Friday, October 3, 2008

Casamance Stew

This is another recipe that I downloaded from a recipe archive before the Web existed. It's different from the pork and tomatillo stew I made earlier this week in a few interest ways, though. First, because of it's much more unusual name it managed to almost fully colonize it's namespace on the web; all but one "casamance stew" you'll find online is this recipe. Second, I was able to definitely track it back to its origin. This is a variation on a recipe from the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook printed in the October 24, 1990 issue of the New York Times. And third, there is no indication that anyone other than I has ever actually cooked it. Not one review, not one comment and the biggest change anyone has made in the recipe is adding paragraph breaks. OK, that's not true; one guy suggests a parsley garnish.

A little research that I really should have done beforehand reveals that Casamance is a region on the south coast of Senegal and that this stew is actually a tinkered up version of poisson yassa. And while I'm sure the good folks in the Moosewood Collective meant well, the yassa recipes look a lot better and there's one change that really screws up this recipe. Let's see if you can see it without prompting.

Ingredients:

Marinade:
1/2 cup fresh lemon or lime juice
1/2 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce (this is clearly a substitute for Maggi seasoning so I used that instead. Click on the Senegalese tag for more info on Maggi seasoning.)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
3 cloves minced garlic
2 or more jalapeno chiles, seeded, minced

Everything else:
1 1/2 pounds monkfish or other firm fish fillets (I used whiting. According to my notes on the recipe, I used sea bass the first time around.)
4 cups sliced onions
2 cups sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon peanut oil,
1 chopped red bell pepper
salt to taste

1. Combine marinade ingredients (1st 7 items).

2. Rinse the fish well and cut into serving size pieces. Layer about half the onion slices in a glass baking dish. Pour some marinade over them. Then add fish and rest of onions, pour marinade over them. Cover and refrigerate overnight or all day.

3. When ready to cook, set the fish aside. Pour marinade off the onions and set aside. Cover cubed sweet potatoes with cool, salted water, bring to a boil then simmer until just barely tender.

4. Meanwhile, in heavy pan, gently saute onions in peanut oil for 15 minutes. Add red bell pepper and cook for another 5 minutes. Combine onion, bell pepper with sweet potatoes and marinade and simmer 20 minutes.

5. While vegetables simmer, briefly broil or saute fish til lightly browned on both sides.

6. Add fish to simmering vegetables and continue to cook 15 minutes more. Salt to taste.

Serve in wide shallow bowls on steaming rice or millet.



Did you see the problem there? Someone changed the sensible hour marination to a full day. If you have much cooking experience you'll realize that a day in vinegar and lemon juice is going to do some serious pickling to that fish. And if you've been reading this blog for a while you'll know that's precisely why I cooked this. Foolishly, perhaps, I assumed that the recipe author knew something I didn't and what looked like a step that would ruin the dish would instead make it something unique and wonderful. I really should have known better.

The fish was badly overcooked chemically before any actual cooking that the recipe calls for. And even if it needed cooking, browning was clearly not going to happen as the fish was waterlogged from its lengthy soak. All the attempt achieved was prompting the fillets to break apart. The 15 minutes of extra cooking time was out of the question.

It's really a shame as, setting the fish's texture aside, the flavor combination is unusual, interesting and not bad at all. The tart sauce brightens up the savory onions and peppers and balances the sweetness of the sweet potato. My salvage attempt on the dish was to treat the fish like salt cod and break it up into chewy flakes. I found that the sauce gets caught up in the flakes so it's more of a hash than a stew at this point and each bite tastes mainly of fish and caramized onion moistened by the sauce. It really tones down the overwhelming vinegariness of the sauce and if the fish didn't taste like canned tuna it would be pretty good.

Doesn't mean I'm going to make it again, though. Next yassa I make is likely to be this one which looks to be different in some rather interesting ways.

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