Friday, August 26, 2011

Discovering callaloo

Recently, callaloo appeared at our local Whole Foods Market: a leafy green, similar in appearance to Swiss chard, the name alone seemed reason enough to try it. So, we bought a bunch, washed it, removed the thick stalks, tore the leaves into small pieces, and sautéed them in olive oil and garlic. Instantly, they became my wife’s favorite green of all time, and I would have to agree that they were about the best greens I have ever tasted.

Wanting to know more about this newly discovered culinary treasure, I turned first to my two favorite sources of information about unusual edibles. According to Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover's Companion, The (Barron's Cooking Guide) 3rd Edition, the term callaloo refers to either “the large, edible green leaves of the taro root,” or to “a Caribbean soup made with callaloo greens,” along with a bunch of other ingredients. She also notes that callaloo greens are “popular in the Caribbean islands cooked as one would prepare turnip or collard greens.” In The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson suggests that the term callaloo applies to a wider range of greens, including in addition to taro, the leaves of various species of malanga, amaranth, and pokeweed, among others.

In The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz gives five different recipes for the soup, with three different spellings depending on where it originates: three different recipes for Le Calalou from Gaudaloupe, Martinique, and Haiti; one for Callau from St. Lucia; and finally one for Callaloo from Trinidad. All of these recipes call for their namesake green, along with about ten or so other ingredients, and they all sound delicious to me. Unfortunately, the one other ingredient that all five of these recipes have in common is okra, which my wife absolutely detests. So, it is unlikely that we will be trying the soup any time in the near future.

Because callaloo isn’t commonly available, Ortiz recommends Swiss chard, fresh spinach, or Chinese spinach as possible substitutes. Of course, if callaloo is available, we can reverse her recommendations and substitute callaloo for these other greens. This is essentially what we did the first time we cooked it, finding the sautéed callaloo described at the beginning of this post an excellent accompaniment to grilled salmon. Also, although she doesn’t mention callaloo, Aliza Green has a chapter on “Greens for Cooking” in her book, Starting with Ingredients, where she offers the following points of advice. First, she notes that greens are typically fairly strongly flavored, motivating two common cooking techniques: first, slow cooking is popular both to tenderize them and to mellow out their flavor, and second, they are often paired with garlic, hot peppers, vinegar, or smoked meats that stand up well and balance out their flavor. With callaloo, we found that garlic, salt and pepper worked extremely well, but I am salivating over the thought of adding red pepper flakes and/or a nice smoky bacon. Aliza Green also notes that when cooking with greens – including spinach, which she covers in a whole separate chapter of her book – “a lot goes but a little way:” these greens tend to cook down a lot, so it is important to start with what may look like a much larger bunch than you need. In their book, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg don’t mention callaloo, either, but they do devote the better part of two pages to greens, both in general and specific types like collard greens and turnip greens. Their highest recommendations for pairing go to garlic, olive oil, and various kinds of cheese (especially grated Asiago, Jack, or Parmesan), but they also give bacon and other smoked meats consistently high marks.

Finally, when it comes to pairing greens with wine, Dornenburg and Page’s other book, What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers consistently recommends in favor of white wines – especially Sauvignon Blanc – and against reds. Since they also recommend Sauvignon Blanc with garlic and seafood (especially poached or lightly grilled), that’s what we served the night we had our sautéed callaloo with grilled salmon.  It made for one of those meals that linger pleasantly on the tastebuds but, sadly, don't leave anything behind to munch on later.