Plantains, Gizzards and Greens
One of the benefits (no, really) of having a celiac diagnosis is that as you become a more discerning eater, there’s literally a world of flavours out there to pursue. In fact, it’s been a great surprise for a lot in the GF community to be able to discover that there are entire countryloads of cooking that are naturally gluten-free – places where wheat and its cousins are not indigenous, and where excellent homestyle cooking is as safe as if you made it in your own gluten-free kitchen. Thai cuisine is one of these – as are numerous Vietnamese dishes, and you can get some terrific Ethiopian food – where the injera pancakes are made with teff flour, and the fillings excellently and intensely flavoured servings of lamb, beef, and vegetables.
There’s another set of countries that feature very tasty and nutritious dishes, also naturally gluten-free, that are just waiting their turn to burst onto the North American dining scene – and that’s the cuisine that spreads across the length of West Africa, from Cameroon and Nigeria across Ghana, Togo, Benin, and on into Sierra Leone and Senegal. If you’ve never had anything cooked in a bit of redolent, brilliantly orange palm oil, let me introduce you to a new dinner idea – West African Plantains, Gizzards and Greens, from Cameroon, where I grew up.
The other factor that makes West African cooking an excellent option these days is that the price of our meal ingredients are going up as both the loonie and oil look for somewhere to stop falling. This recipe lets you take advantage of some of the least expensive ingredients in the store – which,like any great French chef will tell you – when they’re properly and lovingly prepared can make an outstanding meal. Arise, chicken gizzard, to your new and exalted place! And with places like Superstore and Co-op, not to mention a score of small African specialty food stores scattered around our city, getting what you need to make this West African Plantains, Gizzards and Greens dinner is not nearly the hassle it used to be.
- 1 package (400-500 g) chicken gizzards (usually in the frozen meat section of the grocery store, and very inexpensive). If you can’t find gizzards, chicken hearts will do just as well. (Don’t use livers – they’re too overpowering for this dish). And, if you want to start your West African food adventure more gently, go ahead and use any dark meat. Trust me though – the gizzards are amazing.
- 2 plantains. These look like bananas that have been in a fight. They’re usually on the same display table as the bananas, mangos and other exotic tropical fruits are. As much as you might be tempted to choose the uniformly smooth and yellow ones – grab the ones that are turning brown. Plantains are like bananas, only much starchier and less sweet, and a challenge to peel – unless they are really, really ripe. Leave them on your counter until they turn dark brown, or even black. They are not rotten – the darker you let them get, the sweeter and smoother they turn out for this dish.
- 2-3 tbsp palm oil – now available in the international foods section at the bigger grocery stores, or at places like African Choice Market at 52 Ave. NW in Calgary – right near Churchill High School. Palm oil is crucial to this dish – the flavor is quintessentially West African, and while you can use other oils, you’ll really miss out if you do.
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- Seasoning salt, to taste
- 1-2 tsp. crushed chilies, or hotter pepper flakes, if you can stand the heat.
- 1-2 cups frozen chopped kale. (West Africans use the leaves of the Garden Huckleberry plant, but that’s tough to find around here. Kale has the right touch of bitterness you need).
- 1-2 cups cooked rice – prepared beforehand, or heated up as leftovers from last night’s meal.
- About an hour before you are ready to make dinner, put the chicken gizzards into a pot of boiling salted water, and boil over medium heat for approximately 45 minutes. The gizzard is solid muscle, and needs to be tenderized in order to make it properly edible. You COULD try just frying them, but (speaking from experience), this makes an awfully chewy meal. Boil them first, then drain and set aside for when you’re ready to build your dish.
- With a sharp knife, cut off both ends and make a slit down the side of each plantain. This will make it easier to take off the peel. You may find that it sticks very stubbornly to the fruit – if it won’t peel off easily, just cut underneath with a knife to free the fruit.
- Cut the plantain diagonally into slices about 1/4 inch thick.
- Put the palm oil into a very large nonstick frying pan, and turn up the heat NO HIGHER than medium. Palm oil has a much lower smoking point than some other oils, and you don’t want things to catch fire.
- Carefully lay the plantain slices in a single layer all over the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, then let them fry for 3-4 minutes, checking the bottom of a slice to keep an eye on the browning procedure. When it’s a gloriously caramelly color, flip the slices over to fry on the other side.
- Once they are done, transfer the plantains into a bowl. They’ll stay vigorously hot until your gizzards and greens are done. They’ll taste gloriously smooth and sweet inside, with a salted caramel-like glaze on the outside.
- Put the gizzards into the frying pan. At this point, you can add more palm oil, or a bit of butter, because the plantains will soak up quite a bit as they cook. Your gizzards are already cooked – you just need to brown them up a bit.
- Add the frozen chopped kale into the pan, and season with some seasoning salt, garlic powder, and crushed chilies. Stir fry together with the gizzards until the kale is heated through, and some of the leafier bits are fried crunchy.
- Serve everything together on one plate. Enjoy your first taste of West African Plantains, Gizzards, and Greens. You’ll be back for more.
This dish will serve two people. Or just one, if he’s really homesick. If you are going to feed a bigger crowd, do the plantain in more than one batch. It’s important to have a single layer in the pan so that every piece gets caramelized properly.