Bonjour, and welcome to Senegal, World Cuisines Cooking Group style!
After our get-to-know-each-other cooking last Spring, we gathered this week for our first official group cooking adventure. On the menu, the cuisine of Senegal, a country whose food culture bears the strong influences of local tribal populations as well as the French, whose presence was strong until the mid 20th Century.
Our menu began with a West African peanut soup, made with sweet potatoes, carrots and peanut butter. (See the recipe at the end of this post.) After the vegetables simmered for 15 minutes or so, we pureed the soup base — an opportunity for some of our group members to have their first encounter with an immersion blender. Then the peanut butter, vegetable juice, and seasonings went in. We enjoyed our first course while the main dish finished cooking.
Poulet Yassa, a stewed chicken and rice dish often served to special guests, was our main course. It starts with 9 pounds of onions, peeled, sliced, and sauteéd. By the time we got those onions into the pot, we were all in tears! But the onions cooked, the chicken pieces got their start on the grill, and the rice boiled in another pot. At the end, we combined the three elements into a beautiful, garlicky stew.
Usually it would be the host's duty to pick the chicken off the bones (with the right hand only — the left hand is used for personal hygiene, and never for eating), and assemble the serving platter. Instead, we all worked together, picking the chicken and piling the meat atop the rice. Then we ladled onions from the pot onto the chicken. A beautiful presentation.
In traditional Senegalese fashion, we gathered around the large platter of Poulet Yassa and, with our right hands only, each scooped a small bit of chicken, onion and rice, forming it into a ball against the side of the platter. And that's how we ate, with our hands....well, at the beginning, until some people decided to use their forks. It was delicious. Perhaps a little more hot pepper next time, we all agreed. (We'll have to find our mutual heat tolerance as we continue to cook together. That's the fun of group cooking!) We also decided it would be a great dish for entertaining, because it benefits from overnight cooking and longer marination.
Just before sitting down to dinner, we chose our next culinary destination. We decided to let random selection guide our travels. I wrote 25 countries and regional cuisines on little pieces of paper. Lee did the honors, and our next stop is:
For homework, we all agreed to watch Dr. Zhivago again — no arm twisting was necessary! And I'll be working on a menu of Russian foods that can be made in less than three hours, using ingredients available to us, and that we might want to incorporate into our home cooking repertoires.
WEST AFRICAN PEANUT SOUP
Adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. Serves 8.
2 cups chopped onions
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp cayenne, or more to taste
1 tsp grated peeled fresh ginger root
1 cup chopped peeled carrots
4 cups chopped sweet potatoes
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups V8 juice
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 Tbsp sugar or honey, if needed
1 cup chopped scallions or chives
Saute the onions in the oil until just translucent. Stir in the cayenne and fresh ginger. Add the carrots and sauté a few more minutes. Mix in the potatoes and stock or water, bring the soup to a boil, and then simmer for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. With an immersion blender, if you have one, purée the vegetables with the cooking liquid and tomato juice. Return the purée to a soup pot. Stir in the peanut butter until smooth. Taste the soup. Its sweetness will depend on the sweetness of the carrots and sweet potatoes. If it’s not there naturally, add just a tiny bit of sugar to enhance the other flavors. Reheat the soup gently, using a heat diffuser if needed to prevent scorching. Add more water, stock or tomato juice for a thinner soup. Serve topped with plenty of chopped scallions or chives.