Sunday, March 30, 2008

Comfort food from South Africa

As I was putting the groceries away yesterday, I pulled the ground beef out and considered what to make for dinner. We had already enjoyed pumpkin turkey chili last week, sloppy joes recently, so I was considering a meatloaf. However, writing this blog helps to keep me on my toes and serves as a motivator for me to try new things. So, I reached for a cookbook that I had admired for a while but barely used: Chef Marcus Samuelsson's Discovery of a Continent: Flavors, Foods and Inspirations from Africa.

I have to tell you, it's a gorgeous book that's absolutely compelling to read. The pictures tell a story, but so does his narrative about visiting South Africa after years of living in Sweden (he was adopted by a Swedish couple as a young boy.) So, the discovery of Africa and it's diverse cuisine, is not meant just for us the readers, but for his personal journey of self.

Marcus describes a bobotie as the country's national comfort food. To the Westerner, it can best be described as an African version of Sheppard's Pie. But it's that and so much more. This mixture of ground beef with local spices, dried fruits and nuts with a custard topping, is found at many tables but always looks a bit different. Every family passes down a recipe to add to it's uniqueness while staying within a certain formula. It's also a slow cooking dish, so best to try it on a weekend.

Bobotie by Marcus Samuelsson

1 1/4 lb ground beef ( I used 93% lean)

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 T curry powder

1/2 t ground cumin

1/2 t crushed coriander seeds

2 tomatoes, chopped or 1 cup of chopped canned tomatoes

1/4 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup crushed peanuts or smooth peanut butter (unsweetened)

2 t salt, divided

1 cup of milk (I used fat free)

2 large eggs

2 egg yolks

pinch of ground nutmeg

Heat a Dutch oven or other large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the beef and onion and cook, stirring to break up any lumps, until the beef is well browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, curry, cumin, coriander, and tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes.

Stir in bread crumbs, peanuts, 1 1/2 t of salt, and 1/2 cup of water and cook for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the beef mixture from the pot with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels (too messy for me! I used a colander.) Transfer to a plate and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350F. (At this point the recipe states to use butter to generously coat a 2 quart baking dish. I chose to use cooking spray to coat the pan.) Spread the beef mixture in the bottom of the pan and press down to pack well. Whisk together the milk, eggs, egg yolks, nutmeg, and the remaining 1/2 t salt and pour over the beef mixture.

Set the baking dish in a larger baking pan and add enough hot water to the large pan to come 1 9inch up the sides of a baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 20 minutes, until the custard topping is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Makes 6 servings.

  • I did an internet search of bobotie before starting this recipe. The majority of recipes calls for golden raisins, currants or almonds to be added. This recipe does not indicate that, but I will definitely add it next time.
  • I fell victim again to neglecting the important role of mise en place (ingredients measured out before beginning recipe) with hilarious results. I took out cumin, curry and coriander and began measuring while the beef mixture simmered and awaited a spicy coating. I felt rushed, so I was impatient when spooning out the curry into a tablespoon and wound up spilling a lot of it on the (freshly cleaned!) counter. I decided to sweep it back into the container. Only...I wound up grabbing the cumin instead of the curry, because they were the same small size and not realizing my mistake until there a lovely curry & cumin trifle was created. You can guess the rest. Loud curse words followed by smacks to head.
  • I chose to use unsweetened peanut butter rather than crushed peanuts. I definitely hesitated before adding it to the ground beef, onion and garlic mixture. It seemed like such a strange combination of flavors. I had flash backs of playing "chef" as a little girl and making undesirable concoctions which always seemed to include mayonnaise and peanut butter. But, I took a deep breath and had faith in the bobotie, so I added the peanut butter to the beef (don't worry this story ends happily.) I wonder if the genius behind Reese's had the same hesitation before adding peanut butter and chocolate?
  • A quick tip: if you're out of toothpicks and need to check consistency of a dish, use a broken piece of spaghetti instead.
  • So...we loved it!! What a fun new way to use lean ground beef. Don't be afraid of the peanut butter. It will all be okay.


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Peanuts (and peanut butter) are very common in African cooking, often used with squash in stews and soups. Even if you didn't trust peanut butter, you'd have to trust Marcus Samuelsson!

Nicolette (Nikki) Miller-Ka said...

I went to South Africa last summer and my family had this one night for dinner. I'm allergic to all tree and groundnuts so I did not partake. BUT!--I want to try this recipe with soynut butter (and maybe ground lamb) to see what happens. I'll let you know the outcome if you're interested.

Alison B said...

I made last week and it was delish. Although, I think i did something wrong because to top did not look as pretty and fluffy as yours. I added some currants, and enjoyed the sweet and savory taste. I would make it again, but not on a week night. Way too much prep time required.

Colin said...

Not only do I recommend the golden raisins, but I'd also garnish at the end with banana slices and Mrs Balls Extra Hot Chutney. If you know South African food, you know that they put Mrs Balls on everything. I like it on grilled cheese sandwiches, for example. It can be hard to find here in the states though.

Also, extra hot is the original chutney spiciness, not anything that hot. They had to make a new, milder version for new, more wimpy markets, so they renamed the original chutney.