winner for being slightly more refined and balanced. And yet, I couldn’t claim victory. Nothing could beat the patience, love, and care embodied in Grandma’s stew peas. In my eyes, she remains undefeated.  

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.