Money can’t buy you love. Good thing, because money was in short supply in my starving student days. I made up for my lack of funds with a surplus of creativity. This meant draping sarongs over milk crates to make fashionable shelving; painting found furniture to create shabby chic; wearing vintage clothes; and convincing myself that I enjoyed sleeping on a futon on the floor. Long before I would allow myself to splurge on the occasional professional housecleaning, I learned the merits of the chore wheel. And I believed in the adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
The first time I cooked for my future husband, I made him an inexpensive meal that he wouldn’t forget. A great way to cook on a budget is to cook vegetarian, and a great way to make a vegetarian meal taste rich is to spice it up, and look to global cuisines for inspiration. At that time, the Moosewood cookbooks were all the rage; I don’t know if they still are. My vegetarian housemate had all of them, and they were conveniently located on our communal cookbook shelf.
I paged through the books, thinking about what I would make. I didn’t actually know my husband-to-be well enough at that time to know even what he liked to eat. Most people, faced with this degree of unfamiliarity, would go the safe route and cook something which they 1) had cooked before; 2) had tasted before; and/or 3) knew their new date would enjoy. Throwing all caution to the wind, I chose a recipe which met none of those criteria: West African Groundnut (Peanut) Stew. A little exotic, a little spicy, but familiar too, with peanut butter as a key ingredient.
While I was just getting to know my future husband, I knew even less about West African cuisine. There was a restaurant in our small New England city, called Cecilia’s West African Restaurant, that I had been to maybe once or twice. It was in the not-so-safe part of town, had no windows, and could well have inspired the term “hole-in-the-wall.” It was located in a residential area with poor street lighting and poor signage, so it was a bit of an adventure to even get there. Once you found the place and went inside, you placed your order at the counter, and then helped yourselves to the tableware while waiting for your order to cook. The food was unfamiliar to me and not so memorable. What I remembered most, both for the similarity of its mouthfeel to mashed potatoes and its fun-to-say name, was fufu, the starch side dish made of boiled and mashed tubers, such as cassava or yam. I also remember peanut-based sauces, some meat, but not much in the way of vegetables.
The cuisine of West Africa is a unique and diverse one, relating to the long history of the varied cultures in this area. West Africa refers to sixteen countries, including English-speaking Ghana and Nigeria, and French -speaking Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. The languages spoken in this part of Africa reflect the colonial period of the 19th century. But the cuisine, interestingly, reflects the pre-colonial period. The traditional African diet included a wide variety of vegetables, including groundnuts (peanuts), corn, cassava, yams, plantains, black-eyed peas, eggplant, pumpkin, okra, and a wide variety of both cultivated and foraged green leafy vegetables. The range of outside flavors which have influenced West African cuisine is eclectic, including rice and cinnamon from Arab traders, who had a presence long before the European colonists arrived. Europeans introduced chilies and tomatoes from the New World, and these, along with onions, form the flavor base of West African cuisine.
Groundnut stew, the dish I chose to prepare, is called maafe and is found throughout West Africa, especially in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria. The stew’s peanut base is combined with the customary tomatoes, chilies and onions, and usually cooked with meats such as mutton, beef or chicken, and served with rice or fufu.
Mine was a liberal interpretation of the dish, as would be expected for a recipe from Moosewood, a vegetarian cooperative in Ithaca, NY. I walked to the local IGA supermarket that morning to get all of the root vegetables, okra, and tomatoes, as well as all the seasonings I would need for the stew. It was a sunshiney, blue skied day. That evening, I chopped everything up, and carefully made the stew. Like all stews, it would improve with sitting, so I made it an hour or so ahead.
That blue sky turned into white oblivion as an unexpected blizzard rolled in. The telephone rang close to the time that my date was supposed to arrive at my apartment.
“Hi, Linda,” he said. ”Could I ask you to pick me up?”
“OK,” I said, acting normal, though inside I was thinking, are you kidding me? ”But what happened to your car?”
“It stopped working.”
I know, I know. I broke all The Rules. I cooked for my date (with an untested recipe, violating my own rules on cooking for people you want to impress), and I picked him up for dinner. I was probably supposed to call it a night, and complain widely about his lack of foresight and reliable transportation. But I had already cooked the stew, and my housemates had mysteriously disappeared.
I had to get him.
Also, I was not at all surprised that his car didn’t work. It was a rusty old VW Rabbit Diesel hatchback that had been handed down to him from another student, to whom it had also been handed it down, and it was of indeterminate age. It worked sometimes, but only in the best of circumstances, and the subzero weather and the blizzard didn’t meet those requirements. By comparison, the 7 year old VW Jetta on loan to me from my parents was a luxury sedan (despite the fact that it had a leak somewhere, and when the temperature dipped below freezing, I had to scrape frost off both the outside and inside of the windshield).
So I drove the five minutes to pick him up, and brought him back to my apartment, which was warm and fragrant with the enticing scent of the stew. The stew was stupendous, and also a visual feast: the colors of the multi-hued cornucopia of vegetables popped in contrast to the earth tone of the silky, rich, peanut-based sauce. The Rabbit? It didn’t fare so well; I think my husband actually ended up paying someone to tow it away for scrap. But we’re still together, decades later, and both drive more dependable (but still budget-friendly) cars.
West African Groundnut Stew
2 cups chopped onions
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cayenne or other ground dried chiles
1 teaspoon pressed garlic cloves
2 cups chopped cabbage
3 cups cubed sweet potatoes (1-inch cubes)
3 cups tomato juice
1 cup apple or apricot juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
2 chopped tomatoes
1 ½-2 cups chopped okra
½ cup natural peanut butter
1. Sauté the onions in the oil over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until onions are soft and translucent.
2. Stir in the cayenne and garlic and sauté for a couple more minutes.
3. Add the cabbage and sweet potatoes and sauté, covered for a few minutes.
4. Mix in the juices, salt, ginger, cilantro, and tomatoes.
5. Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are tender.
6. Add the okra and simmer for 5 minutes more.
7. Stir in the peanut butter, and simmer gently until ready to serve, stirring frequently. Add more juice or water if the stew is too thick.
8. Serve over rice or fufu, and wash it down with store-bought (such as Reed’s) or homemade ginger beer.
Adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, Copyright © 1990 by Moosewood, Inc. Simon and Schuster, publisher.