Hearty yet healthy Peanut Stew with Chicken and Sweet Potato is an easy and delicious weeknight dinner, especially if you pick up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. I was provided with a copy of Soul Food Love by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links have been used to link to items I am discussing.
It is not often I title a cookbook review post by the name of the cookbook before the name of the dish it inspired. But this is not your average cookbook. It is not often a cookbook can be wrenching, heartbreaking, transcendent, inspiring–and I don’t just mean inspiring in the kitchen. It is not often I read a cookbook cover to cover in one sitting–I can only think of one or two other cookbooks that have inspired that. But those other cookbooks I am thinking of were easy reviews to write–they were entertaining and thoughtful, but not wrenching or heartbreaking and did not bring me to tears at the end.
I also find this book to be a little fraught with peril for the reviewer.
Now that last statement might be a bit of an overreaction, but when the book in question is Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams (mother and daughter), and when it tackles the weighty question of what it means to be a black American woman in the kitchen, and what that in turn has meant for generations of black women and some of the health consequences they now face, and the reviewer in question is white with all of her roots in the North, well, it feels fraught with peril to me.
I have always been fascinated by the experiences and history of black America. But of course, not being black and especially not being from the South, it has always been an academic fascination, which feels a bit callous, as though I have said I am fascinated by suffering. That is not at all the case, but rather the history major in me has always been attracted to stories of underdogs–possibly why I ultimately focused so much on Irish history in college. Also, one does not need to be black or Southern to imagine the horrors of the auction block, the cruelty of belonging to other human beings because of the color of your skin, or the injustices and terror of the Jim Crow eras. I have wept at the Underground Railroad Museum (Freedom Center), which is located here in Cincinnati, because I am a human being and I have an imagination. But because so much of my experience in learning about black history in America has come in an academic setting–whether African American Women’s Literature at the University of Michigan or Race and the Law at the University of Virginia School of Law (and other similar classes and extracurricular groups besides those)–I tend to be comfortable discussing racial issues at a level that my post-academic life has taught me not all people are comfortable with. And I won’t lie it has left me a little gun shy (and saddened, that we cannot all just discuss issues instead of tiptoeing around them).
I guess this is all my way of saying that I loved this book, I found it mesmerizing and powerful. But I also found it a little flawed. But I don’t want my criticisms to be seen as denying the authors’ experiences, if that makes any sense. Especially because the book is a very personal account of Caroline and Alice’s lives, as well as 2 grandmothers and one aunt. So with that caveat, my criticisms are these: First, I found their ideas of light and healthy to not be the same as mine. This is of course inevitable to some extent, but it made it hard for to me accept that all of their changes they made were necessary. I do not believe that reducing fat is always the way to go, for example. Second, because I am someone who believes that there is a time and place for all food, some of their metaphors made me uncomfortable. Fried chicken, for example, was referred to as a bad boyfriend. Once again, I have not walked a mile in their shoes nor have I made a study of what health issues plague black American women, but my gut feeling is to react negatively to the idea of comparing a dish to a bad boyfriend (and other such metaphors). Last, and this is my least comfortable criticism of all, their discomfort with obesity made me uncomfortable. They listed the weights of the women whose stories they told (grandmothers, etc), as though it should be relevant when everything in me wants to scream it should not be. They vowed that Alice would be the “last fat black woman” in their family. When so much of what was discussed (kitchen rape, always working for white people in their kitchens, etc) was so personal and so serious, part of me wanted to scream at the shallowness of focusing on how much any of these women weighed. Especially when, in some cases, being “fat” had no particular negative effect on that woman’s life (i.e., she lived a long time, prospered, etc). Of course my own body image comes into play in all of this. I do not believe I am fat, but nor am I slim. And I would not want my heaviness to be a crucial part of my life story. I would love to hear from others who have read the book about how they felt about these issues.
What about the food, you ask? Get to the food already, you say? Well, I will, but please understand that from this reviewer’s perspective anyway, the main reason to buy this book is to read it. It is thought provoking, eye-opening, and also, a really enjoyable read, by which I do not mean everything in it is pleasant, but that both mother and daughter are excellent writers and, once started, it is difficult to put down.
Now the food. First, if you are looking for traditional Soul Food, move on. As I mentioned, many Soul Food classics have been re-worked to such an extent that they are really, for example, honoring the idea of chicken being historically important to an African American’s diet, not re-working fried chicken, as the final dish bears no resemblance to fried chicken. The recipes are simple but happily (to me anyway) do make use of spices, as well as fresh ingredients. If you approach this cookbook as a collection of Soul Food inspired simple, healthy recipes, you will not be disappointed.
And as for this Peanut Stew with Chicken and Sweet Potatoes in particular? It is delicious. We all went crazy for it. It uses a fascinating “sweet potato stock” that I found brilliant and especially flavorful. I played pretty loose and fast with the amounts in this dish, because I started with a rotisserie chicken and wanted to use it all. I have scaled the recipe back down to the way it is in the book. Honestly you cannot mess it up–just keep tasting and adjusting to taste and you will be fine.
- 3 cups shredded roasted chicken
- 1 1/2 cups natural peanut butter (I used freshly ground bought specifically for this recipe)
- 28 oz canned diced tomatoes or 3 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes (I used canned)
- 1 T curry powder, plus more to taste
- 1 t paprika or cayenne powder, depending on heat preference (or a blend of both)
- 4 cups sweet potato stock (see recipe below)
- salt to taste, starting with hefty pinch of kosher salt
- 1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts (start with slightly less salt if using salted)
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- Place everything but the peanuts and cilantro into a large Dutch oven or soup pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring.
- Once the peanut butter has blended with the stew from the stirring, reduce the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Taste for more curry powder and salt--keep in mind though that if your peanuts are salted you want it a little under-salted.
- Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped roasted peanuts and chopped cilantro.
- 1-2 T vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 celery stalks, chopped
- 2 small or 1 large carrot, chopped
- 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into very large chunks
- 5 whole cloves
- 2 black peppercorns
- 1/2 t salt
- 6 cups water
- Heat the oil in a large pot like a stock pot or Dutch oven. Add the onions, celery and carrots. Sauté for about 8-10 minutes, until the veggies have softened and released some liquid.
- Add the sweet potato chunks and the water, along with the salt and whole spices. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Simmer until the sweet potato chunks are soft, about 30 minutes.
- Fish out the peppercorns and cloves if they will bother you (I tend to leave stuff like that in). Ideally using an immersion blender, puree the stock smooth (without an immersion blender you can either use a regular blender, or, in a pinch just mash the sweet potatoes against the side of the pot and leave the rest chunky).
- The stock can be refrigerated for 5 days or frozen for 2 months according to Caroline Randall.