By Nigel Spence
WHAT STARTED OUT out as a normal evening of preparation in the kitchen, quickly turned into wild, pandemic, mayhem – a scene worthy of any primetime sitcom.
That particular evening, we were throwing a huge anniversary party for a judge and his wife. To spice up the occasion, I had gone on a hunt for some Jamaican land crabs to “sweeten the pot,” so to speak.
You never know when you may have to appear before a judge and with my crazy, rum-drinking sessions, there is always a good possibility it could be sooner rather than later. So, I definitely aimed to please.
The dinner menu was tailored to include one of my special dishes, which called for only the best crab meat. I was confident one taste of this would send the Judge, his wife and guests spiraling into a burst of sensational delight – one they would remember for a long time.
Little did I know, this would also turn out to be an event I would remember for a long time. Not because of my artful, culinary skills or successful, party-planning talents, but for the high drama that erupted at the height of the dinner service.
The party was in full swing. The bartender had his hands full, meting out every imaginable drink concoction; the servers were rushing to and fro replenishing glasses and setting the tables for dinner; the music set the vibes for a night of nostalgia. We were jammin’.
Back in the kitchen, I had done most of my prepping – the only thing left was to cook the crabs. The water was boiling furiously, awaiting the deposit of the burly bag filled with crustaceans. However, in that very minute, all hell “bruk” loose and headed in every direction over the kitchen floor. Only at Ripe…
Crabs were everywhere, running to hide – under the table, in the corners and under the cupboards. What was worse, in helpless alarm, I watched as the Judge’s carefully planned dinner was now scurrying, frantically towards him at the bar – unplated! It could have worked out as strategic props had the DJ begun to play Prince Jazzbo’s hit “Crab Walking” at that precise moment.
Well suffice to say, with quick action and some clever, yard-man tactics, we managed to commandeer the main course back to the pot where it belonged – our guests none the wiser. The Judge presided over his anniversary meal with visible delight and from the many compliments and kudos we received, the case of the runaway captives could finally be put to rest and I could breathe again.
With that in mind, I have decided to share my “special dish”, making sure to keep the method drama free, for those who want to try this at home. Though this dish is called Callaloo and Crab, the callaloo as we know it in Jamaica is not what is used.
In Trinidad, which is where I learned to make it, they use the leaves of the dasheen plant, preferably the young, tender leaves. This makes spinach a better substitute if those tender dasheen leaves are not available, rather than the firm callaloo stalks that we know and love in Jamaica, but those can certainly be used if that’s all you have.
Substitute with frozen spinach and okra without a significant difference in flavor or texture also. The finished dish closely resembles what is called Pepperpot soup in Jamaica (without the crab). In the ingredient list you will notice that it calls for a 1 pound can of blue crab claw meat. This is entirely optional and not part of the traditional recipe. I just found that when added, it gives a more “crabby” flavor to the callaloo stew.
4 large Jamaican “land crabs”-you may substitute with any other type of live crab. (Make sure they are kept in a safe place where they can’t escape to meet your dinner guests prematurely.)
1 pound Salt Beef or Pigtails
4 tablespoons Coconut oil
1 medium Onion, rough chopped
2 stalks Green Onion (scallion)finely chopped
4 Garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon Scotch Bonnet pepper, finely chopped
2 sprigs Thyme, hard stems removed
20 Okra, sliced
1/2 cup West Indian Pumpkin (substitute butternut squash)
1 pound of fresh Spinach leaves, washed well
2 cups Coconut milk
2 cups Chicken, Fish, or Clam stock or Water
1 pound canned Blue Crab Claw meat
2 tablespoons whole Butter, cold
Wash salt pork pieces under running water to remove excess salt and brine. Put salt pork pieces ONLY in a pot that is large enough to also hold the crabs. Add water half way to the top and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes to continue to remove excess salt from the meat and also to get the meat tender. Remove the salt pork pieces and reserve. Add the crabs to the boiling salt pork water and cook for 6 minutes for small sea crabs and up to 10 minutes for larger “land Crabs”, then remove from pot. Do not overcook as the crabs will again be cooked when added to the stew at the end. Remove backs from the crab and discard. Under running water, clean out all the “crap” from the crab including the gills and intestines. If eggs are visible and you are into that, then by all means keep them intact. Chop the crab in two to make two even sides. Reserve.
Heat oil in a large pot and add the onion, green onion, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper and thyme. Sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add okras, pumpkin and spinach. Add the coconut milk and stock or water.Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook uncovered for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and always checking to make sure spinach mixture is not sticking to the bottom of the pot (lower the heat and add additional water or stock if this happens).
Remove the salt pork from the stew.
Using a “swizzle stick” as it is called in Trinidad, swizzle the spinach mixture till it becomes very smooth.You may also use an immersion blender or pour the mixture in a standard table top blender and puree until smooth.Add the mixture back to the pot along with the crab, blue crab claw meat (if using) and salt pork pieces.Simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.
Adjust salt to your taste. Whisk in the 2 tablespoons of butter.Serve as a soup or over steaming white rice or with roti.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.