Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pinto Bean & Cassava Stew with Greens: Rwandan-ish Comfort Food for Cook the Books: "Baking Cakes in Kigali" and Souper (Soup, Salad & Sammie) Sundays

In "Baking Cakes in Kigali: A Novel" by Gaile Parkin, Angel Tungararza is a talented cake maker from Tanzania who moves with her university professor husband Pius and their five grandchildren to modern-day Rwanda. Along with baking and selling her cakes out of her busy international apartment complex, Angel dispenses advice to her customers who come from from all walks of life, listening over cups of cardamom-spiced tea as they share their stories. The stories aren't all pleasant (including Angel's own as she grieves over the deaths of both her daughter and son and the estrangement she felt from her daughter before her death) as this is Rwanda where war, poverty, abuse, genocide, and AIDS are all realities. Still, in the midst of grief and tragedy, there is an overall feeling of hope in the country and in Angel's little corner of it.

I picked up this novel in a used book store, caught by the title and interested in learning more about different African countries and their history after reading "What Tears Us Apart"--a novel by Deborah Cloyed, set in Kenya in the turmoil following the 2007 government elections. I thought it would be a great chance for our Cook the Books (the bi-monthly virtual foodie book club I co-host along with Rachel, Heather and Simona) participants to journey to Africa--somewhere we have not ventured in our reading. There is a lot going on in the book with the stories told by Angel's friends and customers. Angel is a likable character, the grandmother/older neighbor/sage friend that we would want to go to when we need counsel or just to 'spill' to someone who cares. And although Angel is a 'professional somebody' who is always looking for opportunities to grow her cake business, she is also caring--listening and helping out where she can with advice and a colorful cake. As her friend Francoise tells her, she is "someone who has ears that want to hear my story and a heart that wants to understand it." Angel seeks to understand the viewpoints and motivations of others, including her own, polishing her glasses when she feels she or someone else needs to view a situation with more clarity. I enjoyed getting to know the people and cultures that weave together to make up Angel's world. With some of the stories I would have liked to have gone a bit deeper--wanting to know more and spend more time with those characters. But, overall Baking Cakes in Kiagali gave me what I most enjoy in a book--interesting reading that immerses me in a different world for a while.

I was tempted to make cake for my dish inspired by the book but my oven is on it's last legs right now and I have not found the time to get it fixed or more likely replaced. Also, I have been trying to cut added sugar and fats from my diet lately and didn't need a tempting cake. I wanted to explore African cuisine and I actually happened upon my dish by kismet. Wandering through my local farmers market a couple of weeks ago I picked up a root-looking veggie and the vendor offered up that it was cassava (aka yucca, manioc, mandioca, tapioca-root, manioc root etc.), telling me that it is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, after rice and maize. A new ingredient to me, I remembered it being consumed several times in the book and bought a couple of the (green-less) roots.

Cassava turns out to be a well-used ingredient in African countries. Both the greens and the root are used in a variety of dishes in Rwanda--the greens are what is most mentioned in the book. It turns out cassava grows well in marginal soil and is very drought tolerant, making it a good crop for areas without plentiful water. Cassava is a great source of carbohydrates but a poor protein source, so I zeroed in on a recipe that mixed it with beans to give it a little more of a boost as a veg-friendly meal.    

The cassava root as I bought it and peeled ready to chop. Raw, it has the texture similar to parsnips and it reminds me a bit of cooking with fresh hearts of palm--rather than peeling the outside skin with a peeler, you cut off the ends, slice through the skin and remove it by hand. Easy peasy. ;-) 

The website called this dish "a traditional Rwandan recipe for a classic vegetarian accompaniment of beans mashed with cassava flavoured with onion and celery" and recommended serving it with green veggies and a sauce like Kachumbari which is apparently like a salsa/cold salad dish of tomatoes, onion and chili peppers. I decided to serve mine more as a stew with steamed greens (kale, spinach and chard) alongside. I wanted to punch up the flavor of the stew and on some sites I read that although Rwandan food is not particularly spicy, sometimes curry or the African berbere spice mixture is used. I found a Marcus Samuelson recipe for berbere at Epicurious and did a variation of his recipe--heavy on the (smoked) paprika, using a pinch of cayenne in place of the Serrano chilies and adding a touch of cumin (because I love it so). The result while not-so-traditional, was very tasty and satisfying.  

Pinto Bean & Cassava Stew
Adapted from Celtnet Recipes: Beans with Cassava
(Serves 4-5)

1 heaping cup of dried pinto beans
about 12 oz cassava, peeled and cut into chunks
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 celery sticks, chopped
I Tbsp coconut oil
salt and black pepper to taste
berbere spice blend to taste, optional 

Soak the beans overnight. Rinse beans and place in a large pot with plenty of water. Bring water to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours, until the beans are almost soft. Add the chopped cassava and boil for another 10-15 minutes, until tender. 

Meanwhile, heat coconut oil in a large pan and saute the onions and celery together with the berbere spice blend until tender. Add to the beans, mixing everything gently but thoroughly, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with steamed or sauteed greens or veggie of choice.

Notes/Results: A thick, creamy and satisfying stew with good flavor. I am glad I added the spices--it would not have been as enjoyable and flavorful without it. The cassava is like a very starchy potato making the mixture very thick and filling so the pan-steamed greens were a nice contrast with their texture and slight bitterness. (They also add a pop of much-needed color and nutrients to the bowl!) Very fun to experiment with the cassava, I would make this again--after I get my hands on some more and make some little fritters the farmers market vendor told me about. ;-)

Bad Cook the Books host that I am, I am sliding in a day before the deadline for this round. If you missed this current round, please join us for Feb/March when Simona of briciole takes us on a foodie journey through America via Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs. 

Now let's check out the Souper Sundays kitchen where some terrific soups and good friends await. 

Brittany of Brittany Cooks is back with a Creamy White Turkey Chili that she declares, "will definitely warm you up, and is incredibly satisfying." Brittany says, "Comfort food like this warms my body and soul, and will likely be what gets me through this winter. So far, the cold has already been pretty brutal, and I don't think it's going anywhere any time soon (I hear there will be another polar vortex? Say wha?). Stay warm friends, and enjoy this hearty chili!"

Janet of The Taste Space shares this warming Kabocha Squash, Coconut & Lentil Soup and says, "Soups like this also make my tummy sing. It is filled with all great things: red lentils as a solid base, kabocha squash and coconut milk for a creamy backdrop, spiced with ginger and chile flakes, tempered by tamarind and lime juice with a lemongrass twist. The flavours meld perfectly and this is a soup that will definitely warm you up during a cold front."

Sandra of Meadows Cooks made good use of abundant avocados with this Vegan Avocado and Broccoli Soup and says, "Now that I have 4 soups under my belt (I've been steadily making one a week since my resolution) I am ready to experiment. Mostly because I could not find a recipe that included avocados (at least two of them to make a dent in our ever-going-bad collection) and broccoli (another overwhelming Costco purchase of more broccoli than any human can eat in a reasonable amount of time) that I liked. So I made my own up. It came out pretty yummy. The lemon makes the dish!"

Graziana of Erbe in Cucina offers up Tex-Mex Soup with Cilantro and says, "I harvested a bunch of cilantro from my rooftop and added it to this tex-mex style recipe. It's a soup, but it can also be served as a dip. This summer I have grown some bell peppers, like the Diamond White in the picture. I had a lot of them, so I grilled, cleaned and finally frozen them for the winter. My grilled pepper sauce was a successful experiment, and I'm using it for pasta dressings, appetizers, and also for this soup."

And finally Pam of Sidewalk Shoes shares hearty chili and says, "As part of the Rancho Gordo’s Year of Beans last year, I received a bag of dried hominy.  I had no idea what to do with it.  I knew that I had only had it in a posole.So, searching the web, I found Turkey Chili Soup with Hominy at Food & Wine.  I figured I could just double the rest of the ingredients and sub my bag of dried hominy for the canned. ... The consistency of this chili was absolutely perfect for me.  I’m one of those people who adds so many crushed saltines to their chili that it can be eaten with a fork.  I don’t think that the original recipe with the canned hominy would be as thick.  The flavors were nice, it was warm and comforting and I liked the chewy bite from the hominy."

Thanks to everyone who joined in this week. If you have a soup, salad or sandwich that you would like to share, just click on the Souper Sundays logo for all of the details.

Have a happy, healthy week!



  1. Mmm I love cassava. It definitely has a potato-like flavor but there's something distinct about it! Sounds like a delicious meal!

  2. I like how you branched out with cassava here, Deb. I can't say I have made very much with it myself. :)

  3. The book sounds fascinating and the stew also looks very tasty. I've never tried cassava but it's something I have seen for sale here ocassionally.

  4. Cassava sounds intriguing. I didn't realize that it was the same as yucca and manioc. I'll have to search out this ingredient.

    Great book choice for Cook the Books. I really enjoyed reading this one.

  5. Thanks for hosting. Even though I didn't love the book, I LOVE being part of this creative group. I'll have to try the other recipes.

  6. I believe it was kismet. Love that you went with this authentic dish. (Am loving these other soups, too.)

  7. I'm glad you used a savory recipe featuring cassava. I grow it and have only used the roots. When I read the book and noticed they used cassava greens it called out for a trial. On my to do list now.

  8. I remember seeing cassava roots at the farmers' market on the Big Island. Your experiment makes me curious to try that and the greens. Very nice choice of recipe and great result.


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