living underground in the real world

Ethiopian wat with savory teff muffins

Wat, you’re going to like it.

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Though I should say that one of my former clients really hated it. She once said to me, “I just hate that wat dish. Can I never have it again?” Ahh, cookin’ for money, gotta love it.

In the defense of the wat, said client was…how can I put this? Secretly racist. She was always complaining about any dish that wasn’t Jewy or tomato saucey or pasta-y (and yes, telling her that there are lots of Jews in Ethiopia didn’t help matters any). Anything too “ethnic” bothered her, and she was always struggling to explain to me that “my family…we just don’t want kind of stuff.”

Sigh. But you, my pretties, you will like this. Oh, also! I’ve changed the dish a lot since then. It used to have all this super authentic stuff in it, like mint. Here’s a tip: people really hate mint in anything savory. What is that whole dead lamb + mint jelly thing all about? In my experience everyone hates mint in hot food.

So, wat. As I understand it, wat is any sort of stewy dish, and of course there are myriad variations. The wats I’ve had in Ethiopian restaurants have all been finely chopped vegetable stews, but my clients get sort of weird if I chop things up too fine–they want to see what they are eating. And I want to show off my gorgeous vegetables, so my wat is super chunky.

Here’s the simplest wat formula:

Sautéed onions + a nice fat like olive oil + a spice mix called berbere (more on that soon) + any vegs + water+ cooking time = wat.

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Here’s how I do it:

Wat

Oh, first, a note about quantities. Like most chefs, I don’t really measure. The measurements for the spice mix are accurate proportionally to what I use, but it might end up making too much for your stew—use your innate good judgment and only add half (or a quarter) if it looks like it will be too strong. Save the rest in the freezer for next time!

I didn’t give quantities for the vegetables because I eyeball all that. Thus, I can’t really tell you how much this makes. I suggest you think of my recipes not as hard rules, but as techniques and notes intended to teach you to rely on your own cooking instincts. So, use as many vegetables as feels good to you.

Berbere spice mix:

1/4 c cumin seeds
2 Tb. whole coriander seeds
3″ cinnamon stick, preferably soft Mexican cinnamon
1 Tb. whole fenugreek seeds
9 whole cloves
1 Tb. red pepper flakes
1/4 ts. whole ajwain seeds (leave out if you can’t find them)
1 Tb ground cardamom, optional
1/4 ts ground nutmeg

Wat:

10 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3” ginger, peeled and minced
olive oil
grape seed or canola oil
3-4 onions, diced
any nice seasonal green thing: fiddlehead ferns, asparagus, ramps, bok choy, whatever looks tasty!
carrots or another nice earthy long-cooking vegetable
some lovely chopped wild mushrooms, or cultivated mushrooms, or no mushrooms
5# seitan, chopped into bite-sized pieces
homemade vegetable stock or water as needed
optional garnish: fresh mint or cilantro leaves

  1. Toast all whole spices and red pepper flakes in a saucepan until aromatic. Grind in spice grinder. Mix with cardamom and nutmeg and set aside. Instead of all this, you can buy some berbere at a good spice shop, since that is basically what you are making. Making it yourself looks time-consuming but really takes about 5 minutes, max.
  2. Sauté onions in a whole lotta olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stew pot until nice and crispy. They are the umami-rich base of the whole dish, so don’t undercook them! Then you’re going to make a kind of roux with the spice mix: add it to the onions and add another glub of olive oil. A roux usually uses equal parts fat and flour (in this case, spices), but don’t go crazy and measure it, that’s ridiculous. It should be pretty oily though. Whisk like crazy and turn the heat up to medium—no lumps! Whisk! When it’s cooked a few minutes and is bubbly, add the ginger and garlic and very important: have some water or stock or water mixed with shoyu (my go-to faux-stock) on hand to toss into the pot, because hot roux looks harmless but will give you the most intense burns you will ever see. It doesn’t look like much is happening when you’re whisking it, but the second you add that garlic and ginger it will bubble and sizzle and go nuts. Have water ready to add and get your arm out of the way, but then go back and whisk the hell out of it when it all calms down, otherwise you’ll have lumps. Keep cooking another 2-3 minutes or so. (You know what would be nice at this point that you could add? Tomato paste. Add a few tablespoons and cook it a little in the roux.)
  3. Sauté all your other vegetables and seitan in grape seed oil (separately, or else they will steam) until lightly browned. If you have super fresh green veggies that cook quickly, don’t bother sautéing them.
  4. Add everything back to the stew roux pot, including any fresh green veggies. Add liquid to make it nice and juicy.
  5. Simmer 20-30 minutes, then garnish with the optional mint or cilantro. Done!

Now! What delicious carb are you going to have with your awesome stew? Usually injera, that tasty sour fermented gorgeous bread, is served with wat. I can’t make injera for my clients because it doesn’t keep, so I used to make a polenta-type thing with teff instead. Oh, what’s teff? Here’s what I tell my clients about teff on the menu sheet I send with this meal:

Although until recently teff was unknown outside Ethiopia, these days the teff available in the US usually comes from Idaho, as the Ethiopian government discourages its cultivation for lack of economic value and because warfare in Ethiopia has caused the loss of many valuable teff varieties in the last few decades [holy run-on sentence!]. Apparently the Snake River Valley in Idaho is quite similar to the Ethiopian climate, so about 20 years ago American entrepreneurs started working with Ethiopians living in American metropolitan areas and re-established the relation between Ethiopians and their favorite grain. Teff from Idaho is grown with “ecologically sensitive farming methods” in “fertile fields,” according to the website of the producer.

You might have met teff in the form of the teff flour that is often used to make injera, the delicious spongy, tangy, addictive flatbread available in Ethiopian restaurants. The next time you are in an Ethiopian restaurant, make sure to request teff injera, to make sure you get the real thing and not a millet or wheat variety which can be less flavorful.

Teff is so tiny that 150 grains weigh the same as a single kernel of wheat, and has a lovely sweet flavor. Since teff is too small to hull, it can’t be refined or lose nutritional value, and it’s gluten free. The dark chocolate variety in this dish is the most flavorful. It is high in protein (for a grain), is loaded with calcium, and is an excellent source of iron, zinc, and copper.

The teff polenta thingie was never really amazing, though, to tell the truth. So, the last time I made this dish I did the rarest of rare feats and improvised a baked good with a flour I don’t normally use, and, incredibly, it turned out awesomely! I made it one more time for good measure, and I think it’s pretty solid. Then I had a bunch extra and ate them the rest of the week and only liked them when toasted. I think they are best right out of the oven.

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Savory Teff Muffins

completely modified in every way from a recipe on the Bob’s Red Mill Teff Flour package; makes 12

1/2 c brown sugar
3/4 c teff flour
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 ts. baking powder
1/4 ts. baking soda
1/2 ts. cinnamon
1/4 ts. sea salt
1/4 c flax seed “eggs”
1/3 c olive oil
2/3 c water
1/4 c caramelized onions –if you are smart you will make some extra when making the wat!
coarse sugar, for sprinkling on the muffins

The standard straight mix method, pretty much:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Whisk up the dry ingredients.
  3. Blend up the wet ingredients, including the onions.
  4. Quickly combine and barely mix, then fill muffin cups 3/4 full. Sprinkle with the coarse sugar.
  5. Bake 20-25 minutes. Yums!

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5 Responses to “Ethiopian wat with savory teff muffins”

  1. veronica

    Ooh, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this post, especially the muffin recipe!

    I had no idea Teff was grown in Idaho, that’s pretty ‘frickin cool!

    Yum!

    Reply

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