Monday, November 30, 2009

CSA week one - Mchicha

I mentioned a while back, I think, that mchicha is the Swahili word for callaloo. It's also the name of this Tanzanian dish, but all of the versions I found called for spinach. I'm making a, small I'll grant you, logical leap that these are Westernized recipes substituting in spinach for amaranth. Cooking times quite unsuitable for spinach are good supporting evidence that of a late insertion or a clumsy translation. But those cooking times are too long for amaranth too so I'm not entirely sure what to make of that.

Whatever the case, I used the calalloo and it turned out just fine once I cut it in quarter to use the small bunch we got this week and tweaked the cooking times a bit.

1 small bunch callaloo
1 1/2 Tablespoons natural smooth peanut butter
1/4 cup thin coconut milk
1 Tablespoon butter (or ghee if you've got it)
1 small tomato (I used four cherry tomatoes), peeled (unless you're using cherry tomatoes, then don't bother)
1/4 onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon curry powder (a South Indian blend would be most traditional, but whatever you've got is worth a try)
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Trim the woody stems from the callaloo, separate the leaves, roughly chop the remaining stems and roughly tear the leaves. Wash everything somewhere along the way. I got about 1/2 pound after cleaning.

2. Mix the peanut butter and coconut milk. Set aside.

3. Heat the butter over medium heat in a medium frying pan or dutch oven. When it stops foaming add the onion, tomato, curry powder and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion softens and the tomato breaks down, about 5 minutes.

4. Add the callaloo stems. Cook 5 minutes more.

5. Add the callaloo leaves. Cook 3 minutes more to wilt and begin cooking the leaves.

6. Add the peanut butter and coconut milk. Stir well and scrape the bottom of the pan. Cook 5 minutes more to blend the flavors adding water to keep the sauce saucy as necessary.

Serve with an approximation of ugali, a Tanzanian starch dish that is essentially an extra-thick polenta made with more finely ground corn meal.

It looks a mess, but I really like how this turned out. The flavors have blended together in a synergistic way I haven't seen in other African recipes using similar ingredients. There's an earthiness, but I'd be hard pressed to identify peanut butter; a spiciness but I couldn't say it was curry powder; there's a creaminess but no clear coconut. The amaranth, though, is unmistakable. It stands up to the strongly flavored sauce in a way spinach couldn't. I even like the pairing with the ugali, and polenta really isn't something I could have predicted to work with these flavors.

This may be the first fully successful sub-Saharan African dish I've made (although I don't think I've done any Ethiopian cooking. How could I have missed that? That's going right on my to-do list.) If you've still got your amaranth, give it try.


LaDivaCucina said...

Very interesting dish Bill. I'm a lot more comfortable making callaloo this year over last. Last year I was completely befuddled!

I added the callaloo to a spicy Indian lamb curry I made (at the last minute so as not to over cook) It worked like a more bitter spinach (saag)

I also used it in a potato egg frittata! Going to copy this recipe and give it a shot.

Great job!

billjac said...

I think a lot of people are timid using callaloo because they think of it as an exclusively Caribbean vegetable. Once you know that it's used all over the world (or if you're just naturally more adventurous) there's nothing to stop you from throwing it into curries, stir fries, frittatas or whatever. I've still got a couple more traditional uses lined up, but once I'm done with those I'm going to follow your example and go more freestyle.

LaDivaCucina said...

I think part of what scared ME with callaloo is how much of it looks like a big ol' weed with that huge stem! I've found that if I chop it up and cook the stem separately and then add the chopped leaves, it all comes out very well. I cooked it in salted water until just tender and then added it to the curry and the fritatta.

billjac said...

It is a big ol' weed. When I looked around for recipes, I found as much information on exterminating it from fields of other crops as I found about eating it.