MARAK (SOMALI CAMEL STEW)
I thought that title would get everyone's attention.
Seriously, though, the hearty autumn stew we enjoyed last night really is Somali (according to "Extending the Table ... A World Community Cookbook," a spiralbound paperback that I use on occasion to find really strange ethnic items; and the Somalis really do use camel meat in it sometimes. But you can make it with beef, too, and that's what I did last night when we had some pals over, making a big pot of stew and a couple of loaves of quick bread (James Beard's Cuban Bread. Everyone seemed to approve.
"This looks like a North American stew," the book says, "but the flavor is a pleasant surprise. Many Somalis eat Maraq daily, using camel or beef. A common kitchen sound is the grinding of cumin and garlic with a mortar and pestle."
Here's the procedure, with some slight modifications I added to increase the amount and to accommodate available ingredients:
Cut a total of about 2 pounds boneless beef (I used a combination of "stew beef" and shanks) into fairly small cubes (3/4-inch, roughly). Chop one large onion coarsely, and peel, seed and chop enough fresh tomatoes to make about a cup.
About two hours before dinner (you want long simmering for these tough cuts), heat a little peanut oil or vegetable oil in a large cast-iron Dutch oven or equivalent. Sautee the onions over high heat until soft, then add the beef and cook, stirring frequently, until they start to brown. Add the chopped tomatoes, reduce heat to medium, and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 or 15 minutes while you prepare the next round of vegetables:
Skin four carrots and slice them into rounds. Coarsely chop one large green pepper. Mix 4 oz tomato paste with 1 cup water, or, as I did, unfreeze 1 cup homemade tomato sauce. Mince two or three large cloves of garlic. Stir all these ingredients into the simmering stew, add 1 tablespoon ground cumin and 1 tablespoon salt. Cover, reduce heat to low, and continue simmering. (The recipe also calls for adding two or three sliced okra at this point. I couldn't get any, but I wish I had found some. On the other hand, many people HATE okra, so since I was cooking for guests, it may have been just as well).
Peel two baking potatoes and cut them into 3/4-inch cubes. (Put them in a bowl of water to cover to keep them from darkening, if you're doing this step in advance). Peel, seed and cube a roughly equivalent amount of butternut or acorn squash or other winter squash; pumpkin would be just fine. Chop and set aside about 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of fresh cilantro. About 45 minutes before dinner, add these ingredients to the stew, along with a little more water if it seems TOO thick. Continue simmering, stirring and checking progress from time to time; if the potatoes and squash don't seem to be cooking fast enough, turn up the heat a little. At serving time, check for heat and add cayenne pepper or dried red-pepper flakes to taste, or pass hot sauce at the table.
As I said, I served this with a Thai salad and crusty Cuban (French/Italian-style) bread, but Somalians would be more likely to eat it with white rice or with canjeero, the local equivalent of the flat Ethiopian injera bread.