Saturday, May 3, 2008

mafé - groundnut tomato stew

If you watched Top Chef this week you'll have seen one of the judges, Chef Tom Colicchio, repeatedly disparaging one dishes' combination of tomatoes and peanut butter as if he had no idea that it's a traditional West African combination (as traditional as an African combination of two new world plants can be, anyway). The chef who made it was clearly going for a standard chicken in peanut sauce--she served it over couscous so she knew the African origins and didn't just stumble on recipe independently--but if she explained that the fault lay in the preparation of the dish and not the conception, it didn't make it to air.

That's a problem I've had myself. I mean preparing a peanut-tomato dish, not malicious reality show editors making me look like a jerk. I've tried it a few different times and I've never come up with something worth eating. Colicchio's ignorance and/or lousy attitude was sufficient impetus for me to give it another shot.

I found a lot of different variations on the basic idea on-line, but I settled on this recipe for the Senegalese version, mafé, mainly because it hasn't been adjusted for American kitchens and sensibilities so I could do that myself.

I really wanted to use mutton or maybe goat but I've settled on buying my vegetables at Whole Foods in the CSA off season for lack of a better choice and their in-house butcher is more focused on semi-prepared meals for harried professionals than on offering a decent selection of meats or cuts. They didn't have any pork belly either so that dish is going to have to wait until I make a trip to Publix or maybe order something through the mail if I don't like the looks of what they've got. On the other hand Whole Foods does carry marrow bones so that should be a nice meal (and a post) some time soon. Anyway, I settled on beef given the choices offered. For vegetables, I've got a sweet potato and a carrot that should suit and my CSA yukina savoy survived all my refrigerator troubles fairly unscathed.

For the cooking method, I've discussed the better way to make stew in a Western kitchen (browning the meat and then a low slow braise in a 300 degree oven) before. You didn't get the full story then because that was a simple stew without any vegetables. Adding vegetables complicates things because they don't all take the same time to cook. For this recipe, I browned the beef, removed it from the pot, browned an onion and a couple jalapenos, returned the beef and stirred in two Tablespoons of tomato paste (I like the sort that comes in a tube) and a couple handfuls of roughly chopped cherry tomatoes. That would be two standard sized tomatoes if I could find any that taste anything like an actual tomato. And that goes into the 300 degree oven.

After an hour the tomatoes and beef juices have formed a rather nice sauce. The low heat keeps temperatures below boiling so it doesn't thicken and dry up. I stirred in the sweet potato and carrot and returned the pot to the oven.

After another half hour I added the yukina savoy.

After twenty more minutes I added a cup of fresh(ish)-ground unsweetened, unsalted peanut butter and enough water to thin the sauce out a bit. The original recipe says it's done now, but I put it back in the oven for ten minutes to let the flavors blend a little. Oh, and I should mention that the original recipe calls for Maggi sauce. From what I can dig up, that's an all-purpose sauce made from vegetable protein that tastes something like soy sauce. Whole Foods didn't carry it, but they did have a bottle of another brand of vegetable protein sauce at the salad bar. It seemed somewhere between soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce to me. I used just a little soy sauce in the mafé and, as I neglected to replace the Worcestershire after the big refrigerator melt-down, some Pickapeppa sauce which tastes surprisingly similar considering its complete lack of fermented fish.

So how did it taste? Like peanut butter. The one cup I added walked all over the other flavors. The tomato had cooked down, mellowed and blended with the other flavors over the two hours of cooking so it had no chance against the peanut butter. Stews generally taste better the second day so I'm hopeful the situation will improve, but for now it's one more failure in my peanut-tomato recipe history.

OK, it's tomorrow. The overnight flavor-melding doesn't seem to have helped much, but on the bright side I was able to get my hands on some Maggi sauce. I think the comparison to soy sauce must be more by way of use than flavor. There is a slight resemblance but Maggi sauce has smoky, vinegary and meaty notes you don't find anywhere in soy. I can see why it's a staple in West Africa as it goes beautifully with peanuts. Mixing in a generous amount gives a result something like satay peanut sauce. I think it salvaged the dish and the lack of it at Whole Foods was probably why the chef who made peanut chicken on Top Chef ended up in the losers' circle.

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