Countless versions of callaloo, the spicy stew made with tropical leafy greens, are found throughout the Caribbean. Arriving from Africa with the slave trade, the recipes for callaloo were modified based on the availability of ingredients on each particular island. Jamaicans use amaranth leaves in their dish, also referred to locally as pepper pot, while the Trinidadians, where callaloo is the national dish, insist on coconut milk and dasheen or taro leaves. Much like its cousin gumbo, callaloo can be any number of things depending on who you ask. Helpfully, with their brilliant sense of simplicity, Caribbean islanders eliminate some of the confusion by just calling all their big leafy edible plants “callaloo”, rendering the exact type of greens used in the stew moot. We could learn a few things from our Caribbean neighbors!
Since there is no one definitive recipe, callaloo is a great opportunity to create and experiment. I took some of the fundamental concepts (leafy greens, fresh seafood, hot peppers) and dropped in a few non-traditional elements to lighten the stew and amp up the flavors. Rainbow chard provides an earthly, flavorful and less formidable alternative to the thick, jungle-like dasheen and bacon adds a hint of pork without the cooking time of pig tails (although I am a big fan of porcine offal). The seafood is purely a matter of choice, but I recommend at least one shellfish (either lobster or shrimp) to add a little sweetness. A Scotch Bonnet pepper adds its unique heat and an authentic Caribbean touch, but other peppers may be substituted. Okra works well as a thickener and harkens back to the African origins of this lush, tropical stew.
Key West Callaloo
Separate the leaves and stems of 1 bunch of rainbow chard. Shred the leaves into a chiffonade by rolling and thinly cutting across with a sharp knife. Coarsely chop the stems.
In a large Dutch oven, cook 4 diced thick-cut bacon slices until crisp. Remove to a paper towel. Add 1 diced leek (white and light green parts), 2 finely diced garlic cloves, the chard stems, 1 small diced bell pepper and leaves from 4 thyme sprigs. Saute until the vegetables are barely softened. Add 4 cups chicken stock, ½ cup dry white wine, 4 fresh diced tomatoes with their juices, 2 anchovy filets, 1 cup thickly-sliced okra and 1 seeded, stemmed and finely diced Scotch Bonnet pepper and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes.
Add 1½ pounds of any combination of shrimp, Florida lobster or firm white fish such as grouper or wahoo, cut into 1” chunks, along with salt and pepper to taste, and cook until the shellfish are opaque, about 8-10 minutes. Add chard leaves and ½ cup shredded basil leaves and cook until barely wilted. Serve the stew by itself or over a scoop of cooked rice, top with bacon and a few thinly sliced scallions.
Serves 4 Wine pairing: An aromatic Gewurztraminer or Reisling