Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Soup Stories: African Beef Stew

I have spent a lot of time making a lot of soup. In 2007 I was in charge of my school's Soup Tuesdays. Soup Tuesday was started by the college's food-loving and community-minded professor/couple Loren and Mary-Ruth Wilkinson.

In the beginning Loren and Mary-Ruth would make a huge pot (or pots) of soup at home and bring it to the school for lunch on Tuesdays. The idea was to make a reason for the students, faculty, and staff to gather on a weekly basis over food; the idea was that sharing a meal was worth the time and effort of a community. The school already held a common 'chapel' service that same day, but there is just something essential and binding about a meal shared. In addition, the Wilkinsons are good at hospitality and making soup was their way of giving a gift to the community. The tradition stuck.

When I moved into the job, the expectation was that the role was one of service. The job was something to believe in, like organic carrots or fair-trade coffee, or Jesus.

I made soup for 300 with an assistant, two ginormous soup pots, a commercial kitchen, and a weekly rotation of volunteers.

Last night I made soup for five. Now what does it say about me if I was every bit as stressed out making last night's dinner for my family as I was during those twelve hour days making soup for 300? Don't answer.

I was not exactly the right person for the job. I am hospitable, more or less. I like to make food for people as long as they think it tastes amazing and they like me because I am amazing. But I am not a chef. I am not a cook. I am not even a baker. Oh, sure, every job I've had I made food in some form or another for other people. But I am a little too...delicate? anxious? spastic? for those jobs to last long. Again, I am most happy making dinner when no one is expecting it.

Maybe like some other choices in my life, the year of Soup Tuesdays doesn't make a lot of sense. I cried every Tuesday night. I would hide behind the ovens during serving time so that I could have my little panic attack in peace, and hopefully dodge the random person coming in the kitchen to ask why the soup was so damn hot/cold/thick/thin/tasteless/over-spiced/burnt/raw.

Truth is, I did not like people too much in general. I did not like whiny people who got mad over my making borscht when they don't like beets. I did not like honest people who told me the soup could have used more salt, more spice, more love. And most of all, I did not like any people in my kitchen. That last one was only a small obstacle... since it was the volunteers that made the soup possible, there to help chop, peel, slice, grate, squeeze and serve. I at least got paid. They were just there out of the goodness of their own hearts.

Introvert meets antisocial meets selfish, self-centered snob. I am working on it. Really. I only made one girl cry.

But before you sign me off for good, hear me out. I learned a lot that year. I learned how to cook...because I did not really know how before, and I learned about people and community, how to give and how to receive. I learned that even though I did not even like community, I was acting as a part of it. I went through the motions. I made soup. I smiled sometimes. I said thank you. And even if I did not always feel it, sometimes I was able to not ruin another person's day. Sometimes, I made them happy.

One reason I started this blog was to write everyday again, to organize the many recipes I've tinkered with, and work through the muddled madness that is my imagination. I took extensive but incomplete notes during my soup making year, but I have lost all my recipes, and there are few stories that are coherent. So...I will be making those soups again. I will be writing the stories that go with them. I will organize the chaos.

This is one of my favorite soups. Ever. It is creamy and spicy--the way life should be. The original recipe calls for blending (without meat!), with is actually lovely, but I usually just let it cook until the contents disintegrate on their own. It makes the soup less homogenous, maybe even a reflection of community.

Spiced Almost-African Beef Stew (gleaning and inspiration from Soup in Season, by Tom Wuest, Karen Hollenbeck Wuest, and Peter La Grand)

This soup started as Spicy West African Peanut Soup. It started vegetarian. I am yet unsure how West African it still is. If you are poor or otherwise opposed to eating beef at this time, then omit the beef, it does not hinder the soup's integrity in any way. I usually do not use stock, but tonight I used some homemade beef stock, and it was good, but almost too rich. I encourage experimentation. Garnish with cilantro.

1 lb beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups stock or water
1 bay leaf
2 medium yams, cubed
1 beets, cubed
2 carrots, cubed
olive oil
2 yellow onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 cup all-natural, unsalted, unsweetened peanut butter
1 16-oz can whole tomatoes with juice
salt to taste

Brown the meat in a big stock pot with a little oil over medium-high heat. Lower heat and add onions and more oil, if needed. Cook until translucent. Add garlic, ginger, spices, and some salt. Cook for a few more minutes.

When fragrant and ready, pour the stock or water in a soup pot with the bay leaf. Add the yam, beet, carrots, and tomatoes. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the vegetables easily fall apart when smashed on the side of the pot and the meat is meltingly soft, 1-2 hours.

Just before serving stir in the peanut butter until incorporated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add a tablespoon of honey or brown sugar if needed.

Reheat soup on low, stirring often. Serve topped with cilantro and a side of crusty bread and butter. Enjoy!


  1. hey Amanda, Aaron directed me to your blog and i've been loving it!
    thanks for writing and all the wonderful pictures and recipes too!!!
    Lydia Nicholson

  2. So glad to have you in the neighborhood Lydia! Happy reading!