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Visits to African restaurants provided me with new ways to cook greens. At an Ethiopian restaurant we dined on a colorful assortment of vegetables and lentils, arranged like a painter's palette on a bed of injera, a spongy flatbread that resembles Yemenite lahuh. The savory collard greens were one of our favorite items. Cooked with sautÃ©ed onion, garlic, a touch of ginger and hot pepper, they were aromatic and flavorful but not hot.
Typically the greens are cooked with Ethiopian spiced butter made by a method similar to Yemenite samneh, for which butter is cooked with hilbeh (fenugreek) seeds; the Ethiopian version might also include other flavorings - onions, garlic, basil, ginger root, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon or cloves.
At a Nigerian restaurant the food was more exotic. Much of the food was cooked with salted fish or dried seafood, and we found their predilection for cooking seafood and meat together to be foreign to our palates.
One item on the menu turned out to be familiar to us - melloukhiya greens, a staple of Egyptian cuisine. Indeed, Nigerians prize foods with sticky or "stretchy" character of melloukhiya greens, including okra. In the Middle East, when we cook okra we minimize its sliminess by cooking it briefly, but Nigerians appreciate this property and cook okra at length until it falls apart, becoming very gooey.
Part of the reason for this textural preference is that West Africans feel it helps their famous fufu go down easily. Fufu is a starchy puree of tropical nonsweet yams or tubers (fleshy underground plant stems) called cassava. It reminded me of mashed potatoes prepared in the food processor, which you are not supposed to do because it makes them gluey; but I liked it anyway.
Once I got past the textural challenges, I noticed something interesting; of the three entrees we ordered, all included a healthy proportion of greens. Indeed, Africans are very inventive in their use of leafy vegetables. Cooked with fish or meat in soups and stews, the greens are often accented with liberal doses of hot peppers.
This hearty African way of cooking greens has inspired celebrated soups on the other side of the world - the spicy seafood and meat gumbos of Louisiana and the peppery Caribbean callaloo soup from greens, seafood and coconut milk, and several Brazilian and Venezuelan soups as well.
African cooks are flexible in their choice of ingredients, an attribute that came from necessity; basically, cooks use what they can get. At the restaurant we could order the soups of greens with fresh fish, salted fish, chicken or beef, partnered with yam puree or with savory rice. I use a similar pick-and-choose approach when preparing African dishes in my kitchen. If I don't like sticky okra, I cook it briefly so it stays firm. And I tone down the hot pepper to taste.
I find African combinations valuable for adding interest to my dishes of spinach and chard. Their creative way of cooking greens with nuts and seeds in soups and stews can help make greens the center of a meal.
One such Nigerian soup is egusi soup, which is thickened with seeds from the egusi melon; pumpkin seeds are the usual substitute. According to Africa News Cookbook, edited by Tami Hultman, the soup can be made with meat, poultry or fish, which cook with the greens, sautÃ©ed onions, tomato paste, okra and hot peppers.
Dorinda Hafner, author of A Taste of Africa, makes a similar spinach stew with meat or smoked fish and accompanies it with rice or cooked root vegetables. Hafner adds potatoes directly to another West African stew, which she calls spinach with smelly salted fish, but assures the reader it is delicious; it also contains poached plantains (cooking bananas), onions, tomatoes and fried garlic.
Peanuts are a popular flavoring for greens in many regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Troth Wells, author of The Spices of Life, peanut butter is used to finish a simple spinach dish from the Central African Republic, for which the chopped leaves are cooked with browned onions, tomatoes and sweet and hot peppers. This technique of enriching greens with peanuts is good to remember. People who might whine about eating greens change their minds when they arrive topped with toasted peanuts.
SPINACH AND SMOKED FISH IN PEPPERY TOMATO SAUCE
This recipe from the Congo in Central Africa was given to me by the wife of a colonel in the army; at the time her country was called Zaire. There they love spinach with smoked fish, which they cook themselves. I add ready-to-eat smoked fish, such as whitefish, or omit it when I want a vegetarian version of the dish. If you are adding the fish, salt the spinach only lightly, because the fish is salty. Serve the spinach with rice or boiled or steamed potatoes.
Makes 3 or 4 servings
4 550 to 600 gr. fresh spinach leaves or
frozen spinach, thawed
4 450 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled and
seeded, or 700-800 gr. canned tomatoes,
4 3 or 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 2 large onions, sliced
4 Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 1â„2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste
4 225 gr. smoked whitefish or other ready-
to-eat smoked fish, free of skin and
Rinse spinach; coarsely chop it. Puree tomatoes in a food processor or blender.
Heat oil in a large saucepan or stew pan, add onions and saute over medium heat 10 to 15 minutes or until golden. Add tomato puree, salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes. Bring to a boil. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until thickened. Add chopped spinach and cook over medium-low heat about 7 minutes or until tender.
Flake whitefish in about 1-cm pieces. Add to spinach mixture. Heat 1 or 2 minutes over low heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Reheat before serving. Serve hot.
GREENS WITH OKRA, CHILIES AND PEANUTS
Golden brown sautÃ©ed onions, hot peppers and roasted peanuts give pizzazz to this easy-to-make dish of chard or spinach. During the summer you can use fresh okra. If you'd like to omit the okra, add more greens or substitute mushrooms.
For a richer dish, instead of sprinkling the greens with chopped peanuts, stir in 3 to 4 tablespoons of peanut butter mixed until smooth with a few tablespoons water. Serve the greens with rice or potatoes.
Makes 3 or 4 servings
4 450 gr. chard or spinach, rinsed well
4 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 1 large onion, chopped
4 2 fresh red or green hot peppers, finely
4 110 gr. frozen whole okra
4 1â„2 cup water or broth
4 Salt to taste
4 Cayenne pepper to taste
4 1â„4 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
Remove stems from greens. Cut leaves crosswise in thin strips less than 1â„2 cm. wide.
In large heavy skillet or saute pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute about 7 minutes or until golden brown. Add hot peppers and saute for 2 minutes.
Add greens, okra and water, sprinkle with salt and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat until okra and greens are tender, about 15 minutes, adding a few tablespoons water during cooking, if pan becomes dry. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding cayenne if desired. Serve sprinkled with toasted peanuts. n
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.