When I returned from Nigeria at the end of February, it was at the tail end of the Harmattan, a season when the winds from the north deposit the finest sand from the Sahara onto Lagos’ every surface. The city was hot and dry, and the markets were bursting with life.
I’m not a vegetarian, but in Lagos, nutrient-dense produce surrounded me, inviting me to cook with it. I was grating coconut flesh to extract its milk, pickling star fruit and replenishing the salad bowl with bunches of palm-sized spinach greens straight from the backyard.
Back in Brooklyn, I am still cooking, but mostly from my pantry, using staples and hearty vegetables that I am stretching as far as my imagination allows. I first made this spicy vegetarian yam and plantain curry on a hot night in Lagos, but I now find myself revisiting it again and again. It is a brothy version of asaro, a rich stew made in kitchens and bukas, or roadside restaurants, across the south of Nigeria, and it is my ultimate comfort food.
Built around long-lasting hearty greens and root vegetables, the core components are West African yam and plantain, but you can substitute at will. No yams? Use any potato that’ll hold up in a soup. Yellow plantains instead of green? Use them, but drop them in toward the end of cooking. And there is room for herbs, greens and any alliums you have on hand. It is gluten-free and vegan, but it doesn’t have to be; add a little crayfish or bacon to give it heft, or a little flour to thicken the broth.
This asaro is a one-pot meal that makes plenty, so several meals will come of the washing, trimming and chopping required. It’s the kind of stew you can heat and reheat, and the flavors intensify each time. If you hold off on adding the greens until you’re ready to serve, you can refrigerate it up to a week, and it freezes beautifully, too. The real joy is that it is a lighter, warm-weather kind of stew that is a meal on its own or paired with any grilled meat or fish.
It’s a dish that reminds me of the last trip home I’ll be making for a while, and one that lends comfort in the meantime.
Recipe: Yam and Plantain Curry With Crispy Shallots
Total time: 50 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
1/4 cup neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed
4 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 (2- to 3-inch) piece fresh ginger, grated (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 whole red habanero or Scotch bonnet chile, pierced all over with a knife
1 (14-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juices
1 1/2 pounds white or orange yams, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 green (unripe) plantains (about 1 pound total), peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 (13-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon red palm oil (optional)
4 cups julienned hearty greens, such as dandelion greens, collards or lacinato kale, tough stems removed
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 lime, sliced into wedges for squeezing
1. Heat a medium pot, large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium. Pour in the neutral oil, add the sliced shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until shallots are caramelized and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove shallots from the oil and allow to drain on paper towels or a cooling rack. Season with salt and set aside.
2. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil out of the pot. (Reserve extra oil for another use.) Over medium-low heat, add the garlic, ginger and turmeric to the pot and sauté until softened and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for an additional 2 minutes or until it begins to stick to the bottom of the pot.
3. Drop in the chile and add the whole peeled tomatoes with their juices, crushing the whole tomatoes with your hands as they go in. Stir to combine ingredients and dissolve the tomato paste, then add 3 cups water and bring to a boil over high heat.
4. Once boiling, season with salt, reduce heat to medium, add the yams and simmer until the yams are just beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the plantains and cook until both are tender but hold their shape, and the liquid is slightly reduced and thickened, 15 to 18 minutes.
5. Stir in the coconut milk and red palm oil, if using, season with more salt and let simmer for another 10 minutes. Add the greens and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
6. To serve, remove and discard the cooked chile. Ladle the curry into bowls, top with the caramelized shallots, a scattering of basil and cilantro, and several squeezes of lime juice.