My approach to making peanut butter stew reflects how I most love to cook. I begin with a bit of reading/research to understand a variety of approaches. I chew on the possibilities for a couple of days – often with the same intensity I use to chew on the form of a composition. I decide on several variations and don’t use a recipe. It is satisfying to have a good understanding of the structure of the recipe and then make it my own.
I’ve never visited Africa and have only eaten at Etheopian restaurants. I don’t know anything about African cuisine and have never had an African peanut (or peanut butter) stew. But I love peanuts when they are well balanced with complimentary flavors. The idea of a thick peanut butter stew is appealing and is high on the list of soups I brainstormed for this yearlong experiment.
I watched a handful of YouTube videos featuring African women walking through the steps of a traditional stew. Many of the recipes came from Ghana. The common traits include a foundation of onion, tomatoes, and tomatoes paste that is simmered and then blended smooth. The peanut butter might be folded in directly or sautéed and then mixed into the broth. Potatoes, carrots, and chicken pieces (with bone) were all common elements. Additions including bay leaves, garlic, and ginger were less common.
I wanted to create a hearty stew and planned to make a thick sauce and then include chickpeas, peanuts, and stewed beef. Inspired by Thai satay peanut sauce, I also planned to include ginger, soy sauce, and honey. I started with a foundation of sautéed onions, garlic, ginger, and a big red jalapeño (I wanted a hint of heat). A generous portion of tomato paste attempted to make up for the tomatoes I forgot to buy at the store. All of the recipes I watched on YouTube used water instead of broth. I chose a homemade chicken stock because the gelatinous nature of the stock would increase the thickness of the soup and add flavor. After a 20-minute simmer I used a stick blender to create a smooth sauce. Then I stirred in generous portions of peanut butter. One moment I was convinced I had gone to far and fished out a big dollop. Peanut butter is great but I worried too much would overpower the other flavors.
I browned pot roast beef in the oven and finished in the pressure cooker (my new favorite way to cook stewed beef). It was perfectly tender but still held together in large pieces. I stir fried a couple handfuls of peanuts in my wok. Several years ago we installed a fancy cooktop with 23,000 BTU open burners which are about as hot as you can get without voiding your insurance plan in a domestic kitchen. Our friend Randy cut a special grate so a traditional round wok could sit low and close to the flame. The thin carbon steal should have direct contact with high flame to create intense heat. I guesstimate my wok can reach temperatures of 600F. Restaurant woks can get much hotter but my set up is more than enough to enjoy traditional wok cooking. Peanuts work well in the wok. They quickly get a bit of char and the flavor blossoms. Alton Brown’s recipe for homemade peanut butter involves sautéing the peanuts in a wok before blending. The chickpeas, peanuts, and beef were added at the end with just enough time to heat through. I chopped up green onions to use as a garnish and to add color contrast in an otherwise one color dish.
A friend came over for lunch and brought local bread. The stew served as a great stand alone meal. It was hearty, balanced, and rich. The beef and peanut butter were a great combination – though not as good as peanut butter and chocolate. Vegetables would have made a more complete meal but I liked the simplicity of peanuts and beef. The chickpeas were unnecessary.