Day 6: Reggae Christmas

We are officially halfway through the 12 Days of Roasty Melty! It is bitterly cold today, and I’m one of many people wishing I was about to jump on a plane headed south. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately to all my fellow homebodies out there), I’m staying in town for the holidays. That doesn’t mean I can’t bring a piece of the Caribbean here.

As you may know if you’ve read some of my earlier posts, Christmas time will forever be associated in my head with the warm, sunny climate of the Bahamas. Not only did I spend many happy Christmases there with my grandmother, but I’ve returned several times since her passing, as a teenager and later as an adult. Every time I go back, I gain a better and deeper understanding for why my grandmother loved it so much. The people are lovely, the weather is, as you might expect, amazing, but what I particularly love is the food. Oh goodness, the food is amazing. Seafood, in particular, is everywhere there, and I love ALL OF IT. I ate so well every December when we visited, trying everything. It was then, at an impressionably young age that I tried conch for the first time. I’ve never been the same since. For those of you who don’t know, conch is a shellfish that comes in those massive seashells you find at kitschy carribbean bars or gift shops. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, it’s the ones you want to put up to your ear and listen to the ocean with. Yup, that’s the one. Many people don’t realize that there’s a funky little creature that used to live inside those, and oh man are they delicious. It’s a very mild tasting seafood, not unlike calamari in terms of both texture and flavour, but unlike squid, is extremely difficult (in my experience at least) to find outside of the caribbean. Thankfully, there are a few places where you can buy frozen conch in Canada, as we fairly recently discovered. Nothing will ever compare to fresh conch, roasted over a charcoal grill in a foil packet with tomatoes, peppers, onions and sunshine (that’s a real ingredient, don’t try to tell me it’s not) but frozen conch can still be delicious, especially in the right context.

This is where I change your life and introduce you to conch chowder (you’re welcome in advance). Conch chowder, before we begin, is nothing like the clam chowder you’re probably thinking of. There is no cream, and nary a potato to be seen. Nope. I suppose it’s probably closer to a Manhattan clam chowder, but we’re not in Manhattan now are we (unfortunately)??? Conch chowder is ubiquitous in the islands, found almost everywhere you go that sells food. And unlike some dishes sold en masse in North America, all of it is good. I’ve never had bad conch chowder. I refuse to even accept that it exists (even though my rational, logical side tells me that by statistics alone, there must be a bad conch chowder somewhere. I personally don’t believe it). This is such a perfect dish, so wonderfully balanced and full of flavour, that I honestly think it might be in my top 10, and that’s saying a lot (did I mention how much I love food???).

Conch comes in so many forms in the Bahamas, like conch fritters, roast conch, conch pizza, conch chowder, conch salad… (and yes, I realize I sound like Bubba from Forest Gump, he wishes he could eat conch instead of shrimp). The best way to make it, if frozen conch is your only source, is conch chowder. The stewing will hide any freezer flavour it may have picked up from being frozen for who knows how long, while still allowing you to indulge and enjoy the shellfish’s natural sweetness. For all of you who are enjoying a stay-cation at home, wherever home may be, treat yourself to a bowl of sunshine, and come back tomorrow for day 7 of our 12 Days of Roasty Melty, where I will introduce you to the ultimate sidekick to almost any Caribbean dish: Johnnycake.

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 3 or 4 ground conchs
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 1 cup of diced celery
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 twenty-eight oz can tomatoes
  • No salt chicken broth (optional, add a smidge if the soup needs thinning)

Directions

  1. Saute onion, green pepper celery, garlic and spices in about a half tbsp grapeseed oil (0r other neutral oil)
  2. When onions are soft and transparent, add the tomatoes and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. If the chowder needs thinning, add some chicken broth.
  4. Add lime juice to taste (you want the soup to have some zing, but not too sour! You’ll know when it’s right)
  5. If you’re so inclined, add some hot sauce to the final product. A better idea is to serve the chowder as is, and include hot sauce as an optional condiment for your dinner guests.

Serve with Johnnycake (see recipe tomorrow!)

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