Why It Works
- Blanching the greens first contributes to a soft, silky texture in the finished stew.
- Using a combination of dried crayfish, aromatics, fermented locust beans, and unrefined palm oil adds depth and layers of flavor.
We have hundreds of recipes in Nigerian cuisine featuring greens as the main component, and efo riro, which translates from Yoruba as "stirred" or "mixed" greens, is a popular recipe that’s also simple to prepare. It features fresh amaranth leaves, plum tomatoes, and smoky unrefined red palm oil, and is often seasoned with ground crayfish (a powder made from smoked and/or dried shrimp), fermented nuts and seeds like locust beans (also known as iru in Yoruba), and ground red chile peppers.
Amaranth comes in many varieties. For this dish, I like to use cockscomb amaranth, also known as efo shoko, Lagos spinach, or celosia, which is native to West Africa. This variety of amaranth has green leaves (sometimes tinted with purple) and vibrant pink-, magenta-, and plum-colored flowers. When stewed, the leaves become soft and silky and the flavor is sweet and mild, similar to spinach. While there's no perfect substitute for cockscomb amaranth, a combination of equal parts amaranth leaves (also known as callaloo), a leafy green whose flavor is similar to spinach, and spinach will work (you can also use all spinach). Plus, if fresh greens are difficult to source, you can use frozen ones in a pinch.
Efo riro is built on a handful of components that come together to create layered and complex flavors and textures. This particular recipe incorporates tender cubes of beef chuck roast, but you can use fresh seafood like fish or prawns, sautéed mushrooms, or smoked proteins like catfish, chicken, or turkey instead. I blanch my greens separately because I find that the stew’s flavors come through better, and I love the silky, satiny texture the greens take on. In comparison, I’ve found that if I wilt the greens directly in the stew, the overall flavor is more distinct and vegetal, which is not what efo riro is about.
Then, there are onions, which are gently fried in rich, unrefined palm oil until soft and sweet. The stew gets an additional aromatic depth from the dried crayfish, optional fermented locust beans, and raw sliced tomato. A purée of raw onion, red bell pepper, and tomato is poured into it all, creating a flavorful cooking medium that is naturally thickened by the puréed vegetable fibers. There's chile heat in two forms, fresh Scotch bonnet and dried chile powder, which should always be adjusted to suit one's taste and heat tolerance. The final step of adding the cooked beef and wilted greens ties the stew together. And that’s it, your efo riro is ready to be enjoyed with white rice, eba, and a host of other things.
- For the Beef:
- 1/2 pound (225g) bone-in or boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 small red onion (about 3 ounces; 80g), thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon ground crayfish (see note)
- 1 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/4 teaspoon Nigerian red dry pepper
- For the Efo Riro:
- 2 pounds (905g) fresh cockscomb amaranth or spinach, washed well of any sand or grit (see note)
- 2 medium red onions (8 1/2 ounces; 250g), half thinly sliced and half roughly chopped, divided
- 2 large plum tomatoes (10 1/2 ounces; 300g total), cored, half a tomato thinly sliced crosswise and the rest roughly chopped, divided
- 2 red bell peppers (14 ounces; 400g total), stemmed, halved, seeded, and roughly chopped
- 1/3 cup (80ml) unrefined red palm oil, such as Obiji
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon ground crayfish (see note)
- 1 to 2 teaspoons iru (also sold as fermented locust beans or dawadawa), optional (see note)
- 1/4 to 1 fresh Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, stemmed, seeded (if desired), and finely chopped
- Nigerian red dry pepper, to taste
For the Beef: In a medium pot, combine beef, onion, crayfish, salt, dry pepper, and 3 cups (710ml) water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until beef is tender, about 1 hour. Using a slotted spoon, remove beef and transfer to a medium heatproof bowl and set aside. Reserve stock (you should have about 1 cup; see note).
For the Efo Riro: Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl. In a medium or large pot of salted boiling water, cook amaranth or spinach until tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Immediately transfer to prepared ice bath to cool.
Set a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl. Transfer amaranth to strainer and squeeze to remove excess moisture; discard liquid. Transfer amaranth to a work surface and finely chop; set aside.
In a blender, pulse roughly chopped onion, roughly chopped tomatoes, bell peppers, and 1/2 cup (120ml) reserved beef stock until a thick coarse purée forms, 3 to 4 1-second pulses. Set aside.
In a wok or 10-inch skillet or sauté pan, heat palm oil over low heat until smoking and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add sliced onion, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring often, until onion is softened but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add sliced tomatoes, ground crayfish, and iru (if using), and cook until tomatoes are softened but still holding their shape, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in fresh pepper, a 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until desired spice level is reached. Continue to cook, stirring often, until pepper has softened slightly, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add reserved vegetable purée, increase heat to high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until hot, about 4 minutes. Stir in reserved beef, reduce heat to medium heat, partially cover, and cook, stirring often, until stew is slightly reduced and thickened and oil pools around the sides and on top, about 10 minutes.
Stir in chopped amaranth, cover, and cook until greens are heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and dry pepper to taste. (If you prefer a looser stew, stir in reserved beef stock in 1/4 cup increments to reach desired consistency). Remove from heat and let stand to allow flavors to develop, about 10 minutes.
blender, wok or 10-inch skillet or sauté pan
The reserved beef stock can be used in other recipes that call for beef stock like egusi soup.
You can use other edible varieties of amaranth greens or sweet potato leaves. Do not use baby spinach.
Ground crayfish is made from small prawns that are often sun-dried and smoked. You can find ground crayfish in many West African stores and online.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The amaranth can be prepared ahead of time by following Steps 2 and 3 then refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month. If using frozen greens, add frozen greens in Step 10 and cook until softened and heated through, about 8 minutes.
Efo riro can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 6 weeks (thaw overnight in the refrigerator). Reheat gently before serving.