Kwanzaa, which means first fruits of the harvest in Swahili, is a celebration of family, community, African heritage and great food. The weeklong holiday, which begins on Dec. 26 and ends on New Year's Day, is based on seven guiding principles, with each day's observance starting with the lighting of candles.
The centerpiece of the Kwanzaa festivities is the feast of Karamu, which is observed on Dec. 31. It's modeled after traditional African harvest celebrations, at which villagers gave thanks for their bountiful harvest by sharing it at a huge communal feast.
There are no hard and fast rules about what foods to serve for Karamu. The important thing is that the dishes reflect your family's roots and taste. Choose from old family favorites - such as Grandmother's okra and tomato stew; classic Southern fare like chicken and dumplings; dishes from Africa; or foods from the Caribbean, Latin America or anywhere else Africans and their descendants settled. In keeping with the spirit of Kwanzaa, invite your guests to bring a dish to share at the feast.
I have put together a buffet for Karamu featuring foods that are easy to prepare and colorful, and which reflect the global reach of African-inspired cuisine. Use them all or mix and match for a Karamu that is uniquely your own.
First, a scrumptious West African-style peanut stew. I love the combination of the spices used in this recipe. The cumin and coriander are wonderfully fragrant, the crushed pepper gives the dish some real heat, and the peanut butter makes the sauce creamy and very rich. By the way, feel free to improvise by adding carrots, potatoes or canned garbanzo beans.
Next, Hoppin' John is a traditional Southern favorite with deep roots in the Carolinas. It's a simmer of black-eyed peas, with a mixture of spicy sausages, ham hocks or some sort of cured pork, and rice and tomatoes. Black-eyed peas have always held a special place in African-American food lore. Many of us eat them on New Year's Day for good luck during the rest of the year.
Greens are another favorite of African-Americans, but too many people overcook these healthy vegetables, turning them into pea-green-colored mush. I am including a recipe for perfectly cooked greens, from one of the best Southern chefs to ever walk the planet, Edna Lewis.
Finally, sweet potatoes are a must-have on most Southerners' holiday menus. The feast of Karamu is no exception. But instead of putting them in a casserole or a pie, I came up with a scrumptious sweet potato cake. It's very much like a pound cake, only richer ... if that's possible.
Whether or not your family is celebrating the Kwanzaa feast of Karamu this year, I think any of these dishes will make a delicious addition to your holiday menu.
Happy New Year.
Sandra Pinckney, a former host of "Food Finds" on the Food Network, is now a contributor to "Daily Cafe" on Retirement Living TV, a Comcast Network channel for baby boomers.
EASY WEST AFRICAN-STYLE PEANUT STEW
(serves 6 to 8)
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 boneless chicken thighs, cut into quarters
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 to 3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup chicken broth
3/4 cup unsalted natural-style peanut butter
unsalted chopped peanuts and fresh parsley for garnish (optional)
In a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid, heat oil over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Add chicken to the skillet and brown quickly on both sides. Remove chicken from pan.
Reduce heat to medium-low and add garlic and onion to the pan. Saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Add cumin, coriander and red pepper. Be careful not to let the garlic brown. Mix in broth, browned chicken and any accumulated juices. Cover skillet and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes.
Remove lid and stir in the peanut butter. Make sure that it is blended in well. Replace lid and simmer for 15 more minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.
Remove from heat and adjust seasoning. Garnish with unsalted peanuts and fresh parsley, if desired.
Per serving (based on 8 servings): : 279 calories, 20 grams protein, 20 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 7 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 49 milligrams cholesterol, 388 milligrams sodium
EDNA LEWIS' SOUTHERN GREENS
(serves 6 to 8)
2 pounds cured and smoked pork shoulder, sliced or whole
1 gallon water
4 pounds mixed greens, such as turnip, mustard, broccoli raab or winter kale, carefully washed and stemmed (collards are best cooked separately)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Rinse the pork shoulder and put in the water in a large pot or Dutch oven. Cook, covered, at a full simmer for 2 hours or until stock develops a strong smoked-pork flavor. Strain and discard the pork. Cool the stock completely, then refrigerate until needed.
Pour the smoked-pork stock into a large Dutch oven or heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the prepared greens in batches, waiting until the first batch wilts into the stock before adding more. (This will seem like an enormous amount of greens but they will cook down quickly.)
Cook, uncovered, over high heat until the greens are just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Take care not to overcook the greens. They should be silky and tender but still vibrant and green in color. During cooking, season as needed. When the greens are done, use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove them from the pot, draining off any excess liquid, and serve hot.
Adapted from "The Gift of Southern Cooking"
Per serving (based on 8 servings): : 94 calories, 6 grams protein, 2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 15 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 151 milligrams sodium