The essential ingredient is cassareep, an extraction of cassava (aka yucca) that is neither easy to buy nor difficult to make. This, as Austin Clarke says, is Caribbean Slave Food descended from Amerindian practice, and a good thing; humble ingredients unite to build a great and simple dish. To serve a crowd of at least 8.
-1 lb jointed oxtail (preferred) or beef chuck cut into big chunks
-1 calf’s foot (preferred) or some soupbones
-2 lb pork shoulder cut into 2 inch chunks
-a chicken cut into serving pieces
-1 lb corned beef
-½ cup cassareep (see the Notes)
-2 or 3 hot chilies (preferred) or a good dose of cayenne
-salt and, maybe, pepper
- Dump everything into a big pot, bring it to a boil, then simmer for eons until the sauce thickens and the meat is fork tender.
- Some things, notably the chicken breasts, will finish sooner than others; fish them out early and return them to the pepperpot once everything else is done. The corned beef may take the longest, depending on its cure; you will need to slice it.
- Serve the pepperpot with rice and, if you like, one or more of plantain, fried green banana and crusty bread.
- To make cassareep, peel and grate about 2 lb cassava, pour about ½ cup boiling water over the gratings and squeeze them with extreme prejudice through a dish towel or some muslin. Cook the liquid with about ½ teaspoon cinnamon and ¼ teaspoon ground cloves until it thickens and colors; it will thicken fast but takes time to color. It is easy scorch the cassareep before it reaches the desired dark color so cheat and lace the thickened muck with some Kitchen Bouquet instead of ruining it. It will keep forever in the refrigerator.
- Pepperpot lends itself to endless innovation; according to Austin Clarke, it originated as found wilderness food from the wilds of Guyana originally prepared by Amerindians and then early modern seekers of diamonds and silver.
“The animals they hunted were varied, and native to the particular area where they were prospecting. Deer was on the menu, and so was labba. Labba is a polite name for nothing more than a big rat…. The capybara, another big rodent, weighing about fifty pounds, was desired meat…. The peccaries, or wild pigs, roamed in herds…. There was also watrass and land turtle and water dog. And iguana” and “its blood relation in the animal kingdom, the alligator.” (Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit, New York 1999, 175-76)
- If you would like to vary your pepperpot as of yore, but cannot find labba, capybara or water dog, consider substituting beef ribs for oxtail, pickled pork or salted pigtails for corned beef, beef for pork; mix, match, or add them all. As a nineteenth century source explains, “[a]ny sort of meat may be used, all mixed in it.”
-Some recipes add thyme or citrus; we like 2 generous teaspoons of dried thyme and the juice of 2 limes.
- Most pepperpot recipes lack the chicken; it appears in The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz (New York 1973) and we like it.
- One version, however, includes duck, and it is a good one from Geoffrey Holder, the distinguished polymath from Trinidad. It appears in Geoffrey Holder’s Caribbean Cookbook (New York 1973): By all means get a copy if you can find one. For his duck pepperpot, Holder cuts the duck, three pounds of pork (the Editor uses shoulder as usual) and a pound of pickled pork into serving pieces, then simmers the meats together for 1 ½ hours. Then he adds 2 heaped Tablespoons of brown sugar, between a quarter and half a cup of “that lovely cassareep,” a pound of sliced onions and four chopped bell peppers to the pot with a teaspoon of dried thyme (we recommend two) and simmers everything until the meat is tender. Simple and sublime.
- As we have noted elsewhere, pickled pork is available from www.cajungrocer.com and other online sources. Alternatively, homemade pickled pork is not at all difficult to make if you follow Walter Staib’s instructions from the City Tavern Cookbook (Philadelphia 1999). Simply rub down a chunk of marbled shoulder with plenty of salt--the Editor likes Maldon--slip the salt meat into a plastic freezer bag and leave it in the refrigerator for a least three days, or much longer. Cut what you need and rinse away the salt before you cook with your pickled pork.