Monday, September 23, 2013

Yassa au poulet : chicken with onion, mustard, lemon, and vegetables

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend 4 months in Dakar, Senegal during college. West Africa, to me, is a seriously amazing place. I was comfortable there in a way I'm not sure I've ever felt anywhere else, and I nearly constantly feel the pull to make my way back there.

In Senegal, generally, there aren't really any grocery stories of any kind. There was one French supermarket near downtown that was very expensive and seemed to only be frequented by French ex-pats. For the most part, people bought all their food supplies at small boutiques and farmer's market-type stands on the side of the road. Every night on the way home from school (and after walking several miles), it became a habit of mine to buy a huge bag of local papaya or mango and gorge myself when I got home as I waited for the late French-style dinner. 

There is nothing like buying your food directly from people, feeling for soft spots, and bargaining for a good price. The sellers I habitually bought from got used to me, and came to remember that I liked my fruit a little overripe and would always offer me a good deal on the stuff that was about to go. Everything there felt more real, connections were tangible, people I didn't know remembered my face. I think it is the kind of life we were meant to live.

One thing I loved about Senegalese cuisine was that it was an entirely new food paradigm for me: meat + vegetable + flavoring, simmer, serve over a starch. Simple, easy, and all-encompassing. When I got home, and after some tinkering, I was able to replicate two dishes in particular that were my favorites, yassa poulet and mafé. Yassa, a very popular dish made of a broth of chicken, onions, lemon juice, and dijon mustard, may sound weird at first, but with simmering, it turns into something seriously delightful. I hope you'll give it a try, and I'll have to post my recipe for mafé sometime soon; it's a spicy peanut sauce that is a crowd favorite at potlucks.

Yassa au poulet

4 chicken thighs
5 large white or yellow onions, sliced
chicken bouillion or broth (both preferred)
1/3 cup dijon mustard, to taste
1/3 cup lemon juice, to taste
3 tbsp peanut oil or 1 tbsp peanut butter (both preferred)
1 habanero pepper
3 carrots
1 small yucca root
1/2 small cabbage
black pepper

Heat peanut oil or butter in a very large soup pot or dutch oven and add sliced onions. Cook until translucent or caramelized. Add chicken broth until onions are covered.

Heat a non-stick pan with a bit of frying oil until water pops in the pan. Salt and pepper both sides of the thighs and leave them in the pan until a nice brown crust forms from the high heat (this is called searing). Remove from pan and submerge the thighs under the onions in the soup pot so they may simmer and cook fully.

Chop carrots and yucca in to 3-4 inch sections. Quarter cabbage; if you cut through the stem the sections from the bottom half will stay together as one unit while simmering. Add vegetables and the habanero pepper (you may want to wrap it in cheesecloth for easy removal and to avoid over-spicing). Add broth so that all ingredients are covered and may simmer properly.

Add lemon juice, dijon, and if using, a spoon of peanut butter and stir. Add bouillion, nutmeg, and pepper, to taste. Allow the mixture to simmer heartily for 30 mins, and check the spice level from the habanero. Continue to check the spice level until desired, and remove habanero. Let simmer, covered for 2 hours and with lid cocked the last hour. Three hours of total simmering seems to be the magic number, and the flavor suddenly stops tasting weird and turns awesome. Add more dijon or lemon juice to taste, and serve over rice.

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