How to Make a Perfect Pot of Jamaican Rice and Peas
Transport yourself to the Caribbean with this recipe from chef Andre Fowles.
One of the best things about food is that it can unite people across cultures, languages, states, and even countries. This is especially true for Thanksgiving feasts when families like mine might gather around long dinner tables, debating over which aunt makes the best mac 'n cheese. As someone with more cousins, aunts and uncles than I can physically count, I value the chance to indulge in the vast amount of dishes prepared with the type of TLC that I can only aspire to achieve.
Before the table is set and everyone is seated, the real magic begins in the kitchen, during the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. Every year, I’d find my grandma and mom in the kitchen with my aunt as she gets to work on her famous (to me at least) rice and peas. After the first time I tried this Caribbean staple, I knew it had to make an appearance at every future get-together. Not only does a huge bowl of it taste amazing, but it also lets me experience my aunt’s culture and upbringing through a dish that is special to her.
And so, I decided I would try to recreate the dish myself in my tiny Brooklyn apartment. To help me, I called Andre Fowles, three-time Food Network Chopped champion and chef at Miss Lily’s, one of my favorite Caribbean spots in New York. Fowles was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, around aunts, grandmothers and a lot of extended family. His passion for cooking grew due to his grandmother’s Sunday meals, which of course included rice and peas.
“She doesn't measure any ingredients and it would always taste and look the same every single Sunday,” he says. “We would typically eat rice and peas every Sunday with whatever meat and vegetables that were available.”
Before taking a swing and hopefully doing justice to my aunt’s cooking and Fowles’ recipe, I did some research on the origins of this popular dish and discovered that it is derived from a Ghanaian specialty, waakye, which typically consists of red beans or black-eyed peas, rice, and millet leaves. A versatile side, rice and peas can be paired with literally anything. I’ve eaten it with traditional Caribbean meats like jerk chicken and oxtail, but Fowles says it also goes well with curry goat, grilled snapper, roasted chicken, and roasted veggies.
As the true Southern gal that I am, I have a soft spot for recipes passed down and inspired by grandmothers, so it was a no-brainer that I had to get the details from Fowles on how to make one based on one of my favorite meals.
Perfecting the “peas”
One important thing to note is that although the dish is called rice and peas, the traditional Caribbean way of cooking it uses red kidney beans. But if you prefer pigeon peas, you can use those as well. Depending on how much time you have before dinner—or how hungry you are—you can either soak your peas overnight or boil them the day of. Since I was planning on making this for my Sunday meal, I decided to soak them Saturday night to maximize my time. Then, you’ll want to cook them for roughly 30 minutes until they’re slightly tender.
It should come as no surprise that the pea stock needs to be seasoned. After your peas are about halfway cooked, start seasoning the water with garlic, chopped ginger, fresh scallions, fresh thyme, and pimenta berries, or allspice.
Fowles suggests only adding half a teaspoon of allspice, as you don’t want to add too much and overpower your rice and peas. It’s better to have to add more later than be unable to take some out when it’s too late. You’ll then let the peas finish cooking for another 15 minutes and at that point, you’ll add in the magic of coconut milk.
“Typically we use fresh coconut milk in Jamaica, but honestly, since I’ve been in New York, I haven’t used much fresh coconut milk,” Fowles says. “I just get it from the can, and that works perfectly fine as well, because it’s hard to use fresh stuff here, as there’s too much processing.”
Once you see all the ingredients coming together in your pot, add salt and one whole scotch bonnet pepper that’s green and not too ripe. I had to search a bit to find fresh scotch bonnet peppers as the larger grocery stores near me didn’t carry them, but I eventually found some at a Caribbean market.
“You want to get that fruitiness from the scotch bonnet, because a lot of people think that scotch bonnet peppers are only about the heat, but it’s a really beautiful flavor that comes from the green chile that's more fruity and really pronounced, and that gives your stock a really beautiful flavor,” Fowles says.
After you finish cooking the peas and the stock is seasoned to your liking, you can remove the scotch bonnet pepper and pimenta seeds, if you’re using the whole berries instead of the ground allspice.
Prepping and cooking the rice
To really take your rice and peas to the next flavor level, use jasmine rice instead of regular long grain white rice. “In Jamaica, we use long grain rice but I found that jasmine rice has an extra flavor and it definitely enhances the flavor of the rice and peas,” Fowles says.
Even though it’s a more fragrant rice, you still want to make sure you wash it three to four times to remove the excess starch. Then, drain it into a strainer and add to your seasoned stock with your peas. After 25-30 minutes of cooking your combined mixture on low, you’ll then have a perfect pot of rice and peas.
Recipe for Jamaican Rice and Peas
**Makes 4 servings**
- 2 cups of Jasmine rice
- 2 cups of water
- 1 cup of unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 1 whole green scotch bonnet (unbroken)
- 1 teaspoon of fresh ginger (minced)
- 1 sprig of fresh thyme
- ¼ cup of scallions, chopped
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 1 can of red kidney beans, drained and rinsed (14 ounce)
- 2 teaspoons of kosher salt
- 10 whole allspice berries or 1/2 teaspoon of ground allspice
1. Rinse rice under cold running water 3-4 times to remove excess starch, then pour into a strainer to drain.
2. In a medium-large saucepan, add the kidney beans, water, allspice, whole green scotch bonnet, thyme, garlic, ginger and salt. Simmer over medium heat for 2-3 minutes.
3. Add the coconut milk, butter and scallion and allow to simmer under low heat for an additional 4-5 minutes.
4. Remove the scotch bonnet pepper (be careful not to bruise)
5. Add the rice then cover and allow to cook over low for 15-20 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed and rice is tender.