It may surprise some of you but I used to be quite shy when it came to going into restaurants and trying dishes and ingredients I had not known growing up, (as I had) in a small town in Northern Illinois. Now I am known for being “all in” when it comes to that… but we all have our ‘earlier selves’...don’t we?
When I moved to Key West, one of the places that caught….not my eye, but my nose was ‘El Cacique’ restaurant. It was on lower Duval Street, which, back then, could still be a relatively quiet place...at least in the warmer months.
“El Cacique” translates as “The Chief” and there was a large depiction of an Indian’s handsome face in full head-dress regalia over the building that the restaurant was within.
El Cacique was just a few doors down from the landmark ‘Sloppy Joe’s Bar’ before it became the endlessly packed, noisy jam-fest, T-shirt emporium with the clanging ship’s bell.
The people who ate at El Cacique then were working-class shopkeepers, street cops re-fueling on café con leche, fishermen in from the water, rough-handed carpenters, paint-spattered house painters and other regular town folks. The prices were within their budget and the vibe was family and friends casual. It was one of a number of restaurants on the island featuring classic Cuban cooking during that now, largely and sadly, all-but-lost era.
One late morning the door was opening as I was about to walk past...and a heavenly fragrance of cooking came my way. The aroma and succulent smells of Cuban foods; evocative of cumin, garlic, pork, beans, a candied kind of caramelized something.. what?!?.. stretched out to me. My stomach tightened as I inhaled. I set aside my shyness and took a stool at the full length counter to the right of the front door extending to the kitchen at the back of the building.
One of the three Cuban girls working there came and asked me in Spanish what I would be having to eat.
I asked her what smelled so good and she smiled… switched to English and replied, "Maybe you smell the Caldo Gallego. It's our soup special today".
A number of the men around me drank from long-necked bottles wrapped in a napkin to help keep their beer cold. It was early in the day but I was off work and joined them in that simple pleasure. It made me even hungrier!
While I waited for my soup I caught the fragrances of many other foods that were still a mystery to me then and I felt I was finding even more reasons to love the Island Town.
The moment arrived…. My pretty waitresses’ face held a serene and knowing smile, nearly ‘Madonna like’, as she walked to me… bringing me a steaming bowl of nourishment as well as a side order of toasted Cuban bread smudged with butter or…. at least... something somewhat like it.
There were white beans dominating the composition, but the ambrosial flavors of pork, potatoes, collard greens, boniato and garlic all came to life in what is essentially a White Bean Soup.
I loved it and the whole world outside the rectangular, high-ceiling diner on the southernmost island in the continental United States seemed to go away as I sank into its dreamscape.
I was glad for the history that brought these foods and flavors to where I had come to call home.
As I finished sopping the last of my soup with the bread… the girl came back and said coyly,
"I guess you'll be back".
Yes, I will, many times, even if I have to only pretend… or… remember.
How To Make Caldo Gallego (8 servings)
12-14 ounce package of dried white beans (rinsed, picked over & soaked overnight)
8 ounces of chorizo or other spicy sausage
3 tablespoons of pure olive oil
2 tablespoons of butter
6 cloves garlic (peeled and thinly sliced)
1 scotch bonnet chili (stemmed, seeded and minced)
2 poblano chilies (stemmed, seeded and medium diced)
3 quarts of chicken stock
2 smoked ham hocks or 1 ham bone
2 bay leaves (broken)
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1-2 red potatoes (about 1 pound, scrubbed and diced into bite sized pieces)
1 rutabaga (about 1 pound, peeled and diced into bite sized pieces)
2 cups (packed) of callaloo or spinach (stems cut out, washed and shredded)
Heat a large, heavy soup pot on medium heat and add the olive oil. Once it's warm, lay the chorizo sausage in the pan and turn it as necessary to brown. Pierce the sausage casing and cook until done. Allow to cool a few minutes and then place it in the refrigerator to firm up.
Now working in the same soup pot add the butter. Heat at medium and allow the butter to melt. Now add the garlic, chilies and red onion. Allow to cook 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Drain the soaking beans and add them to the pan. Add the stock, the hock (or bone) and bay leaves. Turn up the heat and bring it to just under a boil, skimming as necessary. Turn heat to low. Do not cover. Stir occasionally, taking care to not let the beans stick to the bottom.
When the beans are almost tender, season them with salt and pepper. Add the rutabaga. Wait 10 minutes and add the potato. Cook until the rutabaga and potato are just tender, (about 20 minutes more.) Take the chorizo and cut it into ½ inch rounds and add it to the soup. Remove the ham hock or bone and allow it to cool on a plate. Turn off the soup. Shred the ham and add it back to the soup. Season to taste and serve.