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Is There Turkey in Mozambique?: “African” Shepherd’s Pie

Last week I got a rather plaintive remonstrance from my friend C, wondering if I’d quit the food blogger biz (such as it is…). Though it may say more about the quality of entertainments in rural Mozambique than about my prowess as cook or blogger, it was still very nice to know that someone was left wanting by my protracted winter vacation…

Somewhat chastened, I assured her that I was merely taking a break, and that things should be picking up very shortly indeed. And, in sifting through my backlog of recipes and ideas, this “African” shepherd’s pie seemed to be just the thing.

So this one goes out to you, C. I’m hoping that enough of these ingredients are available to you right now–where local and seasonal aren’t just foodie buzzwords, but the WAY. THINGS. ARE. I do, though, have every confidence that you’ll be able to make it work regardless.

In any case, the shepherd’s pie itself was inspired by half a jar of homemade berbere I’d rummaged up from the back of the spice drawer. I’d ended making a batch of this incendiary African spice blend in a somewhat-more-OCD-than-usual spasm of making Ethiopian food from scratch.

Which… mmmyeah… happened all of once. Take it from the pros, by the way, and just buy the bread ready made. Not even real Ethiopians make their own injera these days.

In any case, faced with a mess of face-meltingly hot African spice mix, I got to gooving in a most hippie-dippie Moosewood goddess vibe and came up with this somewhat idiosycratic riff on peanutty west African groundnut stew and traditional sheperd’s pie. I’m sure there’s a multiethnic farming collective somewhere in the Catskills that just got its wings.

For all it’s syncretic liberties– and I DO apologize to Africans and shepherds everywhere–this is really a great dish. With just the right mix of, well, everything, it’s spicy and sweet and savory and packs a ton of virtuous vegetables without really trying (should you care about such things…).

Even now, having finished up the berbere, I regularly whip this out on a weeknight when something delicious and easy is the order of the day. It’s also got an ingredient list that pulls almost entirely from the freezer and pantry cupboard, so I can prepare it with minimal to zero shopping.

Everything’s already cooked by the time it goes into the oven, so that stage is quite flexible/optional. Furthermore, since sweet potatoes are more sugar than starch they’re never really going to brown satisfactorily. This is why sweet potato fries are uniformily disappointing–the lack of starch means they come out both saggy AND burnt. If you’re really wanting a crispy crust, though, mix 1/2 c of panko, breadcrumbs with 1 tbs melted butter and sprinkle them over the top of the sweet potatoes prior to putting in the oven.

“African” Shepherd’s Pie
Yield: 4 generous entree servings

3 lb. sweet potatoes
1 tbs. butter
½ tsp cinnamon
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tbs neutral oil
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2” piece fresh ginger, grated
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cumin
1 tbs. hot chili powder
1 lb. ground turkey, or other minced meat… goat, emu, zebra?
1 red bell pepper, chopped
½ lb. frozen corn, defrosted and drained
½ lb. frozen cut okra, defrosted and drained
1 14 oz. can crushed tomato
1 8 oz. can tomato paste
3 tbs. peanut butter
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the sweet potatoes: Poke potatoes with knife and Arrange in ring on plate. Microwave for 5 minutes, turn them over, and microwave another 4-5 minutes until cooked through.

Meanwhile, in a large pot, sauté onions for a few minutes until translucent.  Add garlic, ginger, and spices, cooking a few minutes more. Add ground turkey, stirring to break up the meat and cook till no longer pink.  Add bell pepper and okra.  Mix in crushed tomato and paste and bring to simmer.  Turn off heat and mix in peanut butter.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Spread into a baking dish—somewhere in the 10x10x2 neighborhood–and top with the defrosted and drained corn.

When cool enough to handle, peel the sweet potatoes and mash with butter, cinnamon, and salt and pepper.  Can be thinned with water or broth if necessary.  Spread over layered turkey and mixture, making a pattern on the top with a fork. Pop into the oven for 15-20 minutes to reheat and let things meld a bit.

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