My Family Recipe

A Dumpling-Filled Stew That Tastes Like a Giant Hug Feels

Why this professional chef makes her grandma's stew peas once a month.

March 19, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Samantha Davis is the chef de cuisine at lauded New York City restaurant Henry. She runs a popular catering business, Savor by Sam. Next month, her forthcoming fast-casual rice spot FieldTrip—another collaboration with chef JJ Johnson, who runs Henry—will open. To say that she has a full schedule would be a gross understatement. In fact, when I meet Davis to talk about family recipes, she's just barely landed back in New York City from cooking at SOBEWFF in Miami, and she has a long list of things to tackle around the city before service at Henry begins that evening.

And yet, there's one dish that Davis still manages to make time to cook at home regularly, just for fun: her grandma's stew peas and spinners. For Davis, growing up, it was "one of those dishes that felt like a hug." Stew peas calls in coconut milk, red beans, salted pork, beef, and peppers for a velvety, cozy stew studded with long dumplings that gets served hot over rice.

I sat down with Davis to learn more about how it became her favorite family recipe, and why it's still a staple in her everyday life.


EQ: Before we get into stew peas, I'd love to hear more about how you became a chef. You made the move from cancer research—what was that like?

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“Please share how your grandmother made this a vegetarian dish for you. Thank you!”
— Leanna
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SD: Being a first-generation American—my parents are both from Jamaica—it's sort of a common thread in immigrant households that the only sort of career paths your parents want to hear about you having is being a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or an architect. Something solid that's going to make you more successful than them, and really plant your feet in this new country that they've come to.

Luckily for them, I was always pretty good at math and science. But I also had a lot of creativity brewing, and early on I felt like food was a great vehicle to get that creativity out.

But in my childhood, it was sort of limited, because my parents are Rastafarian so I grew up vegetarian. Now you can be a vegetarian and have the most amazing dinner and spread—but in the '80s, there wasn't really much, especially in a Jamaican household where there were just certain things you eat and certain things you didn't eat. Growing up, I knew about other foods but wasn't really super exposed to them.

Going back to my career, I went to college and excelled in that. I knew that I didn't want to go back home—I wanted to live in New York. I sort of fell into cancer research because I was applying to jobs that went along with my degree. The first job I got offered was to be a research assistant at NYU. I have a mind where I like to learn. Doesn't matter what I'm learning about—I always like to learn. During that time, with what was going on in medicine and research, a lot of new things were happening. But that excitement doesn't always translate to passion.

So as much as I enjoyed what I was doing, I didn't feel fulfilled. Nine to five, I went to work. Five to nine, I would have these elaborate dinner parties at my apartment, or on the weekends. Food was always that new discovery place for me. I sort of hit a wall—I was like, I've bought everything I thought I ever wanted, I've traveled, and I'm still not happy. I didn't want to disappoint my parents, but I also didn't want to live an unfulfilled life. I started a catering company, Savor by Sam, in 2010, thinking that would sort of quiet the noise.

EQ: And that was on the side of your full-time job.

SD: As my name and the company name started to go around, I was like, "Well, I've learned a lot on my own—but I really want to know more." I wanted restaurant experience. I started working with a woman I met at her supper club. I'd go there from work, from 6 p.m. until 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. And that was literally my life for almost three years. I helped her open her first restaurant, Birds & Bubbles. Right when we opened that is when I took a really good look in the mirror, and I was like, "My mother is going to hate me, but I'm making the jump."

I left a six-figure job to work in a restaurant, and it was one of probably the best decisions I ever made in my life. It was an instant fulfillment that I felt.

I left a six-figure job to work in a restaurant, and it was one of probably the best decisions I ever made in my life. It was an instant fulfillment that I felt.
Samantha Davis

EQ: You mentioned lots of dinner and brunch parties on the side, before you became a chef full-time. How your cooking style evolved (or not) since you were cooking for fun, versus as a professional chef?

SD: Sometimes I feel like I don't have my own personal style as much. Starting as a caterer, I'm used to cooking what people tell me they want or like. But that's why I wanted restaurant experience, because I knew deep down that I knew how to develop recipes—I knew deep down that I knew how to meld flavors.

I like to infuse my background and heritage into everything that I make. I think flavors and ingredients tell a bigger story. They tell not only personal stories, but stories of people and where we come from and the journey that certain ingredients have taken. That's something that we tell a story of here at The Henry. A lot of our dishes and ingredients and flavors are from the journey of people out of West Africa through the West Indies and South America.

EQ: Do you consider your parents an influence to the way you cook?

SD: It's so funny—I tell my mother all the time that if I ever write a cookbook, I'm going to dedicate it to her, because of the fact that she could not cook. I think that was what sort of pushed me. My father doesn't do too bad, but definitely the cook in my family—and this is very cliché—was my grandmother. I feel like everyone has that story, but it's so true it is something about grandma dishes that are just life-changing.

The recipe I'm sharing with you is actually my grandma's recipe. And she knows the deal. When I see her, she's like, "Hi Sammy!" and I'm like, "Don't even talk to me. Get it started. Put it on the stove. And then we can do the hugs and kisses but you've got to start the stew peas first."

EQ: Is it a dish she made a lot when you were growing up?

SD: She actually came to this country after my mother, and she lived in Florida. When she would come up and visit us or vice versa, it was just one of those dishes that felt like a hug. I felt like I was surviving off of a lot of takeout and quickly thrown-together meals by my mom, who was working a lot trying to establish herself in a new country, so she didn't really have a lot of time to cook.

When we got to see my grandmother, it was her making this was a huge pot of this, us taking it home, putting it in the freezer, and anytime I missed her, or just wanted something really hearty, it was there.

When my grandmother made this dish for me, it was like Thanksgiving—I was stuffed, I could go to bed happy. You know that full-belly feeling. And from early on, I always craved it. It's so hearty: red beans, dumplings, this really nice stew-texture, all over rice. It's a bowl of love.

I think flavors and ingredients tell a bigger story. They tell not only personal stories, but stories of people and where we come from and the journey that certain ingredients have taken
Samantha Davis

EQ: Do you have a memory of the first time you tasted it?

SD: I can't pinpoint it, but I knew that it was special because traditionally in Jamaica it's made with either salt beef or salt pork—that's the recipe I gave to you. But I just felt so special because she found a way to make it without meat in it! So that just made it feel all the more special to me. She would make it with meat for other family members.

EQ: How often do you make stew peas now?

SD: At least once a month in the winter. Like I said, you can make a huge pot of it, eat a little bit, and it freezes amazingly. It's one of those dishes that doesn't lose its integrity. You can make it in 15 minutes with canned red beans, but if you use the dried beans, it really keeps that integrity of the bean and it freezes perfectly. And the broth is really nice and creamy and starchy, and you just make a little fresh rice and it is so perfect.

When my grandmother made this dish for me, it was like Thanksgiving—I was stuffed, I could go to bed happy. You know that full-belly feeling. And from early on, I always craved it. It's so hearty: red beans, dumplings, this really nice stew-texture, all over rice. It's a bowl of love.
Samantha Davis

EQ: That's saying something—once a month, roughly! Because I imagine as a chef, you probably aren't home for dinner all too much.

SD: I always laugh at my fiancée—I'm like, "Are you sure you want to marry a chef that doesn't cook for you?" He definitely does most of the cooking in our household, but I try to at least once a month make big-batch items, whether it's a huge pot of soup, or stew peas, or chili or something.

EQ: What are your favorite ways to riff on stew peas, when you're not following the recipe to a tee? You mentioned canned beans.

SD: Canned beans are the easiest way to alter this dish. You open up two cans of red kidney beans and instead of going through the whole soaking process, you just go to the pot. Cook them a little bit and then put in your butter and your coconut milk. You don't have to use red kidney beans. You can use any variation of bean.

EQ: Do you have any tips for how to shape the dumplings?

SD: Traditionally, they're called spinners. You take about a tablespoon of the dough—there really is no recipe, it's all about texture and consistency. You want it to be a little tacky and sticky, but not too much. So you're always adding a little bit more flour, adding a little bit more water. But when you can roll the dough in your hands and it sticks a little bit but doesn't leave pasty residue on your hand, that's when you know it's ready. Put it in your hands and you're just going back and forth and it forms this really long—what looks like a little pig tail, honestly. Do it over the pot. When it gets to the thickness that you want, about half an inch, drop it in the pot.

Photo by Samantha Davis

I have to tell you, making dumplings was probably one of the most exciting things of my childhood. When it got to that time for the dumplings to go in, I would sprint across the house to get to the kitchen. And that was always the part of the dish that I would fight over, like, "I want more dumplings! I want more dumplings!" So, being allowed to come into the kitchen—my grandma would pull a chair up to the counter and let me make dumplings—I was in heaven.

EQ: When you cook with your grandmother now, do you still make the dumplings?

SD: I do. But now it's more like, "Grandma, let me do it." As opposed to her giving me the task, I'm sort of taking it from her, so that she doesn't have to do too much.

EQ: When make the dish at home now, do you make extra dumplings?

SD: Absolutely. I'm a little selfish when it comes to my dumplings. If I have to share, I'll make more, so that I have the set amount, and everyone can fight over the rest.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


What's your favorite family dish? Tell us the story in the comments!

4 Comments

Leanna March 23, 2019
Please share how your grandmother made this a vegetarian dish for you. Thank you!
 
stellanyc March 24, 2019
Would also love to see the vegetarian version!
 
sherrybakes March 22, 2019
Would ham hocks be a reasonable substitute for pig tails?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 22, 2019
Hi Sherry,

Sam says this dish is very forgiving—you can make any substitutions for the meat (she also mentioned smoked turkey necks work well).

Ella