Monday, 1 June 2015

Savouring Rondon

'Rondon' is a type of Caribbean stew cooked in coconut juice. The contents of the dish depend on the chef and whatever is in season or to hand from the local land and sea. The name comes from the English “Round Down” which either means to cook down (reduce) or describes the cook preparing the dish with whatever they can find (although I'd call this Round Up!). 

This meal is definitely a social affair. It is a popular lunchtime dish cooked at weekends with family and friends on an outside fire. We were fortunate enough to be invited to two family Rondons. Both were delicious albeit prepared slightly differently. The preparation takes a few hours during which the guests stand round the fire (noting the ambient temperature is already hitting 30c), chatting, listening to music and drinking beer. Following the meal, which is very filling, everyone retires to their hammock to take a nap!

We took notes on how to prepare this traditional dish so we can recreate it at home....

First the fire was built with coconut husks, and bits of wood lying about the back yard, and a large round bottom pan was put out to rest on three stones.  

Coconuts are always plentiful on Providence. A good number, I'd say 5 or more where shelled and the flesh cut into medium slithers. This was then blended in batches with water, sieved and squeezed, and then the process was repeated. The resulting coconut milk was kept and the leftover finely grated coconut went to the chickens.  This juice made the base of the soup and was heated over the fire at a good simmer. I saw one chef add some corn flour as a thickening agent. 

To the simmering soup is added the vegetables  - cassava, yam and plantain all chopped into large pieces. Then flavourings are stirred in, these vary depending on the cooks preferences including onion, garlic, red peppers, pimento (spicy peppers), basil, chili and Maggie (stock) seasoning. 

In a separate pressure cooker conch is boiled to make it tender. Conch (pronounced 'konk') is a large marine snail, a distant relative of the whelk. They are gastropod mollusks, found in warm waters of the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Their shells have overlapping whorls with a bright coloured pink lip, which can reach a length of about 25cms. These are collected by free diving around the island. They are a very popular food and can also be served with garlic or in a ceviche (cooked in lime juice) style. 

Next the pig tails in brine! To remove the excess salt from the tails they may have been soaked over night in fresh water. In a pan the pig tails were boiled to soften and remove further salt. They were then also pressure cooked to tenderise them. Apparently the tails actually come from Canada and no one knew why they where used in the dish, but they certainly added a good flavour. When the vegetables in the soup have softened, the conch and tails were added. 

Near the end the fish was gently laid in the stew, if it was to be used. Local fish, such as snapper, were seasoned with black pepper and salt. The fish was added to the simmering stew in large pieces, heads and all. Other seafood could be added, depending on what is available such as langosta (lobster), cangrejo (crab), calamare (squid) etc. 

Finally the dumplings. These were made of wheat flour, baking powder and water. The dumplings where flattened by hand into a disc shape and laid on top of the stew. I was told that the dumplings came from the English influence, and were always called dumplings even when speaking in Spanish.

With all the smells and the anticipation we were excited to taste this dish! It was a creamy and rich dish, and the strong pig tail and fish flavours were balanced by the starchy vegetables. The pig tails were delicious, we enjoyed gnawing them! We liked the peppery and spicyness of the dish, and cooking the conch really well gave them a pleasant soft bite. The dumplings were great, real stodge and comfort food. 

We were very grateful for the generous hospitality of our new friends. It was an incredibly filling dish and they were right, we had to have a lie down afterwards to let it settle! 

Joanna adding seasoning, boiled pig tails, conch & potatoes to the bubbling coconut milk

Our graceful hosts backyard - the epicentre for Rondon cooking

Nearing the end the fish goes in

And last but not least the 'English' dumplings are rolled and kneeded into flying saucer shapes and added to the pot

Add the lid and simmer whilst having a beer

...ok its hot two beers!

Eh voila - amazing - eat and sleep!

Bruce, our host and chef, boiling up his veg and conch in the coconut milk

Bruce's fisherman crew join us for a few beers around the fire

Carmeni, our wonderful hostess, for the majority of our stay on Providence

Can't talk must eat!

Very different style with yam, potato, plantain, conch and pigtail - just as good and just as sleepy!

Sarah with Angel, Carmeni and our two loyal companions Cossita and Puppy!