I read an article a few years ago written by someone acknowledging an immense, sudden, internal shift. I remember the writing seeming strangely detached in its confidence; the person’s friends used a colorful term synonymous with “jerk” to describe the change they witnessed, but the author said they just suddenly didn’t feel like doing the things they didn’t want to do anymore. I remember reading that article and admiring that person, because that kind of thing is so obvious, it’s bold.
These days, I think that maybe I sensed detachment from that piece because the situation in its entirety seems so much more complex to me. The thing that keeps replaying in my mind is that sometimes we have to force ourselves to do certain things, like eating celery and going to the doctor and recognizing when something makes us feel bad, even when that something is easier than doing the opposite. Sometimes I have to force myself to eat a healthy meal first before I get into the two pound bag of peanut butter M&Ms. Sometimes, like my mornings this past week, I don’t want to wake up early and practice ashtanga; sometimes, I have to discern whether it’s better for my body to sleep longer instead, and sometimes that is the right choice. Then, sometimes, I realize I’ve been choosing to sleep longer instead when I would really benefit from doing the thing I have to make myself do. Do you see what I mean? It isn’t always simple to discern.
I think the greatest thing about all of this is that it’s okay. Maybe we’re all always evaluating and reevaluating and learning new skills to make ourselves feel good, and maybe the things we did back then to put ourselves where we are now were the best we could do with the tools we had. And maybe tomorrow we’ll find new tools, or we’ll realize we had certain things we didn’t know we had, and we’ll start putting those to use. Because, in the words of Theodore Decker, the protagonist of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch, reflecting on a life-changing event and the loss of a world-famous Dutch painting he illegally possessed:
“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole; but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I’d felt drowned and extinguished by vastness–not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea.”
Sometimes, the things you find after traversing that vast wilderness of uncertainty are small, delicious fragments that contribute to a greater whole. A friend of mine, for example, whose viewership and support of this website (Christian, I’m looking at you here) has been an invaluable source of motivation to keep cooking, was kind enough to give me a new resource for my kitchen explorations: a slow cooker.
Listen, I know what you all will be thinking when I say this, but I’m going to say it anyway: this stew, right here, after 26 years of life and many years of home cooking and several years of blogging about said home cooking, was my very first venture into the kingdom of slow-cookery. I’ve traversed a few countries and road tripped my way back to the Midwest and you can just JUDGE AWAYYYYYY, because I finally made it, with or without your “Told You Sos.” I come bearing pulled chicken magnificence, in the form of a West African-inspired Peanut Stew, flecked with bright red cayenne, warming ginger, crushed peanuts, and vibrant sweet potato. Of course, because it tastes good and only made things better than they already were, I stirred in a giant dollop of harissa last minute, too, to infuse the stew with spicy, peppery brine.
Like the weighty new gadget that resides on my countertop, ready to simplify the task at hand, let me get to my main point without any further fuss: YOU’RE WELCOME FOR THE DELICIOUS THING YOU’RE ABOUT TO EAT.
Slow-Cooker Pulled Chicken West African Peanut Stew
1 1/2 lbs (about 5-6) boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 cups vegetable stock
1/4 tsp ground ginger
pinch of cayenne
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, diced
2 scallions, thinly sliced, divided
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup diced tomatoes (with juices) from a 15-ounce can (or more, if desired)
1/2 cup peanut butter (chunky preferred, but creamy works well, too)
2 tbsp (from about a 3 inch-long piece) grated fresh ginger
1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne
4 cups vegetable stock
1-2 tbsp harissa paste* (optional)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
crushed salted peanuts, scallions, cilantro, flatbread
In a slow cooker set to high heat, combine chicken thighs, vegetable stock, ground ginger, cayenne, sea salt, and pepper. Cook for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Use two forks to gently pull the chicken apart (this should happen very easily, as the chicken will be quite tender).
In a large pot, heat olive oil on medium heat. Add red onion and white and light green parts of the scallions, reserving the dark green scallion slices for later. Sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes, then add red bell pepper. Cook until bell pepper tenderizes, about 2 minutes. Add sweet potato, diced tomatoes, peanut butter, fresh ginger, and cayenne, stirring to coat. Pour in pulled chicken mixture (with juices) from slow cooker. Pour in vegetable stock. Increase heat to high, bringing the mixture to a boil. Let cook until the sweet potatoes are cooked through, about 20 minutes, then remove from heat. Stir in harissa. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. To serve, garnish with salted peanuts, scallions, or cilantro, and eat with flatbread. Soup is best when made about 12 hours ahead of time. To store, keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
*I have found there are some not-so-great tasting harissas out there, so make sure you have a high-quality one in your hands. This one is my absolute favorite of all.