Sundays are oftentimes a busy day in our home. Mainly because I tend to wake up inspired to cook something delicious and involved. As impromptu as the meals themselves are the people who end up around our dinner table. Sometimes I plan on one or two guests ahead of time, but most often, I start cooking and, in the midst of grating ginger or marinating tofu, I call or text a neighbor, my sister, or a family friend, “I’m cooking callaloo, stop by if you wanna eat.” At least one somebody shows up, and almost always, one, two or even three other folks who “just happen to be in the neighborhood” end up at the table too. I never mind, though, because we always seem to have enough, and the combination of folks always seems just right.
And so it was one August Sunday when I was scheduled to go to brunch with my new friend Rebecca, a lovely woman from the Philippines by way of Oakland, California, whom my family hosted for two weeks at the end of July. Since, as a teacher, I’m off during the summer, I had time and energy to cook even more than usual during Rebecca’s time with us. She had a severe sinus headache when she first arrived, and I saw it as a culinary adventure to figure out what I could prepare to alleviate it. “Let me make you some hibiscus tea. The flowers are very high in vitamin C and, from my own experience, I know it helps with coughs, colds, and respiratory stuff.” With the fresh lemon juice and pureed ginger root that I added to the tea, I was hopeful Rebecca would feel some relief, and she did, but was in need of much more. The next day I made Ghanaian peanut stew, which included a base of tomatoes, garlic, ginger, peanut butter, and habanera pepper, one of the hottest peppers “in all God’s creation,” as my grandmama would say. While only one pepper is necessary to give a kick to a whole pot of this stew, I added three of those bad boys to help relieve Rebecca’s congestion. . .and that worked. Between the sweet potato, corn, and okra that were added to the spicy base, Rebecca’s sinus congestion was no more.
About two weeks after Rebecca’s stay had ended, we bumped into each other at an area co-op and decided to have brunch the next day on the August Sunday that I was referring to. But by mid-Sunday morning I had changed my mind and asked if she could come over for a dinner of sweet plantain, channa and callaloo instead. I was anxious to try making callaloo since I had bought the ingredients a few days before. I had gotten advice on how to make it from everyone, including a Trinidadian hospital attendant who provided care for a dear friend of mine during his stay in a D.C. hospital. I asked him the two questions that almost always lead to unexpected but interesting places. The first, “I hear an accent, where are you from?” and the second, “Do you know how to make. . .,” in this case, “callaloo?” His accent immediately took me to some faraway, unfamiliar place, and brought to mind a set of spices and delectable Caribbean dishes.
“You’ve got to get dasheen. . .you need the dasheen leaves. Get you a bunch of those. Then you get the okra. Some thyme. A bay leaf. And you must have the coconut milk.” He went on for a good 29 minutes with a few interjections from me, and, most fascinatingly, without ever giving an exact measurement. “Do not kill it with the pepper. Do not blend it. Let it simmer down.” I listened with wide-eyed, attention, and I just knew that receiving this Trinidadian recipe from a Trinidadian man in a Trinidadian accent meant that my callaloo was going to be authentic and delicious even though I had seen no parts of Trinidad.
I later learned that dasheen is another name for the leaves of taro root and that the Trinidadian version I wanted to make was not the only version, for several different Caribbean countries have their unique spins on callaloo, including Haiti, Guyana, and Barbados. When I asked my friend Takeyah, who is from Trinidad, about making it, she expressed her preference for Jamaican callaloo, which she pointed out did not call for okra. I also solicited insider advice from friends on Facebook. My friend LaShonda, whose husband is Trinidadian, told me I must get the green seasonings, which I assumed were the green herbs like bay leaves and thyme called for in the Trini version.
Once I settled on a recipe by Chef Emeril that I found on the internet, Rebecca, who had arrived at our home about 40 minutes earlier, joined in the preparation. “Can I chop something?. . .I have some salsa music on my phone. . .let’s play some and hook it up to these speakers.” With salsa playing, she chopped onion, minced garlic, and sliced plantain. We took turns taking pictures and even video taped our adventure in the kitchen. Improvising was also a major part of our callaloo exploration. Emeril’s version, which was based on the traditional Trinidadian dish, called for coconut milk, which I forgot to buy. I substituted dried, unsweetened, baking coconut and almond milk instead. Blended with the callaloo leaves, okra, thyme, and garlic, our coconut milk substitute worked like a charm. Rather than letting the okra and leaves simmer down as the hospital attendant advised, I cooked the dasheen until they were tender, turned off the stove, put the raw okra in the hot water with the leaves, and covered the pot with a tight fitting lid until the okra was just tender. Using a slotted spoon, I transferred the leaves and the okra to the blender and pureed them with the dried coconut, almond milk, and thyme. About that time the phone rang, and just like that two more guests were expected to stop by “just to say hi.’” By the time the callaloo was pureed and in a pot with sautéed garlic and onions, the rice, channa, and fried plantain were also ready. Shortly thereafter, the door bell rang. It was Ellis and his friend, Marta, whom he’d wanted me to meet several times before to talk about vegan cooking classes. She was an artist and, like me, an educator who grew up in Historic Anacostia, and her mom and dad still live in her childhood home around the corner.
“Yawl hongry?. . .Ellis knew there was going to be food here. . .You need to always keep something to drink with you so you can bring it when you ‘just happen to be in the neighborhood,’” I teased.
They went outside to let the car windows up, and before they made it back into the house, our neighbor Chekesha poked her head in the living room window, “Hey there, Levita, I put some stuff in your compost.”
“Thank you, Che Che. . .You hongry?”
“No I just ate, but I smell the curry all the way to the sidewalk.”
The combination of folks on this particular Sunday ended up being a carpenter/master storyteller from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, a Native Washingtonian/art curator/educator, a business woman from the Philippines, a 12 year-old artist, and a 10 year-old athlete, and me, a southern, vegan chef/educator. As always, my daughters and I welcomed folks who may have seemed random at some point in time but by the bottom of our bowls of callaloo there were no strangers at our dinner table.
The following recipe was my starting point. I used it mainly to see the ingredients but improvised in several ways. I omitted the butter and sweet potato, used a dried chipotle pepper to add some smokiness and heat and used dried coconut and almond milk in place of actual coconut milk.
courtesy Emeril Lagasse, 2002
Prep Time: 20 min; Cook Time: 15 min
Level: Easy; Serves: 4 servings
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup chopped yellow onions
- 1 sweet potato, peeled and small diced
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons minced, seeded scotch bonnet pepper, depending upon taste
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 pound fresh callaloo leaves or spinach (about 8 cups of leaves), ribs/stems discarded, well rinsed, and chiffonaded
- 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
- 3 cups water
In a large saute pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, for 4 minutes. Add the sweet potato, garlic, peppers, thyme, salt, and pepper, and cook stirring for 30 seconds. Add the greens and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the coconut milk and the water. Cook, stirring, until the leaves and sweet potatoes are tender and the liquid is slightly reduced, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and adjust the seasoning, to taste.
Serve hot or warm with rice and hot pepper sauce on the side.