February has always been a month of the blues for me. In a previous Canadian life, the cold air and snowdrifts made for weeks of indoor pacing and yearning for the sun. But one year recently, I spent February in Mustique, a small island in the West Indies but not on a boat. The owners of the yacht I was working on had rented a house and I was to fly down and meet them.
I'd never been to Mustique or worked in a house, so I called the butler to ask some preliminary questions: "What equipment is in the kitchen? Where do I purchase food? What food is even available?" Mr. Fitz laughed wholeheartedly. "Don't you worry. Everything is here on the island. You just ask me and I'll get it for you." I immediately felt at peace and relaxed. I would be in good hands.
Hot, heavy air hung on me like a weighted blanket as I stepped off the small island-hopper that is the common transport in the islands. I could hear the ocean from a nearby beach. The perfumed smell of tropical flowers filled the air. The dirt runway led from a rickety shack into a jungle of lush green foliage. I squinted in the bright sunlight and spotted a short, dark-skinned, smiling man leaning against a golf-cart-size buggy.
"Welcome to paradise," he said, and I believed we were there. I felt like I was being greeted by Tattoo. "Come on, I'll show you the house."
"Frangipani," named after the small, lily-like flowers growing on the island, was a seven-bedroom villa overlooking L'Ansecoy Bay. The home featured mahogany floors and white sandstone walls. Flowing sheer curtains billowed in the breeze. The dark wood furniture and brightly colored paintings played together in a truly Caribbean way. It was spacious compared to the boat, and wouldn't sway with every wave. The owners wouldn't arrive until the next day, so for a short time I had the house to myself.
As soon as I was settled into a room and had showered and changed, I was introduced to Irma, the house cook. She also exuded the carefree, joyful Caribbean spirit that Mr. Fitz did. Her cheerful disposition made me feel instantly at ease in her kitchen. Dressed in her Mother Hubbard flower-print dress, she was singing when I met her.
"Child you're gonna love it here!" she exclaimed.
She laughed when I asked about the vegetables I'd ordered before I'd come down. "Everything will arrive on Monday on da boat."
It was Friday.
I looked around the spotless kitchen. I had a hard time masking my shock at the contents of the fridge. There was no fresh milk, no variety of cheeses and limited vegetables. All I had for preparing the next day's dinner were a papaya, 24 grapefruit, baking potatoes and a large bowl of green tomatoes. Not quite the everything you need that Mr. Fitz had described on the phone.
Mr. Fitz came to see how I was getting on. "It's not exactly what I am used to," I stated, not wanting to insult him. He just laughed and repeated, "Don't you worry."
I panicked, but it was Irma to the rescue. Having lived her whole life in the islands, she knew exactly how things worked. She led me out the door to her garden, a tropical overgrowth looking out over the azure Caribbean Sea. Humming, she wandered the misshapen rows and began picking. I smiled. We would use what we had.
Off to the right, the gardener gathered coconuts from the yard while Irma led me to a bench under the shade of a tree, and hunched over a wooden board that resembled a huge cheese grater. Her large frame curved over the board as she put her whole weight into the job of extracting the thick sweet liquid for homemade coconut milk. She scrunched up her back like a cat and then extended it out. No wonder she was such a strong woman.
"We'll save some of this for coconut custard," she said, and pointed to a banana tree in the far corner. "In da morning, I'll bake a cake."
Callaloo soup was what she had in mind for a starter. Callaloo is a hearty green leafy vegetable with a slightly bitter taste, like strong spinach. Back in the kitchen, Irma sautéed these heart-shaped leaves with carrots and onions and an herb called picky thyme. Singing a hymn while she stirred the pot, she added chicken stock and the coconut milk. The final touch was a garnish of crabmeat that I'd brought from the States. The soup was smooth, slightly peppery on the tongue, and creamy at the same time. Irma had just saved me.
Next, she taught me how to marinate hearts of palm harvested from the inner top shoots of the cabbage palm trees on the property. "We'll head into town to the docks tomorrow to see what fish they's have," she said. Before my eyes, a four-course meal was assembled out of the seemingly empty fridge and the island around me.
That night, Mr. Fitz and Irma brought me to Basil's, a palm thatched bamboo bar on a wooden deck three feet above the water. As we sipped rum drinks and listened to an island man on a steel guitar play a rendition of Caribbean Blues, I laughed with my new friends and watched the stars dancing on the water. February blues never felt so good.
Callaloo soup is found throughout the islands. The soup's key ingredient is callaloo, a spinach-like leaf from the dasheen plant. You can usually find it in Caribbean grocers, but spinach is an acceptable substitute. Scotch bonnets are readily available in the Caribbean, but if you cannot find them you can substitute a habanero pepper.
In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat butter and vegetable oil over medium high heat. When hot, add onion, carrots, garlic and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Sauté for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add callaloo and sauté 2 more minutes. Add scotch bonnet, thyme and chicken stock. Simmer for 15 minutes. Puree in a blender and pass through a sieve. Season with salt and pepper. Add coconut milk. Heat just until warm, being careful not to boil or the vibrant green color will turn grey. Add crabmeat and serve.