I love African peanut stew. Its rich, complex flavors belie its simplicity of preparation. For years I’ve made a version with whole chicken thighs, from Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World. However, as I continue with my vegetarian weeks, that obviously wouldn’t do. (Interestingly, as soon as I decided to go all-veg for a while, my cooking turned away from Euro-centric and back toward the international style I’ve always preferred.)
For a vegetarian version, I returned to one of my first cooking mentors: Crescent Dragonwagon. Her Soup and Bread was a staple cookbook of mine through graduate school. (She also writes children’s books – The Home Place is lovely.) In this case, though, I used her 1100-page labor of love, The Passionate Vegetarian. Dragonwagon calls her peanut stew “Palaver,” a word she says means “trouble” in West Africa, though in English it refers to discussion or flattery. All of these meanings could be tied to another I found in Webster’s, “a conference, especially among or with African tribes.”
When I started cooking, I really didn’t know how much this soup was exactly what I wanted. As the flavors started to come together – as I stirred in the peanut butter mixture and tinkered with the heat and spice – I found myself dancing in the kitchen. “This is going to be so good, so good, sooo good,” I sang under my breath.
It really, really is – so good. So hearty and warming on a chilly January day. This will make a vegan’s day; carnivores won’t even notice there’s no meat here. And you, you lucky cook, you can reel in the plaudits without admitting that the whole thing took you less than 45 minutes from start to finish.
I have made slight changes from Dragonwagon’s original, slightly decreasing the liquid, increasing the curry powder, and changing the handling of the serrano because I wasn’t paying attention. (Dragonwagon chopped it.) I also did not use okra, since none was handy, and I added a tablespoon of brown sugar.
Groundnut and Greens Palaver with Black-Eyed Peas
5 cups water
2 teaspoons mild vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 serrano chile, stemmed and halved lengthwise
1 tablespoon curry powder
Cayenne pepper, to taste
8 to 10 gratings fresh nutmeg
1 can tomatoes with green chiles, such as Ro-Tel or Hatch
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut in 1-inch dice
1 cup smooth, natural, no-sugar-added peanut butter
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 pound spinach, well washed, chopped
1/2 pound kale or mustard greens, well washed, chopped
1/3 cup sliced fresh okra, optional
2 cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the water on to boil.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until starting to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the serrano, curry powder, cayenne, and nutmeg, and saute another minute or two. Add 3 cups of boiling water, plus the canned tomatoes with chiles and the sweet potato. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook covered for 15 minutes.
Place the peanut butter in a large heatproof bowl (I use a 6-cup glass measuring cup). Add the remaining boiling water, whisking until smooth. Whisk in the tomato paste.
To the simmering stew, add the soy sauce, spinach, kale or mustard greens, and okra (if using). Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so, until the greens and okra are tender.
Pour in the peanut-butter mixture, stirring constantly. It may not smooth out immediately; keep stirring until it does. When smooth, add the black-eyed peas and cook a few more minutes, until hot through. Taste for seasoning; add more salt, pepper, cayenne, curry, nutmeg, and/or sugar to taste. Serve hot, either on its own or with rice or other grain.