Good Weird Food
“This is weird,” said my mother-in-law.
“Good weird, or bad weird?” I asked, lifting a wooden spoon to my own lips for the millionth time, just to check.
“Just…weird!” she said, scrunching up her face. But then she took a bowl from the cupboard, ladled herself a portion of my Saturday project, and curled up with it on the couch. “Oh, this is just so weird,” she repeated, sipping spoonful after spoonful, which made me feel extremely smug and pleased with myself.
It was weird, but also perfect: inspired by this post on West African peanut soup, it was spicy from an unrestrained portion of minced ginger and a more judicious squirt of hot red Sriracha, unctuous and crunchy from the entire jar (!) of Skippy extra-crunch peanut butter I mixed into chicken broth and coconut milk, and braced with lime juice and zest. The long collard-green ribbons I’d added halfway through the soup’s simmer had wilted into something delightfully toothsome, which I hadn’t expected: this was my first time cooking collards, and I’d come to imagine them as something intimidating that takes an hour or more of applied heat to subdue. But at just 20 minutes, they were pretty much perfect: yielding, but not completely overcome as other greens might be. There was something squidgy about them, maybe squeaky, perfect with the creamy, nutty sauce. I spooned out a cupful of rice to boil on the stove, and took out a bunch of cilantro to finish the whole thing off.
I love convincing my boyfriend’s mother to try my weird food. I come from a family of unapologetically adventurous eaters (I have been known to drink the blood of a freshly killed goat—because when in Rome, you drink goat’s blood), and when we’re at Chinese restaurants my father usually makes a point of ordering jellyfish or duck’s feet. But furthermore, food traditions are what they are. My mother-in-law tells a story of an ex who inadvisably served her a salad of some horribly bitter foreign green stuff called arugula; but I have eaten arugula all my life, and if I don’t make myself a plate of broccoli rabe in some form or other once a week or so, I begin to fall into fits of longing and depression. (It was with a sense of foreboding that I once gave my mother-in-law a plate of broccoli rabe that had been sautéed with garlic—resplendent and spiky in all its bitter, grassy glory. She loved it! I walked on air for several days.) And though she professes to be a picky eater, she’ll happily tuck into a plate of plantains and rice with sardines, a spread that would be horrifying to any picky eater who is not Puerto Rican. The foods of our childhoods are never weird or offensive—at least to us.
The food of my childhood was often exotic, and knowing that I tend to like both savory peanut dishes (Mark Bittman has the best basic recipe for peanut sauce I’ve ever tried) and African food in any incarnation, West African peanut soup with peanuts, collards, tinned tomatoes and sweet potatoes sounded like just the warming, nourishing, calorie-laden thing to combat winter. And my new family, a young man and his mother who grew up mostly on mainstays of Puerto Rican cuisine, both loved this weird kitchen experiment from Africa. The next morning, my mother-in-law told me, “You know, I was thinking about that weird soup. It’s the sort of thing that, if you grew up with it, it would be comfort food. You would really crave it.” And I think she’s really right. That’s a thing about food, and people. We all have our idiosyncrasies and habits, and “weird” stuff we crave. In the icy wilderness of south Brooklyn, in the horrid depth of winter, I make soup with peanut butter and tomatoes in it, listen to Ira Glass drone on adorably for hours, and read my beat-up copy of White Oleander over and over again just like I did in junior high. None of this is all that weird, but it is definitely particular to me, like a worn-in baby blanket that you’ve had since you were born. My boyfriend seems to derive a lot of satisfaction from lifting heavy weights while watching Khan Academy-style lectures, and listening to Ecuadorian folk music. I genuinely don’t get weight-lifting, but the Ecuadorian folk music is really excellent. People all over are complicated by rich textures and traditions, and the weird soup, though foreign, is often wonderful.
West African Peanut Soup
This recipe is based off of Cookie & Kate’s vegetarian version and this recipe from AllRecipes.com, with my own tweaks. I take it that this is an Americanized version of something more traditionally called groundnut stew. It takes well to adjustment; I think we all know that peanut butter is eternally forgiving. I wanted chicken, so I included chicken. You don’t have to, it would still be good. The peanut butter can be chunky or smooth, and you could probably use some other nut butter with intriguing results. Ditch the potatoes if you want something less hearty. I wanted to make a vast quantity of soup to last several people for days, so this recipe makes a vast quantity of soup—be prepared. I like to eat this over rice, garnished with peanuts and cilantro, maybe a glug of toasted sesame oil, maybe avocado—it is warming, comforting, and good for you.
For the soup:
2 tbsn neutral cooking oil
3-4 tbsn minced fresh gingerroot
1 large onion (red is traditional and pretty, I only had white), chopped
Zest and juice of 1/2 a lime (use the other half to make a very small lime pie)
Lemongrass, if you’ve got it around.
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium sweet or white potatoes (or a mix—sweet is traditional), peeled and chopped
4 c chicken or veggie broth
1-2 c some more liquid — coconut milk, more broth, or water
1 or 2 good squirts of Sriracha or other hot sauce
1 lbs. chicken, cut into chunks
8 oz can crushed or diced tomatoes
13 oz, more or less, chunky or smooth peanut butter
1 big bunch collard greens, tough stems removed and cut into 1-inch ribbons
Garnishes (all optional):
Cooked white or brown rice
Lime wedges? Sour cream? Go crazy.
1. Sweat the garlic, ginger, onions, lemongrass, and lime zest in big soup pot over medium-high heat until the onions are totally translucent and limp, about 5 mins. Add the potatoes, and sauté them as long as you feel comfortable—just don’t let the onions or garlic burn.
2. Drown everything in the liquids of your choosing. Add the lime juice and some sriracha, then your chicken chunks. Bring everything back to a boil, then partially cover, turn to medium-low heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Add tomatoes and peanut butter and stir until the pb is incorporated. Add collards and bring back to a boil over high heat, then partially cover and simmer over medium-low for 20 minutes, until the collards and potatoes are tender.
4. Serve over rice with whatever garnishy stuff you want to put.
Is there any food you love that might horrify your friends and family? My favorite writer about food, Laurie Colwin, said, “Cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.” So what about you? Tell in the comments.