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’s 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.