Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Adventures in African Cooking: Pandora's Palm Butter

I am blessed with a wide and varied circle of wonderful friends, many of whom "happen" to be magical in the kitchen. Pandora is one of those people, and one Saturday morning, I invited her to the Tides kitchen to come and cook a Liberian specialty: palm butter.

You should know two things about Pandora. One, she is a powerhouse of positive energy. Two, the woman can cook. Her palm butter soup with fufu is Liberian comfort food at its best. She has her own Monrovia-based catering business, Pandora's Basket, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Most recipes for palm butter soup assume you're cooking in the west and can buy canned palm butter at an African foods specialty store. Here's how to make it...

How to Make Liberian Palm Butter

1. Buy bright, sunburst-colored palm nuts fresh from the market. They should be colorful and firm, without bruised or blemished skin. You'll want at least 4 cups to make approximately the same volume of palm butter for soup.

2. Rinse the palm nuts, cover them with plenty of water and set them on a low simmer uncovered. Boil them gently for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the flesh around the kernel is very soft when you stick a fork in it.

3. Drain the water and let them cool just a little.

4. Buy, borrow or make yourself an extremely large mortar and pestle. The ones here in West Africa can hold about four liters and the pestle is a long wooden pole large enough to look like you could use if for scaffolding. If you don't have your own massive one, you can easily make do with a large plastic bucket or bowl and the bottom of a wine bottle. At Tides, we have our own but it still needs to be "cured" by placing it in a dying fire to seal up the wood, or so I'm told. We usually go downstairs to Johennsen Street and ask one of our neighbors to borrow one, then make sure to return it the next day.

5. Place your mortar and pestle in a clean spot on the floor, placing it on a towel so that it doesn't slip or skid. Then add some of the boiled palm kernels, by this time slightly cooled, and start mashing in regular, rhythmic motion. Your goal is to separate the fruit around the palm nut from the harder palm kernel--what palm oil is made from. Do this in batches until you've

6. Palm butter is made from the soaked liquid of the nut's fruit, so the next step is to soak the mashed up palm nuts in hot water to help extract the butter. We're going to strain this mixture, but first we want to get all the goodness out. Put all your mashed palm kernels in a large metal bowl (or several, if you're working in bulk). Pour enough hot water over it to cover generously, and stir gently to encourage the palm nuts to give up all their juice. Once the water is tepid enough to put your hands in, work the palm kernel fibers between your fingers, rubbing gently. Once you're coaxed all the nectar from your palm kernels, strain the mixture and send the palm fibers to the compost heap.

7. Congratulations! The thick amber liquid you're left with is palm butter and perfect for that palm butter soup recipe you've been wanting to try... Enjoy!

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