I started this post back in December with the intention to post it on National Pepperpot Day, Dec. 29. I woke up today to a very gray day. As I sat down with my coffee, it started to pour. I am glad to snuggle up on the sofa with my mug, some Doctor Who reruns while I write, and nowhere to be. Since I’m not working today, the idea of putting a pot of soup on is appealing, even though it’s supposed to be in the mid-50s today. Then I remembered that I still hadn’t finished this post, and today would be the perfect day to post.
I had recently watched an episode of A Taste of History where Chef Walter Staib cooked pepperpot in a giant cast iron cauldron right on the banks of the Delaware river where George Washington and his troops camped during the Revolutionary War and where the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” happened. There’s a legend that pepperpot was invented by a cook at the encampment who was told to cobble together whatever scraps he had to make a stew that would “warm and strengthen the body of a soldier and inspire his flagging spirit.”
I was especially intrigued because I think of colonial foods being fairly “basic.” Mostly fresh or preserved meats, fresh vegetables in the summer, and root veggies in the winter. Chef Staib’s recipe uses taro and habanero peppers, at the time ingredients not common in North America, and certainly not ingredients you would think would be leftover in the bottom of a cook’s pantry. But what I seem to keep forgetting is that there was lots of international trade going on at the time. Philadelphia itself was a major port city, with all kinds of exotic food arriving daily. Washington crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvana into Trenton, New Jersey, so he was only a short way outside of Philadelphia. The troops probably passed right through the city, giving them the chance to replenish their reserves and get all kinds of fresh food. Though since it was December, the troops probably were cold, and this soup definitely has amazing warming properties.
Pepperpot originated in the Caribbean and was probably brought to Philadelphia by ships traveling from the region with slaves and goods, where it became firmly ingrained into Philadelphian cookbooks and legend. There are many versions of this soup, but I made mine with the help of Chef Staib’s cookbook, The City Tavern Cookbook. His version is influenced by the West Indies.
Pepperpot was originally mostly made with tripe. For me, that was just not going to happen. I haven’t seen tripe in a regular grocery store in years, and it is one of the things on my very short list of foods that I never want to try. So I was happy to work with Chef Staib’s recipe. I had to make a few other alterations as I hadn’t read the recipe well enough ahead of time. It calls for salt cured pork shoulder and salt cured beef shoulder. I could have made it myself by getting the meat about 3 days ahead of time, coating with liberally with salt and letting it sit in the fridge for the 3 days. But I hadn’t done that and was ready to make the soup that day. So I improvised and got a block of salt pork and some plain beef that I liberally salted and let sit before using.
I also had to slightly compromise on two of the spices. I was raiding my mom’s pantry and she only had course ground black pepper and ground allspice, instead of peppercorns and allspice berries that I could grind. And she doesn’t have a mortar and pestle either, so grinding spices probably would have included a hammer – something I have done before but much better performed outside.
Everything else I was able to manage: oil, onion, fresh garlic, habanero, scallions, taro, beef stock, bay leaves, fresh thyme, collard greens, and salt. I pulled out my cast iron dutch oven and heated the oil. Then in went the chopped meat to brown, then the chopped taro and onion and minced garlic to soften. I cut one habanero into three large pieces and removed the seeds. I wanted to be able to identify it later on and be able to pull it out to avoid a soup so hot it couldn’t be eaten. So I tossed in the big pieces to soften and infuse flavor and heat.
Once I was happy with this, the herbs and spices went in. A few seconds and a stir or two to coat everything, and then the broth went in. I then lowered the heat for a good simmer until the meat was tender. About 5 minutes before I was ready to serve, I put the chopped collards in and simmered until wilted. As I dished, I removed the pieces of habanero.
This soup is warm and cozy in a bowl. The savory beef flavor with the bite of habenero, plus the fresh collards….simply amazing!
As an added bonus, my husband agreed to take me to birthday dinner at Chef Staib’s restaurant, City Tavern, a few weeks ago. I was so excited to see pepperpot on the menu, and I ordered a bowl straight off. I’d have to say that his meat ended up more tender than mine did, and I would say his broth had even more flavor than mine. So next time I whip up a batch, I’ll use homemade beef stock instead of store bough beef broth. This is definitely a recipe that I will return to again and again. It’s perfect for a cold, wet day; and I could see it becoming my go-to when sick.