One of the most gratifying successes in the kitchen is when you're able to mimic something you love. Whether it's a recipe your grandmother used to serve on days you called in sick from school, or the crack-like salad rolls at the hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant down the street, recreating a favorite dish on your own is a sign you've got some mad skills yourself.
Tonight (well actually, last night, since I never eat a soup the same night I make it), I took a stab at bringing my favorite McMenamin's treat to our table. The dish I craved? The John Barleycorn pub's African Peanut Soup. They serve it on Thursdays, and I used to get a little cup of it with half a turkey sandwich to go (with a stingy 30 minute lunch, it was perpetually takeout). The African Peanut Soup was almost curry-like, but in stew form. Salty, savory, and so different--not your everyday Chicken Noodle Soup soup du jour! Basically it was like getting a great curry, but not quite as rich, so you can skip over the idea of rice and eat the best part guilt-free. I'd never had anything like it.
When I was going through my recipe portfolio, I found a recipe I tore out of Cooking Light right before I stopped subscribing. I was so sick of trying out healthy recipes and having them turn out so BLAND! And I'm not talking about no cheese, no bacon bland. I mean no spice. There's no calories in cayenne! Just because you're trying to eat healthy doesn't mean everything has to taste like rice cakes. But with the basic recipe as a base, I employed the full force of Penzey's Eastern-style best to bring out the vivid flavors created at McMenamin's. Curry, cumin, paprika and a little cayenne, plus lots of salt and pepper, brought the simple ingredients to life. The original version also called for zucchini, but I thought butternut squash seemed more like the highly orange dish I was used to enjoying.
I simmered everything together last night, and warmed it up on the stove when I got home from work. I was amazed--it tasted like my little cup of happiness, now a few roads removed from my office for lunch hour. I figured Matt could make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but amazingly, he loved it too! It did smell crazy-good. I've slowly opened him up to squash; I think he had some bad experiences with it in the past. Oh poor, mushy vegetables, spoiling the reputation of well-cooked wonders.
I served this with some delicious, crusty French bread from Whole Foods, but naan would have been spectacular. Top with peanuts or cashews, and cilantro if it's around. Don't tell McMenamin's we've figured them out. No need for some Flaming Moe's-like jealousy.
African Peanut Soup
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
1 tablespoon hot sauce (I used Secret Aardvark)
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 cups cooked butternut squash (I used an organic frozen variety from Whole Foods)
2 tbsp flour
1 can of diced tomatoes, drained of juice
1 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Generous amount of salt and pepper
Whisk chicken broth, peanut butter, tomato paste and hot sauce together in a bowl. Set aside.
Melt butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and saute until tender, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and cook one additional minute. Add broth mixture, tomatoes, spices, butternut squash and chicken to pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for at least one hour. Adjust spices to taste. Either cool and refrigerate to reheat the next night, or eat it then. But you shouldn't do that. It never tastes as good.
If you want to be extra fancy, garnish with peanuts and cilantro.