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Course of Action is a recurring monthly column by Marcus K. Dowling. He believes that behind every great meal, there’s an even better story. This column takes things one step further by exploring how a single dish or course can represent a chef’s background and culinary inspirations.
Restaurant: Cane, 403 H St. NE
The Story: Chef Peter Prime’s Caribbean cooking at Cane is primarilyly inspired by his upbringing in Cocorite, Trinidad and Tobago, where his mother imparted countless kitchen lessons that have long resonated with him.
“We say that a good cook in Trinidad has ‘sweet hands,” Prime says. “Even though I didn’t understand it when I was a child, that’s what my mother taught me to have. She taught me how to balance flavors. Everything has an element of sweetness, but it’s when I add complex flavors, that makes the difference.”
But Prime was well into his career before his Trinidadian roots were significantly reflected in the food he was serving. He graduated from Morgan State University and then attended the French Culinary Institute in New York.
“From college to any time in any kitchen which I worked, I did find ways to occasionally include my heritage in the food that I made,” he says. Prime, for example, would make Trinidadian food for “family meal,” the meal staff members enjoy before their shift.
Prime first served oxtail at one of these family meals and then he introduced the dish at Spark at Engine Company 12 in Bloomingdale. When Spark closed, Prime went on to open Cane on H St. NE where he retooled the oxtail recipe. He swapped out the rum-based glaze for a more sumptuous take on the traditional West Indian delicacy.
The secret, he says, is a special blend of spices, salt, sugar, and caramelization. “When my mother made oxtail, I never understood why she always started with brown sugar,” Prime says. “She’d let it really get brown, start to bubble, maybe to the point where the flavor would be just a slight bit bitter. Then she’d sear the spice-marinated meat in there, and let it release its own sugars from the Maillard reaction that would occur.”
When the oxtails are grilled and seared, the collagen and marrow turn into something like butter, Prime explains. “That’s the basis of the depth of flavor that I expect from the oxtail,” he says. His “green” seasoning—an herbaceous mix of garlic, onion, chives, Spanish thyme, and scorpion peppers—also adds to the finished product.
Prime is quick to tout how procuring quality cuts of meat also makes his oxtails stand out. “When you say, go to a carry-out and get oxtail, sometimes there’s bone chips in the meat, because the cuts are not so precise,” he explains. “For me, and for the oxtail I serve, I like the cuts in between the joints.”
The test that matters most is if Cane’s new oxtail recipe meets the approval of its initial creator, Prime’s mother. “My mother visited from Baltimore and came to the restaurant,” he recalls. “After serving her, I can proudly say that I have the seal of approval from her that I can make oxtail as well as she does.”