A Peppapot Story
Original Article by James Leach
Empty-nest syndrome. It motivates some people to renovate the house. Or take a trip around the world. It inspired Marlene Henry to open a restaurant. “Not having the kids to cook for,” she told me recently at her year-old restaurant Peppa Pot on Gregory Street in the South Wedge, “I started cooking for friends’ parties, for people at work, for the Jamaican festival.” And everyone who tried her food agreed that it was so good that she should open a restaurant.
A year and a half later, having virtually gutted the place (the only vestige of its previous tenants is a wall of glass-fronted refrigerators that were presumably too expensive to remove – Henry has transformed them into walls by applying bamboo-patterned contact paper to the insides of the doors), Peppa Pot was ready to join the ranks of Rochester’s relatively small number of Jamaican restaurants.
During a busy lunch or dinner, it can feel like all of the customers at Peppa Pot know each other, and Henry seems to know most of them. Customers shout hellos to Henry as she bops around her open kitchen, assembling groaning plates full of rice and beans, fried plantains, stewed cabbage, and veggies, and a fried dumpling in addition to whatever meat or fish you might order. Like a benevolent grandmother, Henry doesn’t believe in the concept of “too much,” and she cheerfully violates the double (and even triple) starch rule. Those who fear carbs can eat around the rice and beans, and even shove aside the plantains. Both are perfectly good, but they are – as they should be – supporting players rather than the stars of the show.
No one, though, should avoid the fried dumpling perched on top of the mountain of food Henry serves you. It looks like an incredibly well-made drop-biscuit, replete with butter that has caused it to become as flaky and crispy as it cooks. But hidden inside is a tiny pocket of savory ground beef (think of it as a Jamaican patty in miniature) so laden with spices that it successfully balances all the rich creamy, goodness in the dough.
Marlene Henry has a masterful touch with the spices, making Jamaican standards like salt cod with beans, brown stew, curried goat, and jerk chicken seem new again. Salt cod, for instance, can be an acquired taste, the deeply fishy flavor of the dried, salted fish often overwhelming just about anything you put it with. For those of us who prefer a bit of brine, but would rather not have low tide in every bite of our dinner, Henry’s salt cod with brown beans is nearly perfect. It’s also one of the most labor-intensive dishes on her menu: she not only soaks and rinses the dried fish twice, she also cooks it twice before adding onions, sweet and hot peppers, and beans to the mix. The result has the slightest pleasant briny tang supported by the sweetness of peppers and onions and the earthy goodness of broad beans with undercurrents of cumin, garlic, and maybe a little thyme. I found myself asking her whether she was sure that she had used salt cod and not fresh in the dish. She works the same magic with brown stew, that Caribbean staple of chicken braised in a sauce built on caramelized sugar and chicken stock. Her gravy is thick and glossy, sweet and salty at the same time. Slow cooking allows the subtle spices of the dish to penetrate deep into the largest of the rough-cut bits of chicken in the dish. Look out for bones, but part of its charm is that you have to eat it deliberately, slowly, and often with your hands.
Henry’s curried goat is well worth the effort of picking up the bits and gnawing on them. Luxuriating in an almost-green curry sauce of her own creation (Henry couldn’t find a commercial curry powder that she liked, so she compounds her own), the goat at Peppa Pot is meaty and surprisingly mild. Deep red and so tender it slips off the bone almost without effort, this was the best goat I’ve ever tasted. I even found myself sucking whatever marrow remained in the bones because it was saturated with that incredible curry.
As you would expect, a woman who makes her own curry powder also makes stunningly good jerk rub. Henry harnesses the heat and makes it work for her as the courier of all of those wonderful aromas. A bit of vinegar and tamarind to add the requisite sourness to the dish, and this rub elevates a simple roast leg quarter to haute cuisine. It was good the day I had it at her restaurant, and somehow even better two days later when I polished off the spicy leftovers with rice and beans. Even if it were twice or even three times the price, you would be hard pressed to find a more soul-satisfying lunch. And I can guarantee that Marlene Henry will be glad to see you.