I was worried that me and callaloo were doomed from the start. The soup always seems to contain a healthy amount of okra and I had a problem with this for two reasons: firstly, those hairy little fingers irritate the hell out of my (thankfully not so hairy) little fingers, bringing me out in a rash, and secondly, most callaloo recipes called for them to simmer in the liquid for at least half an hour. This to me says one thing and one thing only: slime. Eating overcooked okra is like eating a fat slimy bogey; a big glutinous bowl of snot soup. Yum. Can’t wait.
After a bit of mental wrestling I came to the conclusion that omitting them entirely was not acceptable and so I fried the sappy slices until they were sappy no more, sealed instead by a crispy outer crust. They were added back at the last minute. Other than these (literally) irritating beasties, the soup contains pork, prawns, scotch bonnet chilli, thyme, two types of onion and of course, the callaloo. I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot going on.
The flavour of the callaloo, which I bought tinned, is described somewhere on the great interwebz as, ‘a cross between spinach and cabbage’. That is exactly what it tastes like. Perhaps there’s a bit of asparagus in there as well. You get the idea. This predominantly ‘green’ flavour, makes for a very vegetal soup. At first. Then comes pork and then, even-better-joy-of-joys, pork fat; melty pieces cling to each pink nugget with a seductive wobble. There is the odd surprise of shrimp but it’s not unpleasant.
At first I find the soup musty but as the spoonfuls pass this transforms into an intriguing peppery complexity. The coconut milk is not really discernible as its usual overwhelming self but instead sort of lingers around keeping things in order. The okra keep themselves to themselves.
There’s no getting away from it – this is some seriously hearty fare and I’m amazed that it is usually served as a side dish, to act as a sort of gravy for other foods. Most of my Rye Lane dishes have been similar in weight and intensity. They are the kind of dishes that stick to your ribs; fortify, bolster and sustain.
That said, this soup also has an aromatic quality from the little love triangle going on between chilli, coconut and thyme; a surprising delicacy underneath it all really. But then that was the problem right there: so much in the mix, so many flavours and contrasts that all got a little bit muddy and confused. I really should have started with a simple version (no meat or fish) like the family recipe sent to me by a friend and blogger yesterday.
Although I enjoyed the taste of the callaloo vegetable itself, I’m not sure I’ll be cooking with it that often. A green leafy vegetable from a tin is not really any contender for fresh spinach, kale or chard for example. Well, my version isn’t anyway. I basically made a fundamental schoolgirl error by choosing to make the nitrous oxide, big-bore, super-charged version when I should have started off with the understated yet reliable runner. You live and learn.
325g callaloo (drained weight)
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
3 spring onions, white and green parts, chopped
125g thick bacon cubes
225g small prawns
150ml coconut milk
200g okra, sliced
1 small scotch bonnet chilli, de-seeded and chopped
Stock – about 1 litre (I used vegetable)
Begin by frying the okra in a little oil until soft but crispy on the outside. Set aside on kitchen paper to soak up any oil. In a large pan, soften the onions and chilli gently for a few minutes before adding the callaloo, bacon, thyme and stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 30 minutes before adding the prawns, okra and coconut milk for a further 2 or 3 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve.