A Culinary Trip to Senegal

18 Mar

This past weekend the cooking club I’m part of got together for an African themed dinner. It was a lovely night – a gorgeous table set with perfectly presented food. All the recipes we selected were from Pierre Thaim‘s beautiful cookbook, Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal. I chose to make the vegetarian entree which was Vegetable Mafe, a root vegetable stew. It was the first time I really tried cooking this type of cuisine. The stew turned out ok but I think we all agreed it needed a little something. A good recipe worth tweaking to make it even better.

Other menu items included: Yucassoise (like Vichyssoise made from Yuca instead of potato), Couscous & Smoked Tofu Stuffed Tomatoes (recipe actually called for Fonio, which is an African grain difficult to come by in our immediate area so we improvised with the couscous), Avocado & Mango Salad, Salmon Charmoula (my favorite of the evening), Black Eyed Pea Salad, Roasted Mango and Coconut Rice Pudding, and Chocolate Volcano

Here’s the recipe and my two cents about the process and the finished product.

Vegetable Mafe

Ingredients:

1/4 cup peanut oil
1 1/2 onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, very finely minced
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
4 1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 vegetable bouillon cube
Salt
1 small cabbage, cut into 6 wedges
1 1/2 pounds tubers of choice: yuca, yam, coco yam, eddoes, potato, etc., peeled and cut into large chunks
1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 turnips, peeled and quartered
1 habanero pepper
4 heaping tablespoons smooth peanut butter
10-20 okra pods, stemmed and cut widthwise into 1/8-inch rounds or left whole (see Note)
4 cups cooked rice

Notes on Ingredients:

The vegetable ingredients can vary according to taste and availability, though the butternut squash is a must. If you slice the okra thinly, they will dissolve into the sauce, giving it that typical, viscous okra texture (which I love). Leaving them whole adds color and the flavor of a second nonstarchy vegetable. For those not too keen on okra, use fewer pods.

Instructions:

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot, 1 1/2 gallon capacity or more. Add half the onions and half the minced garlic and cook over low heat until soft but not brown.

2. Dilute the tomato paste in 1/2 cup water and add to the pot. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until the sauce is thickened and the oil glistens on the surface, about 5 minutes. Add 4 cups water and bring to a boil.

3. Add the bay leaf and the bouillon cube, and salt to taste. Stir well to dissolve the bouillon. Add the cabbage, tubers, butternut squash, turnips, and habanero. Return to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, removing the vegetables as they become tender but not mushy. (The butternut squash will be the first to cook, about 20 minutes.) Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary while the vegetables cook. The liquid will reduce to about 3 cups.

4. Remove about 1 cup of liquid and dissolve the peanut butter in it. Pour back into the pot and add the remaining onion and garlic plus the okra. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and let cook for 10 minutes more, stirring to make sure the sauce is smooth.

5. Arrange the cooked rice on a platter or in a large bowl. Distribute the vegetables over the rice, leaving the habanero on the side where it can easily be seen. Then generously spread the sauce over the vegetables and rice and serve.

Serves 6

For the root vegetables I used one yam, one white potato, and one yuca. I’ve eaten yuca before in Puerto Rican dishes, but had never cooked it myself. They are huge tubers! It was difficult to find a small one. Most of them were nearly as big as my arm – both in length and circumference. I was able to pick through the bin at the grocery store and find one that was about one pound and the size of a sweet potato. I didn’t really know what to expect. It kind of looks like a potato once you peel it but I realized it was much more tough and fiberous once I cut into it. When cooked, it is very potato-like.

I used a small cabbage and followed the instructions and cut it into 6 pieces. They were still really big wedges but eventually they broke apart more and cooked down some but still made for some big bites when dishing up the stew. I ended up using just one purple topped turnip and I chopped it into larger chunks instead of merely quartering it. The pieces just seemed so huge. I wasn’t able to find any fresh okra so I resorted to frozen and partially thawed them before using them. I’m not a big fan of okra so I didn’t go overboard. I only used about 12 pods and decided to chop them up and let them dissolve into the sauce rather than leave them whole.

Overall, I liked this recipe (though it took a lot longer to put together than I originally anticipated). It took a lot of attention to keep checking the vegetables and keep fishing them out. Instead of putting them all in at once, I wonder if it would make more sense to start with the vegetables that require the most time and then add the ones that require less and remove everything from the sauce at once. If I were to do it again, I also think I would add more acid to balance out the peanut butter in the sauce a bit – perhaps some canned diced tomatoes, not just the couple of spoonfuls of tomato paste. And since I’m not a big okra person (although I know that’s what makes this dish more authentic), I think I would consider substituting some other green vegetable. In the wintertime I can imagine come chopped up kale working well in this recipe or fresh green beans in the summer – both for color and to round out the starches a bit.

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One Response to “A Culinary Trip to Senegal”

  1. Adrienne March 18, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    My mouth is watering-makes me want to run home and cook up some veggies for dinner. I agree with you about okra-not a big fan- but I like your suggestion to sub kale.

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