I was not an unusual child in my dreams of traveling to distant places. Geography was one of my favorite subjects in school and the globe a companion to my imagination. When we studied a foreign country, we learned about its mountains and rivers, important cities, industries and agricultural products, but not its traditional foods.
Nowadays, though, the ready flow of information enabled by the Internet allows interesting discoveries in the gastronomic culture of pretty much any country on earth. Recreating a dish from a distant place based on recipes and notes mined online can provide delicious surprises. Follow me — plane ticket not required.
The Republic of Senegal is a country in West Africa, the capital of which is Dakar, the westernmost city on the African mainland. The country owes its name to the Senegal River, which borders it to the east and north. I suspect I will never visit Senegal but that did not diminish my pleasure in discovering a traditional dish called yassa. It is most often made with chicken (poulet yassa) but also with lamb, goat, beef or fish.
My rendition (which makes no claims of authenticity) is based on a recipe on the Washington Post website (comments included), another on Saveur and my own tinkering.
I have no idea how what I make compares to the chicken yassa I would eat in a restaurant or home in Senegal. But I am grateful to the Senegalese people for this aromatic dish in which clear citrus notes and a hint of ginger and pepper enliven the flavors of meat and vegetables.
Simona's Poulet Yassa
The chicken and vegetables must marinate for at least 4 hours before cooking so plan accordingly. I prepare them the night before. A mandoline makes thinly slicing onion and carrots a quick task. You'll also need a Dutch oven.
The dish is traditionally served with cooked white rice. I prefer my homemade pasta (a small batch, cooked and lightly dressed with butter) or bread. Serves 3-4.
2 ¼ pounds chicken (preferably free range): 4 skin-on bone-in thighs and 1 full leg
1 pound onion, thinly sliced (if using 2 onions, make one red)
8 ounces carrots, scrubbed, skinned and thinly sliced
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice and zest of 1 lime
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 bay leaf broken in half
1 teaspoon grated ginger root
½ teaspoon peppercorns, coarsely crushed (mortar and pestle are perfect for this task)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup chicken stock or broth
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Cut the full leg into thigh and drumstick. Place the 6 chicken pieces in a large bowl that can accommodate them in one layer.
Cut the vegetables and add them to the bowl. Add the ingredients up to and including the peppercorns. Mix well with your hands, then arrange the chicken in one layer at the bottom of the bowl. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate at least 4 hours until you're ready to cook.
Place an oven rack 6 inches from the broiler element. Preheat the broiler.
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the chicken pieces on it, skin side up. Broil them for 8 minutes, then turn the pieces over and broil for another 8 minutes. The chicken will be browned on both sides, but not cooked through. While the chicken is in the oven, heat the olive oil in a 5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-low heat.
Drain the vegetables and set aside the marinade. Add the vegetables to the Dutch oven and cook for 20 minutes, stirring every now and then, until the onions are translucent and soft.
Take the chicken pieces out of the oven and leave them on the baking sheet for a few minutes until you are ready to put them into the Dutch oven.
Dilute the Dijon mustard in the chicken stock. Add that and the marinade to the Dutch oven. Stir well, then increase the heat to medium, letting the liquid come to a low boil. Add the broiled chicken pieces and stir well. When the liquid returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.
Remove the bay leaf. Sprinkle in the salt and stir well.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.