Looking back, I don’t know if I was a very good vegetarian. Certainly not early on. I abstained from meat, fish and fowl for more than a decade, but my twenty-something self was much more interested in happy hours than her health, and cooking (without a dishwasher, unfathomable to me now) was hardly a daily occurrence. (Bless you, Indian takeout and Julia’s Empanadas, for keeping me alive.) When I did cook, I relied heavily on processed soy products that pretend to taste like meat and an efficient-if-boring repertoire of stir-fry, pasta, and rice and beans.
As I’ve grown as a cook and learned how to handle more unusual grains (quinoa, farro, bulgur) and make use of the gorgeous bounty of fresh produce we have here in California, I find meat-free meals are much more interesting, healthy and satisfying, enough to keep the attention of your average carnivore. (Which makes me wonder: would I have gone another meatless decade if I had made better things to eat?) This is one veggie main dish that fits the bill: hearty, sustaining, spicy and (in case you’re without a dishwasher) a one-pot wonder. It’s based on a West African stew that features peanuts (“groundnuts”, if you’re in Senegal), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and a lusty array of attention-grabbing spices. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but oh, does it ever.
Fans of Top Chef (how amazing is this All-Stars season?) might recognize this as a winning dish for cheftestant Carla Hall on a recent episode of the cooking competition. (I admire the DC chef’s approach to food and her ability to participate on a reality TV show without looking like a jerk. Grace and good humor can be hard enough to come by in real life; within the weirdo parameters of reality television they’re a near impossibility.)
Until watching the show, I had never even heard of this West African comfort food, but I was eager to give it a whirl when my vegetarian neighbor and his girlfriend came to dinner. It proved to be a keeper. I took Mark Bittman‘s recipe as my starting point, did a little research, borrowed some ideas from Carla and jazzed it up a bit. Die-hard meat eaters may add shredded roast chicken to the stew, but I swear on a stack of hickory-smoked bacon that you won’t miss the meat.
Senegalese-Style Groundnut Stew
adapted (liberally) from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian;
- 3/4 C peanuts, roasted and shelled
- 2 Tbsp peanut oil, or any other neutral-flavored oil (grapeseed, corn, etc.)
- 1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 Tbsp ginger, peeled and minced
- 2 Tbsp garlic, minced
- 1/4 C natural chunky peanut butter (preferably fresh-ground)
- 1 generous cup okra, sliced into coins (frozen is fine)
- 1/2 lb collard greens or kale, washed well, ribs removed and cut into wide ribbons
- 14 oz can diced or crushed tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted, or 8-10 fresh plum tomatoes in season)
- 1 lb sweet potato or yam, peeled and cut into a 1/2″ dice
- bay leaf
- 1/2 tsp grated lime zest
- 2 Tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 6 C (48 oz) vegetable stock
- crushed red chilies (for serving tableside)
for the spice mixture:
- 1 tsp tumeric
- 1/2 tsp cardamom
- 1/2 tsp coriander
- 1 1/2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, or more to taste
Roughly chop the peanuts and prep the other vegetables. In a small bowl, stir together the spice mixture.
In a medium saucepan or dutch oven, heat the peanut oil until hot. Add the onions, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes. Add 1/2 C of the peanuts, and the spice mixture.
Add the stock, bay leaf and sweet potatoes; bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Partly cover the pot and cook until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 8-10 minutes. Add the peanut butter, breaking up with a wooden spoon or a whisk. Add the collards, tomato, lime zest and okra. Taste the broth and adjust the seasonings to your liking (particularly the salt and cayenne). Partially cover and cook until the collards are wilted, 5-8 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Transfer to soup bowls and garnish with parsley and remaining chopped peanuts. Serve with additional crushed red chilies for more heat.
Variation: omit the greens and add one cup of coconut milk with the peanut butter; use an immersion blender (or let cool slightly and transfer to a blender) to purée into a smooth soup.
Note: if your stock, peanut butter or peanuts are unsalted, use a more generous hand when salting the soup. Also, I had leftover roasted sweet potatoes in the fridge, which is why they look so caramelized in the photo; cooked in the soup, they won’t be.