Steven Raichlen has left his tropical hat at home, but he's brought a jar of Puerto Rican cilantro pesto and some toasted coconut chips to sample it with on his Baltimore book-promoting tour. "It's called ajilimojili," he says. "Ah-HEE-li-moh-HEE-li. It's such a fun word to say. Aji is the Spanish word for pepper, and mojo is the word for sauce, so it's like, 'a little pepper sauce.' "
The recipe, which includes onions, garlic, bell peppers, cilantro, oil and vinegar, is one of 70 in Mr. Raichlen's new book, "The Caribbean Pantry Cookbook" (Artisan, $25). Research for the book turned Mr. Raichlen, who grew up in Baltimore, into a culinary Indiana Jones, searching the Caribbean region for authentic taste treasures and tracking down the spices and flavorings that make them unique.
"I tried to hit as much of the Caribbean as I could. I don't remember exactly how many islands I went to, but I hit all the major groups, English, French, Dutch, Spanish," he says.
Along the way he braved hot peppers -- including Scotch bonnet, the world's hottest -- and faced up to a dish of goat's head soup.
Signature flavors of the Caribbean include Scotch bonnet chilies, allspice berries, thyme, lime juice, garlic, chives, star anise and cumin. The techniques are fairly uniform, he said. "In every island, you start with a piece of meat or fish, and then you wash it with lime juice, and then you put some kind of seasoning on it -- or 'to it,' as they would say -- and then you cook it. And that seasoning and marinating time really helps bring out flavors."
The book reflects a profound change taking place on the American palate, Mr. Raichlen says. "The '90s have been called the flavor decade. I think there really has been a sea change in the way Americans approach food, with the coming to the foreground of intense flavorings and the receding of richness derived from animal fat -- that's one of the major trends of the '90s."
People who still harbor some residual fear of spicy food should "step back, take a deep breath, and relax," he says, "because in the history of this country, in the Colonial period when Baltimore was founded, when Fells Point was a major shipping point -- Marylanders loved spices. If you had walked into a grocery store 200 years ago, you would have found nutmegs, cloves and cinnamon and peppercorns and allspice berries. The Colonial kitchen was very intensely spiced."
He suggests spice-wary cooks start slow. "Add a little to start with. Using spices is not like building an atom bomb. Feel free to make substitutions. It's important to realize that not all spicy food is hot. Caribbean food is very spicy, in that it uses a lot of spices and flavorings. But only about 10 percent of the recipes in this book are what I would call really hot. If your problem is you're afraid of hot food, just leave out the peppers."
Mr. Raichlen said "It's no accident" the new book is appearing at this time of year. "I wanted to focus on items that you could put up in your pantry -- or that you could give as gifts," he says. "I think the nicest gifts are homemade. This is full of things you can put in jars or in boxes or in bottles or in flasks that are fun, that are pretty."
And, he noted, "for cold weather, it's really appropriate. People are always looking for a way to think warm. If you can't go to the Caribbean you can at least bring the taste of the Caribbean to you."
Here are some of Mr. Raichlen's recipes.
This Puerto Rican condiment is good with chips as a dip, as a marinade, or served with grilled seafood, grilled vegetables or grilled meats.
Makes 3 cups
2 medium onions, quartered
5 garlic cloves
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
3 tablespoons red bell pepper, cored, seeded, diced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, washed and stemmed
5 culentro leaves (see note)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Puree the onions, garlic, peppers, cilantro, culentro and oregano in a food processor. Add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and process until smooth. Correct the seasoning, adding more salt or vinegar to taste.
The sauce can also be made in a blender. In this case, add all the ingredients at once.
Transfer the sauce to clean jars. Refrigerated, it will keep several weeks.
Note: Culentro is a dark green leafy herb that might be available in some Hispanic markets. If you can't find it, use a little bit more cilantro.
In the Caribbean, tomatoes are often treated as the fruit they botanically are, Mr. Raichlen says. This next dish, candied tomatoes, can be served over cream cheese as a dip, or the tomatoes can be added to salads or served over ice cream or frozen yogurt. Use ripe but still firm plum tomatoes.
Dulce de tomate
Makes 1 1/2 pints
1 pound plum tomatoes
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup raisins
1 cinnamon stick, 2 inches long
1 piece of vanilla bean, 2 inches long, split