There were a lot of things I did and learned at the band camp* I attended throughout my youth, only some of them related to music, and most of them things I don't care to expand on in mixed company. One thing I can talk about: our cook Glenn's West African groundnut soup. Glenn's version was a thick, peanut-packed broth made with chicken, but recipes for maafe (as it's called in Mali) vary hugely. Some are soupy, some more stewy. Some feature chicken, some cabbage. Maafe can be heavily spiced with turmeric and chilies, or not spiced at all. The only common factor that ties the different versions together is the heavy use of peanuts and peanut butter in the soup base.
* OK, it was technically chamber music camp, which, if anything, is even dorkier.
I love it when recipes vary like this and have little agreement on authenticity, as it gives me free rein to fiddle with it as much as I'd like without fear that I'm going to create something unrecognizable. My focus, then, is just on making a dish that's totally delicious, that pulls as much flavor as it can out of its ingredients for results that are rich, satisfying, and, in this case, vegan.
I may have gone a little off the deep end here. Let me know if I lose you along the way.
Most recipes for the dish start with sautéing aromatics in a pot, adding tomatoes, stock, and peanut butter, then simmering it all with vegetables or meat. After trying out a few recipes that call for jarred peanut butter, I decided that the very first step I'd take would be to ditch it in lieu of actual peanuts. This offers a few advantages.
First, it allows you to control the degree of toasting on the nuts. Toasting the peanuts in oil until quite dark gives the stew a more savory, complex flavor than peanut butter alone. Second—and this is important—using peanuts allows you to control the level of sweetness. Commercial peanut butters are extremely sweet, and that sweetness comes out as cloying in the finished dish.** Third, it gives you more control over the finished texture.
** If you live near a grocery store that will grind nuts for you or have access to a brand of peanut butter with no added sugar that you enjoy, that'll work too, but then you lose the pleasure of grinding up your own nuts. It's surprisingly therapeutic!
Next was the question of how to add the peanuts to the soup. I tried just simmering them then puréeing the whole mixture in a blender or with an immersion blender, but I found it hard to get the texture right: I ended up with very smooth soup and the occasional large chunk of peanut.
It worked much better to pound the peanuts to a very rough paste in a mortar and pestle first, thus guaranteeing that I have a maximum peanut-chunk size. Subsequently blending it into the broth produced a soup that was pleasantly textured but not overly chunky.
With the mortar and pestle already out on my counter, I then started considering other ways I might use it to improve flavor.
As I found when working on my guacamole recipe and Daniel re-confirmed with his pesto tasting and testing, pounding ingredients with salt in a true mortar and pestle is the best way to extract flavors out of aromatics, producing more flavorful dishes than a blender, food processor, or hand-chopping ever could. The salt helps to draw out liquid via osmosis while the intense grinding action of the heavy mortar bursts more cells open, releasing more flavor than slicing and chopping do.
For my aromatic base, I used a combination of garlic, ginger, and Serrano peppers for heat. This is where things started to get just a bit wacky. While grinding up my aromatics, I couldn't help but think: garlic, ginger, and chilies? Seems an awful lot like the beginnings of a good bowl of Thai khao soi! Would some of other Thai flavors work in this soup? I threw a handful of fat cilantro stems (my go-to substitute for the cilantro root that's typically called for) into the pestle and got to grinding.
Turns out it works. Very well.
I knew I was going to eventually blend the soup further and that I wanted some texture in it, so I wasn't too concerned about pounding the aromatics into a completely smooth puree.
Twice as Nutty
OK, I thought to myself. My soup is a little nutty right now, but it needs to be at least... twice as nutty. Literally.
I already had mixed a few Thai flavors and techniques into the soup, adding one more couldn't hurt, right? It's not uncommon in maafe recipes to stir a can of coconut milk into the soup as it cooks. Instead of simply adding the milk, I decided to separate the fat and use it to bloom my aromatic paste, which helps develop the paste's flavor.
To make this happen, you need a can of full-fat coconut milk that has not been shaken or inverted recently. Open up the top and you'll find a hard layer of coconut fat solidified on the top of that can which you can simply scoop out with a spoon.
This coconut fat is actually an emulsion of fat, water, and coconut solids. You can heat it in a Dutch oven and as it warms and water evaporates, it will eventually break, turning into a clear fat with bits of coconut solids floating in it. I always add a bit of additional vegetable oil to the pot to help the fat break down faster and prevent the coconut solids from burning before the emulsion has had a chance to fully break.
Once that emulsion is broken, the coconut solids will begin to sizzle. This is when you have to start stirring and keeping a careful eye on the pot—those solids can go from perfect to burnt in the blink of an eye. As is often the case with cooking, golden brown and nutty is the look you're going for. At the moment that you hit that stage, add the curry paste and stir like crazy—you'll simultaneously develop the flavor of the aromatics and drop the temperature of the coconut fat enough to prevent the coconut solids from burning.
If I were following a more traditional recipe, I'd start adding some ground dry spices and fresh tomatoes at this point. But with so much stuff already going on with the Thai additions, I found that anything more than a small dash of turmeric and some sliced fresh scallions was overkill. Aside from that, I added the rest of the first can of coconut milk and a second can along with some vegetable stock.
Going for Bulk
We're getting close to the end now. I had my soup base, so now it was time to bulk it up. Sweet potato is a very common addition and I really liked the way it added sweetness, texture, and bulk to the soup, so I saw no reason to deviate from it.
I dropped in a couple of diced sweet potatoes along with the pounded peanut mixture before letting it simmer until tender. After that I puréed it right in the pot with an immersion blender (a standing blender or, in fact, no blender at all—if you don't mind it very chunky—works just as well).
The final addition? A bunch of kale, because, despite its growing reputation as an overused vegetable, it's still healthy, hearty, great in soups, and most importantly, totally delicious.
You can simmer it down as much as you'd like. I personally prefer it somewhere between a soup and a sauce so that I can serve it with rice (nutty husk-on brown, red, or black rice tastes particularly good here) and mix it all together in the style of an Indian curry. (Yes, we're visiting three countries today.)
The soup is fantastic reheated the next day for a lazy supper, but I strongly suggest that you at least garnish it with some fresh elements to add more texture and flavor—chopped cilantro, sliced scallions, sliced chilies, and lightly crushed toasted peanuts.
If a bowl of West African peanut soup and a bowl of khao soi were to engage in a bit of late-night cross-cultural band camp-style shenanigans, this soup would be the deliciously illicit love child of that summertime fling. And I know. I'm very messy with the way I scatter those peanuts on top and get them all over the table and tablecloth. I don't want to hear any guff about it. If there was one other thing I learned in band camp, it was when to keep my mouth shut.
Actually, that's a particular skill I'm still learning (along with saying enough is enough when it comes to fiddling with recipes).