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Calling Callaloo

A scene from Admiralty Bay taken in 1966, just a few years before I first skipped along that same beach.

There’s a point when driving across the St. Mary’s River from Georgia into Florida when the sky suddenly spreads out across the marshes and the air becomes faintly scented with cocoa butter and orange blossoms and I realize that I am home. Never mind that I still have another three hours on the road to get back to my actual home — Cocoa Beach — but hurtling down I-95 past the clumps of palmettos and Ron Jon’s Surf Shop billboards (“World’s Largest”), I feel that lift in my spirits that tells me that I am back where I belong.

It is funny that I feel that way, because I have no desire to live in Florida again, but I am living proof that once a beach girl, always a beach girl. No matter where I live, I always feel somehow most like myself when I have sand between my toes and a slight crust of salt on my skin. This feeling goes back to when I was 5 years old and my mom packed me up in the dead of a frigid New York City winter and bundled us onto a plane to the West Indies. I remember pulling on heavy tights and a wool jumper and a sweater in the pre-dawn chill and a few hours later I was blinking in the raw sunshine of Barbados. My mother bought me a pretty flowered sleeveless shift dress in the airport and, as I stripped out of my winter woolens, I remember that sudden sense of total freedom, the silky feel of the breeze on my bare arms, the Crayola box kaleidoscope of colors — sky, water, plants, people — that seemed to wrap me up in a new kind of warmth.

We ended up eventually on the tiny island of Bequia, after another plane ride to St. Vincent, and then a mailboat trip across the Caribbean Sea to Admiralty Bay (which my mother still describes as a terrifying journey, mainly because I clambered all over the place like some monkey escaped from the zoo). From that point, it was a short walk along the beach to our hotel, but it felt like we were a million miles from anywhere. Life suddenly felt as slow as maple syrup drooling down a stack of pancakes, yet each moment was more intense, as if I had been sleepwalking and was now wide awake in Paradise.

The flavors of the Caribbean are notably intense and are a perfect melding of many cultures: African, British, French, Dutch, South American. At that time, the cuisine was the essence of what we call today “slow food”, which is to say that most everything was local because it was too difficult to transport food from one place to another. The only thing I really ever remember eating that wasn’t something that could be caught from the bay or picked from a tree was sweetened condensed milk, cans of which would be tossed out to all of us kids as we ran barefoot across the island together each day. We’d crack the top open and crouch in the shade of crabapple trees, dipping our fingers into that creamy sweet goodness and noisily slurping in an ecstasy of delight.

I spent portions of three years on Bequia with my mother and the food of that time permeated our meals forevermore, in one way or another. My mom is an amazing cook and would often become fascinated with certain cuisines, especially French, Greek, and Italian, and her Caribbean cookbooks are well-worn and filled with her pencilled notations regarding proportions or possible substitutions for ingredients not easily obtained in the United States. So, on my recent Spring Break visit to my folks’ house in Cocoa Beach, I found myself pouring through the old cookbooks and thinking with great fondness of callaloo.

Callaloo refers to the dark green leaves of the taro plant — imagine collard greens or swiss chard in texture. The flavor is somewhere between spinach and mustard greens, smooth with a slightly peppery undertone. Callaloo soup is a true Caribbean staple, although it can be made a hundred different ways, depending upon where you are and what ingredients are available that day. It might include ham or crab or both, it could have coconut milk and conch, or it might have okra or tiny potatoes or even rice. In general, it is light and refreshing, even on the hottest day close to the equator.

I was challenged to figure out how to make this vegetarian version — if you want to try something more authentic, you can find many recipes on the internet, along with the complete lyrics to the Jimmy Buffett song of the same name. No matter what version you make, you might want to try spinning a little calypso on the CD player during your meal and maybe topping things off with a can of sweetened condensed milk. Just wash your hands first.

Mock Callaloo Soup

Yes, I call it “mock” because callaloo is just not readily available in the U.S., but if you are lucky enough to find the real thing, then go for it! My version calls for delicate nutmeg-scented dumplins (that’s Caribbean for “dumpling”), which give the soup just a bit more substance for dinner.

for the soup:

One pound swiss chard, stems and leaves roughly chopped

One onion, sliced

6 ounces vegetarian “ham” or “Canadian bacon”, diced

10 okra, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds (if okra isn’t in season, try using fingerling potatoes instead, to give the soup a bit of starch)

6 cups vegetable broth

1 cup white wine

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/4 cup chopped parsley

2 springs of fresh thyme

salt and pepper to taste

olive oil

1 TB butter

Heat 2 TB of olive oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the “ham” and stir well. Reduce heat and allow to cook for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the okra (or potatoes) and garlic and stir well, then add the stock and wine. Bring to a boil, then add the chard and reduce heat to simmer. Add the parsley and thyme and allow to simmer for 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir the butter in until it melts.

for the dumplins:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated would be perfect, but it’s okay to use ground)

1/2 tsp. salt

1 TB butter

1 egg yolk

3 TB milk

Mix together dry ingredients, then cut in butter with a fork or your fingers until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Beat together the egg yolk and milk and mix with the dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Drop into the simmering soup by the spoonful — you should have enough for six decent-sized dumplins. Cover and allow to cook for 10 – 15 minutes, until firm on top. These dumplins are quite delicate, so spoon them carefully into each bowl before ladling the soup around them.

Serves 6.

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Stewed up over dumplings

Yes, somewhere beneath all that root-vegetable goodness, luxuriating in a complex and savory broth, is a charming little dumpling, fluffy and plump.

Snowed in as we are here in DC, we were unable to travel out to a friend’s Superbowl party this past Sunday, so I decided to make a stew for dinner. Diving into my pantry, I pulled out some of those items from my last blog (“Panty…uh… Pantry Raid!”) that are necessary to the perfect stew. Stews should be savory with just a touch of sweetness; you can do this with tomatoes, dried fruit (like prunes or, as they are called these days, “dried plums”), or some of each. To balance out those flavors, I make a Salted Apple Dumpling, which combines chopped tart apples into the dumpling dough and is then lightly dusted with kosher salt just before they steam.

I got this idea a few years ago from one of my favorite cookies — a local favorite here in DC — known as a Salty Oat Cookie. I cooked at an event some years ago with the pastry chef from 1789, a fancy-schmancy Washington restaurant favored by politicos; she had created the cookie for another restaurant, Teaism, a cool Asian-fusion casual eatery that Rachael Ray once profiled on that show she does about how to eat out on $40 a day. The Salty Oat Cookie is truly delicious, and I am not a big oatmeal cookie fan. It is big and tender and it has this dusting of salt across the top which perfectly complements the subtle sweetness of the cookie itself. I have tried to replicate it but can never get it quite right, so I came up with the Salted Apple Dumpling instead. Sometimes you gotta know when to move on.

Don’t be afraid of dumplings — they are basically just steamed biscuits, and they have a fluffy texture that makes your mouth sing, especially when they soak up that luxurious stew broth. My stew recipe below is vegetarian, but you should make yours exactly the way you like. Pork, beef, and chicken would all work really well for this recipe, just make sure that you are browning them properly first and stewing those meats until they are cooked through. The vegetarian version comes together quite quickly because vegetarian proteins are really already cooked, so they are just being browned and then heated through; give yourself more time if you are using actual meat. I used a meatless “beef” strip, but it would work equally well with tofu, beans, or portobello mushrooms.

People often ask me why vegetarians bother even being vegetarian if they are going to put meat-like substitutes in their recipes. The simple answer is that many vegetarians grew up eating meat; we like beef stew as a flavor, but we don’t want to eat actual beef. My teenage daughter, however, has actually never eaten meat; when she was about 5 years old, she was with a group of friends before school in the playground and one of the boys was talking about how he had recently eaten a piece of alligator. Another child asked “What did it taste like?” The boy considered this and finally replied “Like chicken.” Everyone nodded their heads wisely, except our daughter, who stared at him for a moment before asking “What does chicken taste like?”

Here is the stew in progress, with the raw dumplings just added to the top, ready to steam into fluffy perfection.

Winter Stew with Salted Apple Dumplings

for the stew:

One pound protein (see above for suggestions)

2 cups potatoes — any variety — chopped into 1-inch pieces

1-1/2 cups Brussels sprouts, quartered (trust me)

1 onion, coarsely chopped

1 cup carrots, coarsely chopped

1 cup celery, coarsely chopped

1 cup mushrooms, quartered

1 cup frozen peas

1 cup frozen corn

1/2 cup prunes, chopped

1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped

3 cups broth (any variety — I like to use mushroom broth)

1 cup red wine

salt/pepper/herbs (I like to add a couple of bay leaves, a little crushed rosemary, some smoked paprika, and a dash of cayenne)

olive oil

balsamic vinegar

for the dumplings

1 heaping cup all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 egg, beaten

2 tsp. melted unsalted butter

1/3 cup milk

1 apple, chopped (Granny Smith is good, or soak some dried apple in hot water for 15 minutes and chop that up)

kosher salt

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil over moderate heat in a stockpot. Brown your protein, then add the Brussels sprouts. Stirring frequently, allow the sprouts to get just slightly browned, then sprinkle a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar over the sprouts and protein. Stir for a minute, then add the onion. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, then add the potatoes, carrots, and celery. Cook for another 5 minutes, still stirring frequently, then add the mushrooms, prunes, and sundried tomatoes. Stir together for a minute, then add the broth, wine, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and cover loosely with a lid (that is, allow some steam to escape, but not too much). Cook for about 30 minutes, until vegetables are tender but not mushy. If you are using meat protein, check for doneness (i.e. not pink in the center).

Add the frozen peas and corn and stir well; if the stew is losing liquid, add a little water. Keep heat very low while you mix up the dumpling dough. To make the dumplings, mix all dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then add the wet ingredients and mix together until you have a soft dough. Fold in the chopped apples until they are somewhat evenly distributed.

I can get about 6 large dumplings out of this amount of dough. Use a soup spoon to measure each one out — it will just look like a large lump, which you will nestle right into the top of your stew. Add each dumpling to the stew, about a 1/2 inch apart and sprinkle the tops of the dumplings with just a small pinch of kosher salt. Cover with the lid and let steam for about 12 minutes or so over low heat. They are done when the tops are springy to the touch and no longer sticky. Spoon a dumpling into each bowl and ladle the stew around it. If the stew broth has thickened too much while the dumplings were steaming, then just add a little broth or water to get it to the right consistency — not too soupy, but like a thin gravy. Serves 4.

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