Photo: Ground mace, courtesy kevindooley.

When I moved to Birmingham in 2000 I was introduced to a quaint little walk-up restaurant with outdoor seating by the name of Tasty Jamaica. When I walked up to the the window, the aromas of jerk chicken, sweet bread and ginger filled my nose. I ordered a dinner of oxtails, rice and peas, mac 'n' cheese and plantains with a Ting (a ginger soda). This became my monthly treat to myself.

About two years ago I went through a serious Caribbean cooking phase. I  stocked my pantry with the basic herbs and spices of the cuisine. It's amazing what can be done once you know aregional flavor profile. For 6 months straight I transformed myeveryday meals into Caribbean masterpieces. I made everything from meatloaf to beef stew using these spices:

This past week I had a craving for some ofthose now-familiar flavors. The restaurant I loved has since closed soI once again headed to the market to stock up on spices. This time Ichose a less traditional, but more cost-effective route: spice blendsfrom Spice Islands and Spice Hunter. Not only are some available in a salt-free variety, they are actually pretty close to the real thing.

I made the most amazing meal of stewedoxtails, rice and pigeon peas, beef patties, and skillet plantains. Iused canned pigeon peas instead of dried ones  as a shortcut. If you can't find them canned, try the freezer section. Goya productsare great when it comes to preparing Caribbean, Mexican, and SouthAmerican cuisine. Here is my personal simple rice and peas recipe, agreat side dish for any occasion. (Note: It wasn't put through theregular Test Kitchens testing process.) Regular long-grain rice worksfine, but I prefer the sweetness of Jasmine.

Rice and Pigeon Peas
1 cup Jasmine rice
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup lite coconut milk, divided
1 cup canned or frozen Goya pigeon peas
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

1. Combine rice, water, and 1/2 cup coconutmilk in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover and reduce heat tolow. Cook 20 minutes or until  liquid is absorbed.
2. Stir in remaining 1/4 cup coconut milk and remaining ingredients.