No Jamaican cook has ever professed to like the cold; in fact, winter is our least favorite time of the year. Snow and ice are beautiful, but only when it’s an ice carving at the all-you-can-eat buffet. Kids view the changing weather with anticipation and glee, because it means holidays are coming with snow angels, sweets, and presents.
Not so for cooks. In our eyes, garden greens become gold and then turn brown as Jack Frost’s icy hand stretches across the land. With the cold comes an inevitable sense of grief that spreads like a psychic ripple, a collective sentiment that spreads from cook to cook as the cupboard goes bare. Gone are the vibrant and bright colors of papaya, mangoes, tomato and watermelon; instead we make do with a larder reduced to hardy winter vegetables.
A warm-weather chef requires inspiration when faced with a seasonal menu featuring kale, collard greens, cabbage, Swiss chard, Brussel sprouts, beets, pulses, and gourds. But a little love and a bit of technique transform these mundane ingredients into dishes that satisfy the soul and warm the heart.
Winter vegetables are not crowd favorites, but we all have to eat them. It’s a good thing these vegetables are rich in minerals, fiber, and vitamins, because they taste best slathered in fatty meats like bacon, oxtail, smoked turkey neck or salted pig tails. There’s no shame in admitting that duck cassoulet, a classic French stew with creamy white beans, luscious duck confit, smoky French garlic sausage and slab bacon, is as tedious to make as it as it is delicious to eat. That’s the beauty of cooking in the wintertime: we crave dishes that stew for hours in the crock pot until all the ingredients coalesce into a flavor bomb that tantalizes the taste buds and keeps us warm.
The same can be said for Jamaican pepper pot soup, a tantalizing mélange of callaloo, spinach, pig tails and salted beef and shrimp that’s the perfect companion to a favorite book, pajamas and fuzzy socks. There are several versions of this soup, including a Philadelphia version that features tripe. One thing all versions share is the ingenious use of available products. This recipe uses smoked turkey necks and salted pig tails. Kale takes the place of callaloo, which in this dish is the perfect way to eat our winter vegetables.
Jomo’s Jamaican Pepper Pot Soup
2 quarts smoked turkey neck stock (see below)
1 lb. smoked turkey neck meat, shredded
½ lb. yellow yam (cubed)
12 small spinner dumplings
2 carrots (cut into rounds)
1 cup coconut milk
1 bunch fresh kale
¼ lb. raw shrimp
1 tsp. kosher salt
Smoked Turkey Neck Stock
4 quarts water
1 lb. smoked turkey neck
1 salted pigs tail
4 stalks fresh thyme
½ Vidalia onion (large dice)
2 stalks green onion (scallions)
4 pimento (allspice) seeds
2 cloves of garlic
1 Scotch bonnet or habañero pepper (whole, do not pierce or cut)
Spinners (little flour dumplings)
2 oz. flour
1 oz. cold water
Pinch of salt
A good soup is built from the bottom up. In other words, don’t rush it; take the time to do it right. The foundation for this pepper pot soup begins with an aromatic stock made from the smoked turkey necks.
Four quarts of water, smoked turkey necks and aromatics – salted pigs tail, Vidalia onion, thyme, garlic, scotch bonnet pepper, scallions, pimento seeds – are simmered in a stock pot for three hours. The onion is diced but everything else is added whole so it will be easier to remove when the stock is done. Don’t be afraid of the scotch bonnet pepper, the key is not to pierce the skin during cooking. A whole scotch bonnet pepper adds just a hint of smoky heat to the stock creating an added dimension to the soup.
After three hours of simmering, the stock should be reduced by half and all the meat should be falling off the bones. Strain the turkey stock. Remove all the meat from the turkey bones and the pigs’ tail and set aside. Discard the other aromatics.
Make the spinners (flour dumplings) in a small bowl and set aside. I like to use a fork to bring the dough together. Pour half the turkey stock into a smaller pot and place it on the stove. Turn the heat down to a slow simmer. Pinch of a piece of dough (no larger than an olive). Place the dough between your hands and gently rub them together back and forth, (the dough should look like a tiny cylinder). Drop each finished “spinner” into the simmering broth.
Peel carrots and cut them into rounds; add to the broth. Peel the yellow yam and cut into cubes; add to the broth.
Add the coconut milk to the broth.
Use your fingers to remove all the kale from the stems and set aside. Place the remaining turkey stock in a blender and add the kale leaves. Blend at high speed for a few minutes. Add kale puree to simmering soup and cook for thirty minutes, adjust seasoning if necessary.
Add shrimp to the soup and simmer for another minute before turning off the heat.