Carla's Corner: Ahwahnee's Chef Holiday 2010

After leaving the beautiful beaches and untouched coral reefs of St. John, USVI, I headed to the breath-taking views of Yosemite National Park. I joined Ryan Scott (Top Chef season 4) and Ariane Duarte (Top Chef season 5) for one of the Yosemite Chefs' Holiday 2010 sessions at The Ahwahnee Hotel. I'm surprised I didn't have to wear a neck brace after spending hours on end looking up in awe at the huge sequoia trees and granite formations.

I walked into the hotel and immediately felt like I had been there before. It's no wonder; I found out that The Ahwahnee was the inspiration for some of the set of the movie The Shining. Remember Jack Nicholson's line "Here's Johnny?" Yikes! Okay, I was spooked. Just kidding. Well, sort of. In addition to having a great time being in the natural surroundings, just being in the hotel was like being wrapped up in a warm blanket. Each of the staff seemed personally invested in all the guests feeling right at home. Many of them had worked there multiple decades! Short-timers are considered those who've only put in about 20 years.

Anyway, let me share my demo with you. When I demo, my primary focus is to teach each person in the audience something, even if it's just to remind them to trust their own palates and their instincts about what they like. I specifically chose a really simple recipe that had a range from what I call a "dump and roll" dish to an elegantly presented stew with interesting garnishes. I always remind the audience that a recipe is only a guide or road map that should be interpreted by the person using the recipe.


African Groundnut Stew

1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ cups chopped onion (about 1 large onion)
2 serrano chiles, sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (14.5 oz. can) diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 roasted poblano pepper, roasted, peeled and diced small
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1½ cups cooked small red beans
1½ cups vegetable stock or broth
2 cups peeled, cubed sweet potatoes
1 cup chopped red pepper
3 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter
3 Tablespoons dry roasted peanuts, chopped, for garnish
1 lime, cut into wedges, for garnish

1. In large pot, heat oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté onion, Serrano chilies and garlic until soft.

2. Add sweet potatoes, beans, stock, water, peppers, tomatoes & spices. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook on low until vegetables are tender (about 35 – 40 minutes).

3. Take 1 cup of the hot liquid and place in a small bowl, add peanut butter and whisk until smooth. Add mixture back into stew and stir. Add more stock or water if stew is too thick. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

4. Serve stew in bowls sprinkle with chopped peanuts. At the table squeeze lime juice onto soup.

It's a tasty stew, but as is, it's not that impressive, huh? You may even question the mix of ingredients. Peanut butter and tomatoes? So, let me show you how I took it to the next level.

The first question I asked myself was, "What ingredients can I extract and highlight?" I considered the sweet potatoes, red beans, peanuts, lime and spices.

I chose to use white and red sweet potatoes. The contrast would be beautiful. Instead of adding the raw sweet potatoes to the base of the stew (the first ten ingredients), I decided to sear them first. Caramelizing them first added flavor, and by adding the sweet potatoes a few minutes before serving the stew, the texture of the potatoes was maintained. I did the same thing with the diced red peppers.

Thinking about the sweet potatoes as a garnish, I decided to cut the potatoes into thick planks and shaved long ribbons with a peeler. If you hadn't guessed already, I made sweet potato chips. I tossed them in a lime-cumin salt. To make the salt, I combined lime zest, kosher salt, cumin, powdered ginger and cayenne in a small bowl. As you can see, I took the same flavors and spices that were already being used in the stew. Since I was using the salt on the chips, I wanted it to be finer than course salt. I processed the mixture in a coffee grinder.

I cooked extra red beans to fry for an additional garnish. This added another element of texture. These crunchy nuggets were tossed in the flavored salt and some chopped parsley.

All stews needs a sopper-upper, so I made an old Southern favorite, hot water cornbread. I sprinkled just a simple lime salt on top of each piece while it was still hot. I also served a tomato ginger chutney with the cornbread.

I kept the chopped peanuts and lime wedges from the original recipe on the stew as well. You may choose to do one, all, or none of these garnishes for this particular recipe, but my biggest hope is that you will occasionally find a way to express yourself in whatever recipe you pick up.

Enjoy! And until next time...Cook with love!


Carla Hall was a finalist on Top Chef: Season 5 and runs Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C.


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