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Steamed tilapia with spicy kale

Excitement comes with a culinary gift, carefully carried home like secret treasure from a distant place, delivered by a traveling friend or family member. Sweet paprika from Hungary, fennel pollen from Italy, coffee beans from Ecuador, or a cookbook from a specific locale, bring home to us a sense of place unlike our own. The unusual wrappers with fancy fonts by themselves evoke a sense of wonder and a cause for wanderlust.

If given a choice, I would rather receive the treasure of food stuff than a cookbook as a gift. Cookbooks are so personal. I choose them like I choose literature or history books. I like to be unanchored and captured by a book, separated from everyday existence, taken to another world, stimulated and challenged by someone else’s thoughts, shown something new.

Which is what happened to me as I searched through Portia de Smidt’s The Africa Café Experience cookbook, gifted to me by my son returning from a trip to South Africa. At first I was simply charmed by the vibrant photos and the narrative about the history of the restaurant, its founding family and supportive community in Cape Town.

Then, the author’s short introduction and description to each recipe, some collected from family and others inspired by her own travels, drew me in. It wasn’t until I had an occasion to cook an African dish for a Dining for Women dinner that I cooked from the book. I was looking for something simple, flavorful and amenable to American taste.

I cooked up de Smidt’s Imifino (Spinach) and Fish, which she introduces as “an old family favorite” and describes as a recipe that “takes on the character of the maker” with each of her “numerous aunties” adding their own “style to the dish.”

My adaptation is a work in progress. As an auntie, I’ll keep working on my version with variations like swiss chard for greens, and a substitution of curry powder and cumin or maybe some fresh chopped ginger for the spices. I’m cooking in Phoenix, with a dollop of Cape Town on my mind.


Ingredients-serves 4

14 oz fresh kale, remove tough stem ends, rough chop

4 tilapia fillets

2-4 Tablespoons olive oil, just enough to coat bottom of pan

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika

1 teaspoon cayenne (use 1/2 teaspoon for mild spicy result)

4 Tablespoons vegetable stock or 2 Tablespoons white wine

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Lemon, slice for garnish

Step 1. Heat a heavy bottomed sauté pan. Add oil, when oil is hot, not smoking, add onions and sauté until translucent.

Step 2. Add kale, cover pan and cook until kale begins to wilt, about 3 minutes.

Add kale to onions and wilt

Step 3. Sprinkle paprika and cayenne over onions and kale.

Sprinkle and stir in spices

Cover pan and continue to cook until kale is tender, about 3-4 additional minutes.

Step 4. Stir vegetable stock or white wine into pan.

Step 5. Layer fish on top of kale and onion mixture. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover pan and steam fish until opaque, about 7 minutes.

Serve: Remove fish with a rigid spatula. Place kale mixture on a plate, top with fish and a wedge of lemon. Serve with rice or flatbread.