Maafe or West African Peanut Soup

We found this Senegalese restaurant not too far from us.  The service is invariably slow, but it is worth it for the Maafe.  This is a dish of lamb stewed in peanuts popular all over West Africa and while heavy it is amazing.  Also the restaurant gets very good, fatty lamb.  Not the lean flavorless stuff that always underwhelms me at Costco (the only reasonable purveyor of stewing lamb cuts).

This dish apparently came over to the South as West African Peanut Soup.  Very similar, maybe a bit thinner.  Also it usually uses chicken.  I am going to deploy a chicken version here, but beef or lamb would work as well.

2-3 lbs of chicken thighs or drumsticks, skinless if desired
1 28 oz can of whole tomatoes
1 cup of peanut butter
2 onions
1 to 2 inches of fresh ginger
12 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp of tomato paste
1-2 tbsp of shrimp paste
2 spicy chiles (habaneros or thai bird would work)
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ground white pepper
12 tsp. ground cumin
12 tsp. ground black pepper
14 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. fenugreek seeds
3 whole cloves, ground
2 bay leaves
1 large sweet potato, small cubes for stewing
1/2 lb of Yukon Gold potatoes. small cubes for stewing
1/2 lb of carrots, small cubes for stewing

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Puree the onion, garlic, ginger, tomato and shrimp paste, spices and chiles.  Saute this paste in a dutch oven on medium heat until it starts to stick a bit.  Meanwhile, puree can of tomatoes and peanut butter.  Once paste is nicely aromatic, add tomato/peanut puree and bring to a simmer before adding sweet potatoes and carrots and bay leaves.  Bring to a simmer again and then partially cover dutch oven before placing in oven.

Braise for 15 minutes, add potatoes.  Braise for 15 more minutes.  Add chicken thighs.  Braise for another hour.  Adjust seasoning with salt or sugar (depending on sweetness of peanut butter and personal taste).

Serve with white rice and copious amount of pepper.




Wonder Woman Movie: Reports of Feminism Are Greatly Exaggerated

First, let me say that I enjoyed Wonder Woman.  It was definitely the most enjoyable DC universe movie since The Dark Knight.  However, it’s not as good as reviews would tell you and more importantly it has none of the philosophical or feminist depth that people ascribe to it.  I will tackle the movie roughly as events unfold.

The first part of the movie is set on Themyscira, homeland of Diana and the Amazons and tries to establish our hero’s childhood and training.  It is easily the low point of the entire movie.  The origin of the island that Hippolyta relays is complete nonsense.  Something about being sent to bring peace to Man (or men) then they get enslaved by Man at Ares’ provocation.  The gods try to save them and all die, but Zeus grievously wounds Ares, established Themyscira and shrouds the Amazons from view and, we later find out, gives his child Diana to the Amazons.  Zeus then dies.  The only credit I can give it is that it explains why all the meddlesome gods are not meddling; they are dead.

The ambiguous, maybe Greek, accent of all the Amazons distracted me and I think contributed to the dialogue feeling stiff and stilted in this section.  It’s not clear why a group devoted to peace spends all of its time training for war.  Nor why Diana is a child if the island has been around for roughly two thousand years.  Magic I guess.

This portion of the movie follows a typical path where Diana is a troublesome child with dreams of glory that defies her mother’s direction at every turn.  Of course the mother is just trying to protect her daughter.  For instance she proscribes her learning to fight; nevermind, that she knows Diana’s true destiny is to fight Ares.

Then WW1 intrudes upon the island in a really stupid combat scene.  The Amazons show no knowledge of good tactics and the over-used slow motion highlights ridiculous, flamboyant and ineffectual moves that seem out of place for an efficient, war-like population.  The movie ignores that in a place with no death for thousands of years it has finally returned again.  The Amazon’s response is to capture Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), learn of WW1 and then put their heads in the sand.  This seems odd given that all they do is train for Ares’ return.

Diana now runs off with Steve, despite not knowing anything about Steve or the situation outside.  This is just the first of many impetuous acts by Diana, who has the teenage viewpoint that the world is simple and fixed with simple solutions (in this case kill Ares).

However, this leads into the best part of the movie.  The most lighthearted scenes are in this section where Diana is the classic naive fish-out-of-water in dirty London and Steve is her exasperated guide.  In general, Diana and Steve’s relationship is one of the highlights of the film.  It is refreshing to see a romantic interest that is at least as well written as the protagonist.  Strange that it took a man in the role for that to happen. Unfortunately, this sets up a poor dynamic where Steve is the protagonist and Diana just follows him around and, later, punches people.

From here the movie deteriorates.  She trudges around the Western Front with an immaculate coat and her flawless complexion and later a tiara, despite this being a covert mission.  Diana is hopelessly naive and very poor at moral mathematics, consistently favoring the pain she can see over the greater good.  This doesn’t square at all with her view that she can save everyone if she merely kills Ares.  She also seems far too easily to equate the Allies with GOOD and the Germans with EVIL on a very biased source of information.  Overall, she is also very martial minded for a daughter of a people bred for peace and the movie never grapples with this inconsistency.

Which brings me to the worst scene in the movie, which ironically is also praised highly.  Diana hears something about a town being enslaved (I don’t remember this happening in Europe in WW1) and so she must do something about even if it jeopardizes their mission to kill Ares and save many people from being gassed.  Thus she decides to walk (like literally) across the gap between trench lines.  This is not heroic since she is not really in danger (not even a machine gun can nick her and she casually redirects a mortar shell) and showcases her ridiculous bullet deflection abilities.  Heroism requires sacrifice and hazard, which Diana rarely encounters in this film.  Heroism is not a demigod strutting through a battlefield and striking down mere mortals.

Then some stuff happens, with Chris Pines stealing the show and some contrived drama and petulance from Diana, yada yada.  She finally manages to kill the German commander she believes is Ares.  Except he is not Ares.  And for a brief moment you think that maybe Diana will engage in a little self doubt.  In fact I had read online that people thought that she grappled with moral quandaries and the best way to help mankind throughout the movie.  This is decidedly not the case as she approaches things with the confidence born of ignorance endemic to teenagers everywhere.  But alas, the real Ares decides, in an obvious plot twist, to show up and predictably proselytize to Diana and relieves her of the tedious burden of introspection.

The final battle is relatively dull for a clash between literal gods.  Ares is pulling punches because he clearly outmatches Wonder Woman and still holds hope of recruiting her.  It’s not until Steve engages in an emotional and heroic, this time for realz, self-sacrifice that Diana “powers up” on love.  YES.  “Love conquers all” is literally the theme the movie decides to explicitly state in the final battle and epilogue.  The after effects of a German gassing program and an Allied spy operation on a precarious armistice deal are not even touched upon.  In the end Diana was right, killing Ares was apparently all that needed to happen to end WW1.  Oh and love.

Thus, we have a female protagonist that is naive, ignorant and bereft of the limitations of her knowledge being held up as a feminist ideal.  This quote from a female journalist on the No Man’s Land scene particularly irked me: “I felt like I was discovering something I didn’t even know I had always wanted. A need that I had boxed up and buried deep.”  The ability to engage in mindless violence like a typical male action hero is I guess the incredibly low bar we set for feminism now.  Meanwhile we ignore that Diana is upstaged for much of the movie in wisdom and courage and heroism by her male romantic interest.  And the final bit of truth that she earns at the end is that “love conquers all” or as she puts it in some of the movie’s worst lines, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”  That is a decidedly flowery feminine philosophy.

Oh and why does it look like a stray wind could blow the super model thin Wonder Woman away?  Every male superhero gets magazines devoted to their workout routine for their role (admittedly omitting the role of drugs), but we can’t ask Gal Gadot to bulk up a bit for the role of a WARRIOR PRINCESS?  Yeah a triumph over antiquated feminine stereotypes this movie is not.




Beef Stifado and Braised Green Beans

I am not a huge fan of Greek food in general.  But there are two dishes I really love from the country: Stifado and braised-to-death green beans.  They are somewhat similar in flavor, but oh well.

Beef Stifado
2 to 3 lbs of good beef stew cuts (chuck, shank, short ribs)
1 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, crushed well
1 cup of chicken stock
2 large onions, caramelized
6-8 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
2 Tbsp of tomato paste
1 cup of red wine
2-3 lbs of pearl onion (I use frozen for price and convenience)
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon of oregano
3 Tbsp of red wine vinegar
cooking oil as needed

(put the following in a cloth satchel if preferred)
6 cloves
2 teaspoons of allspice berries
1/2 Tbsp of black pepper
2 sticks of cinnamon
1 star anise
3 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Brown the beef in large pieces in a large dutch oven.  Set aside and cut into stew chunk sizes, 1 to 2 inches.  Saute garlic and tomato paste until well browned.  Add caramelized onions, spice bag and ground spices/herbs and saute for about 30 seconds.  Then add wine and cook until glazed.  Add can of tomatoes, with juice, and one cup of chicken stock along with red wine vinegar and beef chunks.  Season stew with salt and umami boosters (soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire, etc.).  Transfer to oven with lid slightly open.  Meanwhile saute pearl onions until lightly browned.  Add them to dutch oven after stew has braised for about 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Braise for another hour or until meat is of desired tenderness.  Serve over rice with feta cheese and parsley for garnish.


Mediterranean Braised Green Beans and other Vegetables
1 onion
6 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
2 Tbsp of tomato paste
1 Tbsp of red pepper flakes or to taste
1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp of ground nutmeg
1 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, crushed with juice
1.5 lb of green beans
3/4 to 1 lb of okra, summer squash, zucchini or similar
1.5 cups of chicken stock
1/2 tsp of baking soda
salt/pepper/red wine vinegar to taste
Mint and feta for serving

Bring 1.5 cups of chicken stock to a simmer and add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and green beans.  Simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute onion in a large pot until translucent and then add garlic, tomato paste and red pepper flakes and saute until paste is browned and then add spices.  Add green beans and stock and the can of tomatoes as well as additional vegetables.  Return to a simmer and then place in oven with stifado for about 40 to 50 minutes.  Season with salt,pepper, vinegar and garnish with chopped mint and feta.

Xinjiang Potatoes and a Twist on Rou Jia Mo

While we were in China and Xian in particular, we spent a night in a particular famous night market in the Muslim Quarter  It was simultaneously fascinating and singularly unpleasant.  Food is everywhere, it all looks delicious and it’s damn cheap.  The problem is the scooters, the hammering of candy purveyors and the incessant yelling of hawkers.  We stood in line at what looked to be a popular rou jia mo (a.k.a. Chinese hamburger) establishment which appeared to have at least half its staff devoted to horseplay and being loud and annoying.

Also there are only a handful of food items in the market, but there are half a dozen different establishments for each one.  This led us astray once as we went to the “wrong” liang fen restaurant as it had a nearly identical name and sign to the well rated restaurant for the dish.  They served nearly inedible bowl of noodles.  Thankfully, we found the right one and gave the dish a second try and it was glorious.  This place had the best chili paste of the trip, in case you need some more oily chili sauce to go on your oily, sesame paste noodles.

The aforementioned rou jia mo place was frankly mediocre despite the popularity.  The buns were dry and dense and the meat was nearly unseasoned lamb with an indiscernible dash of chili paste.  It was a huge disappointment considering how I had built it up.  I suspect better ones exist, but the old adage of following the lines certainly served us wrong here.

One highlight of the evening were some fried new potatoes in what I will call Muslim spices.  The creamy interior from frying played very well with the well balanced spice mix on the exterior.  Simple and delicious, I loved it.

Thus we come to this post.  I wanted to improve on our Chinese hamburger by making a Western hamburger with some Chinese influence and then roast potatoes in a similar spice mix to that we had with the fried potatoes.  So here is the game plan.

For the rou jia mo I am riffing on Daniel’s Sichuan burger.  An english muffins sounds like it is similar to the dense mantou of a rou jia mo while being much better in my mind.  I am also serving up some homemade chili paste with it (recipe below).  I am going to alter the flavorings a bit:

1 Tbsp of light and dark soy sauce
1 Tbsp of sesame oil
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon of black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, preferably Thai
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon of coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
1 small star anise pod
4 cloves
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger
1/2 Tbsp of light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of table salt

Mix this in right before cooking (otherwise salt may change texture of beef) by your preferred method.  I am going to try to deep fry mine.

Homemade Chili Paste (adapted significantly from Charles Phan’s recipe)
1/2 cup oil
1/4 cup of mild chili flakes (kochukaru for instance)
6-8 cloves of garlic smashed
1 Tbsp of ginger peeled and julienned
1/2 cup of shallots thinly sliced
4 Tbsp of yellow bean paste
1 Tbsp of doubanjiang
1 Tbsp of black beans (I use Lao Gan Ma)
1 Tbsp of sesame oil
1 Tbsp of Sichuan peppercorns
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp Shaoxing rice wine

Combine all but the last three ingredients in a saucepan over medium low heat.  Bring to a light simmer and maintain simmer for 25-30 minutes such that nothing is burning.  Mix in last 3 ingredients and cook for 1 more minute.  Let cool and then blend paste or smash garlic, shallots and ginger as best you can.  Store in fridge.

Lastly are the potatoes.  I am using the best roasted potato recipe ever.  Though I admit it took too long for Kenji to come to the baking soda rather than vinegar camp for potatoes.  I am going to toss the potatoes in the following prior to the roasting step and hope they don’t burn.

2 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes, preferably Thai
1 teaspoon of black pepper
1 teaspoons of Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 Tbsp fennel/star anise
1/2 tsp of ground garlic
1/2 tsp of ground ginger
1 Tbsp of light brown sugar