Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Cal-la-loo, strange callaloo..."

Like the song says, "sooner or later we're all in the stew!"

Being that I am a huge Parrothead and that the Hubs and I are going to the Caribbean later this year, I decided it was time to try my hand at Caribbean cuisine.

A few years ago, my dad, who is also a Parrothead, bought me this cookbook.

I haven't used it as much as I have some of my others, which is a shame. I love this kind of food. It's not all Caribbean food, but it's all food and drinks that have been mentioned in Jimmy Buffett's songs or stories. So, of course, there's a cheeseburger in paradise in there, along with gumbo and margaritas. What's not to like?

I don't know why I settled on callaloo. Maybe it's because I have been listening to a lot of Jimmy Buffett as of late since it's summertime. And, that song WILL get stuck in your head.

Like a lot of things I make, I've never had callaloo before, so I don't have a point of reference to whether I did right by this dish or not. But it tasted pretty good. Also, I didn't have all the ingredients, like, say, the main ingredient, callaloo. But I improvised.

In the cookbook, there are several variations for callaloo. Each country puts its stamp on the soup dish, but all of them are a broth plus a little bit of meat and a lot of callaloo, which is a leafy vegetable, native to the Caribbean. I couldn't find any fresh callaloo here, obviously, and I read that you could substitute another leafy green, so I used mature spinach that I bought from Zenith Springs Farm via the Monroe Farm Market. I also took elements from several of the recipes to come up with my own version based on what I had on hand.

West Virginia Callaloo (adapted from The Margaritaville Cookbok)
Makes 6 servings

4 cups of chicken stock
2 cups of shrimp stock
8 oz. fresh spinach, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fresh crab meat (I used claw meat, wild-caught from the U.S.)
2/3 cup of diced ham
1 1/2 cups frozen sliced okra
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 cup diced banana pepper
salt and pepper to taste
chopped green onions and hot sauce for serving

On medium-high heat, bring the stock to a boil and add the onion, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper and spinach and reduce heat. Simmer for a few minutes and add banana pepper, crab meat and ham. Cook until vegetables are tender, 10 minutes. Add okra and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until okra is tender. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning. Scoop into bowls and sprinkle each with the green onion. Serve with hot sauce.

I learned the hard way that you really have to be careful with the okra. Okra has been used for hundreds of years as a thickener. You have to add it last and only cook it until it is not cold anymore (if it was frozen) and tender, because it will cause the soup to thicken and develop this weird viscosity kinda like oil has. But  it's not oily. I cooked mine a little too long. I can see how that consistency might be offputting to some people, but it didn't bother me. Had I cooked it longer, it might have been a problem, and I'm not even sure what will happen when I reheat the leftovers. But as the okra thickened the soup, it made it so hearty. Like it was more filling that just broth, so that's a good thing.

I served it with a mix of beets. I bought the larger ones, and the smaller ones came from my garden. The smaller ones were much better--but I might be biased. The variety I grew was called "cylindra" and they grow long and skinny, like carrots. They are ideal for smaller plots because you can plant them closer together. My good friend, Tiffany (what's up, girl!), was telling me a couple weeks ago about some roasted beets and carrots that she made and her family ate them like candy. Just slice up a couple carrots and beets (I left the carrots out in the essence of time) and mix up some balsamic vinegar and honey to drizzle over them, then roast low and slow.

I'm only a recent conver to beets. As I've gotten older, I am eating more and more things that I thought I didn't like. Beets, chicken wings, kale. What's next? Waldorf salad? Wings with buffalo sauce (I still won't touch those...) Pickled corn?

These beets definitely tasted like candy. They were so good. I just wish I'd chopped the big beets into smaller pieces. A couple still had a little bit of crunch. And maybe I wouldn't have eaten such a big bowl if I was doing it over. By the end, it was too sweet. But there's a handful more in my garden that I'm going to make this way again. And add a carrot.

I roasted these on 325 degrees for about 1 hour 15 minutes. And I used about half a cup of honey and a fourth cup of balsamic vinegar. I may go with less next time so they aren't so sweet. Beets are naturally sweet on their own.

Hopefully when I go to the Caribbean later this year, I'll get to try some authentic callaloo so I can compare notes and make this again.

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