Autumn Sweet Potato, Black Bean and Peanut Stew
I’ve been thinking lately about food memories: those times in life when the memory of something I’ve eaten is wonderfully etched in my mind’s eye. The memory is almost always more than just the food — it’s the time of year, the location I was, what I was feeling at the time…and somehow the food just defined the moment for me.One of my most vivid food memories occurred during my time at Cornell, probably when I was a junior. One Saturday afternoon in autumn I decided to head down to the Ithaca Commons for Ithaca’s Apple Harvest Festival. I remember suddenly being overcome by hunger, smelling all the good food, and deciding to get a big bowl of a sweet potato and black bean stew with peanut sauce, served over white rice to eat. As I started eating the stew, it was like time froze for a minute: I can remember how cool and crisp the air was, how slightly sweet-and-peanutty and filling the stew was, how great I felt standing under the brilliantly blue sky in my indigo blue Eddie Bauer fleece vest (ha ha), and finally feeling like I was — just maybe — becoming a little bit part of Ithaca as I stood surrounded by town residents, watching a local swing dance group perform on the stage.
Since I think in terms of food quite often, the peanutty sweet potato and black bean stew has been something that I’ve always hoped to re-create. I’ve searched for recipes that might come close, and tried a few — one with truly awful results — but as I’ve gotten more practiced in my cooking skills, I think this recipe I’ve adapted comes pretty close. It’s based on a recipe I found in an old Moosewood Restaurant cookbook for West African Groundnut Stew, and while it’s not exactly the same as the stew I had that day in Ithaca (I think it has more vegetables than the one I had that day, which I like), I think it’s a good adaptation and a darn good vegetarian meal for an autumn lunch or dinner. You can alter the amount of heat in it: right now I’m only using a pinch of cayenne pepper so it’s not too spicy, but you could use more to make it spicier. It’s delicious on its own, but even better (and makes a complete protein) if you serve it over rice or another grain you like. The sauce that binds the stew together is, I think, one of the best parts: it’s not too peanut-buttery, so you feel like you’re eating peanut sauce on vegetables, but combined with the tomato juice and broth, it’s the perfect balance of slightly nutty and acidic. The coriander and ginger blend in the background together to make a great flavor base for the stew.
Maybe, now that I live in Ithaca again, we’ll attend the Apple Harvest Festival next year and I’ll see if I can find some of the stew I had almost 10 years ago…and in the meantime, this recipe will take us through the fall and winter with some good lunches, I’m sure.
Adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant.
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp grated fresh ginger root
2 tbsp ground coriander
pinch cayenne pepper (for mild heat; use 1/4 tsp for medium heat and 1/2 tsp for HOT!)
4 cups chopped onion
1 15-oz. can low-salt diced tomatoes (I like the Muir Glen brand)
4 cups peeled and cubed eggplant (about 2 medium eggplants)
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth (I like chicken, but use vegetable to make it vegetarian)
1 cup chopped zucchini (1 medium zucchini)
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 15-oz. can black beans, drained
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
salt and pepper to taste
chopped peanuts for garnish (optional)
Rice or another grain to serve stew over (optional)
Cook sweet potato chunks until they are tender without being mushy – I usually do this in a microwave-safe casserole, with a little water, for 10 minutes; I stir the sweet potato chunks halfway through after 5 minutes.
Saute the minced garlic and grated ginger with the vegetable oil, coriander and cayenne pepper over medium heat for 1 minute, until fragrant. Add the onions and cook until they begin to soften, about 5-7 minutes. Add the cubed eggplant and 1/2 cup broth and simmer for 10 minutes. Next, add the zucchini and peppers and continue simmering until all vegetables are tender, about another 10-15 minutes.
Drain the can of diced tomatoes and save the tomato juice that you drain; add enough broth to this tomato juice to measure 2 cups total.
Add the drained diced tomatoes, drained black beans, drained cooked sweet potatoes, tomato juice + broth mixture, and peanut butter to the stew. Continue simmering on low heat for another 5 minutes, until the stew is bubbling. This is delicious served on its own or over rice or another grain.