Taking Root: Cassava Claims Its Place On The American Table
I started with frozen cassava, which has the advantage over the fresh vegetable of coming already peeled. In the supermarket freezer case I found a bag of three whole roots, peeled and pristine. At home I used a butcher's knife to cut one of the frozen roots into smaller hunks, added it to a pot of water, and let the cassava simmer on the stove top for about 30 minutes, until it was very tender. Drenched in a Cuban-style mojo made with bitter orange juice, lime juice, cilantro, and crushed garlic, the starchy, silky cassava offset the sharpness of the raw garlic and citrus beautifully.
I loved the subtle, nutty flavor of both the cassava meal and the vegetable itself, but what I came to appreciate above all was the way that cassava in its various forms makes it possible to modulate texture in a dish. There was the crunchy aspect of farinha de mandioca, and then there was the viscosity—a distinctive velvety plushness—that the starch from the vegetable could bring to a soup or stew. I wanted to explore that further, and so I overcame my trepidation and brought one of those knobbly, bark-covered fresh cassavas home to my kitchen. Based on advice I found in the book Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables (William Morrow, 1998) by the produce expert Elizabeth Schneider, I was careful to select one with no soft or dark spots, no creasing or withering. This one was, like many of those I'd seen, covered in wax; apparently the root that keeps for years underground doesn't hold up nearly as well once it's been picked and so requires a little protection. But in the end, both skin and wax were easily removed with an ordinary vegetable peeler. It was on the smaller side—about eight inches long, roughly the size of a big sweet potato—and when I sliced it lengthwise to remove the woody core I'd been told I'd find running down the center, there was actually very little to cut away.
In the African Cooking volume of the wonderful Time-Life Foods of the World series (Time Life, Inc.; 1970), I'd found a recipe that sounded irresistible, for an East African beef and cassava stew called muhogo tamu. I began by chopping the peeled cassava, which I boiled for a half hour and then set aside to drain. I browned some cubed boneless chuck in a Dutch oven and then removed the meat and added onions and turmeric to the flavorful fat in the pot. Once the onions had softened I put the beef back in, added some fresh tomatoes and water, and left the whole thing to simmer for an hour. Near the end of cooking, I added coconut milk, chopped jalapeños, and fresh cilantro. The cassava went in last of all. It absorbed some of the rich coconut milk, and, just as I'd hoped, it released some of its starch into the casserole, giving it body and a luscious consistency. And its mild, creamy flavor was the perfect foil for the fiery chiles. Delicious. With each forkful, I quietly thanked the ancient cooks who first cracked the code of this potentially perilous but endlessly rewarding food.