Fish, chicken, whelks, kerbs (a type of chiton) and, of course, conch — all end up in the stew pots of Bahamian cooks. A cornerstone of Bahamian cuisine and the ultimate comfort food, stew is traditionally served over grits or white rice, or with steamed dumplings known as dough boys.
Key to a successful Bahamian stew is “browning the flour” — which essentially means making a roux, a mixture of fat and flour which thickens and flavours the dish.
Whereas the roux used in French dishes are cream-coloured, in Bahamian cooking (as in Cajun cuisine) the fat and flour mix is cooked to a rich, deep brown. I once read that, in Cajun cooking, your roux is ready when it reaches the colour of a penny, and I’ve found that to be a great yardstick for Bahamian stew as well.
BAHAMIAN STEWED CONCH
- 6 conchs, washed and cleaned
- 1-2 tbsp butter or margarine
- 8-10 cups water
- ¼ c bacon or salt pork drippings
- ½ c. all-purpose flour
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp thyme
- salt and pepper
- 2-3 carrots, peeled and cut into 2” pieces
- 2-3 sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 2-3 potatoes, peeled and quartered
Note: If I’m making dough boys (recipe below) I normally make them before starting the stew, so they have ample time to rise.
Slice conchs horizontally into pieces roughly ½-inch thick. Bruise (pound) with a meat tenderizer until conch breaks up and begins to look “lacy,” as my grandmother once described it.
(Because of the mess, Bahamian cooks traditionally bruised conchs outdoors. My grandmother, for example, had a wooden fish-cleaning table way at the back of her yard, to avoid attracting flies near the house. Lacking both a fish-cleaning table and a yard — at least here in L.A. – I put 6-8 slices of conch at a time in a gallon-sized Ziplock bag and bruise it on a cutting board. A damp dish towel beneath the cutting board prevents slipping, and helps dampen the sound.)
Put bruised conch in a large stock pot and add 8-10 cups of water and butter. According to Bahamian cooks, butter helps prevent the conch from frothing and boiling over — but watch it just in case.
Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered about 45 minutes or until tender. Drain the conch, reserving the water.
Fry enough diced bacon — or salt pork, if you can find it — to produce roughly 1/4 cup of drippings. (You could use 1/4 cup of vegetable oil instead, but it doesn’t add as much flavour.) With a slotted spoon, remove cooked bacon or salt pork and set aside.
Add flour to the drippings and mix well. Cook at medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden or heat-resistant silicone spatula (I once had a rubber spatula melt while making a roux) until the mixture browns.
When your flour mixture is a rich brown, add onion, garlic, tomato paste, thyme, salt and pepper. Saute a few minutes to allow onion and garlic to soften.
Slowly add roughly 6 cups of reserved conch water, stirring or whisking to prevent lumps. Simmer 15 minutes or until the liquid thickens slightly, stirring occasionally.
Add carrots, potato, sweet potato, conch and cooked bacon or salt pork. Stir to combine and coat all ingredients. If you’re making dough boys, gently rest them on top of the stew. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until vegetables are soft. Remove the dough boys.
Taste and if necessary, add more salt, pepper or thyme to taste. If the stew is too thick, gently stir in a little more of the reserved conch water.
Serve with grits, rice or dough boys.
A big thank you to Carol Jean Lowe of Kool Karts for sharing this recipe with me, and permitting me to share it with you.
- 3 cups Robin Hood flour*
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ cup sugar
- 3 tsp rapid rise yeast
- 1/3 cup Crisco shortening
- Very warm water
* Many Bahamian cooks prefer using Canadian flour (e.g., Robin Hood or Five Roses) as they say it produces better results than U.S. flour. If you can’t find Canadian flour, however, my cousin, Marguerite Sawyer Mendelson (co-author of Healthier Bahamian Cuisine) says Pillsbury flour also works well.
Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Cut in 1/3 cup of Crisco. Add warm water, a few tablespoons at a time, and mix with your hands until all ingredients begin to stick together. (Use as little water as possible, since too much will make the doughs heavy.)
Knead on a floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic. Form a ball, put it in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until it’s doubled in size.
Once dough has risen, divide it into 6-8 pieces (or more, if you prefer smaller doughs) and knead each one. Return to bowl, cover again and let rise while you make the stew.
When you’ve added vegetables and conch to the stew pot, gently rest dough boys on top, cover and cook 20 minutes. (If your stew pot isn’t big enough, or you’d just prefer to cook doughs separately, you can steam them in another large pot in 4-6″ of simmering water.)
Either way, DO NOT lift the lid while doughs are cooking or they’ll fall. After 20 minutes, prick doughs with a fork and remove them from pot.