The Primordial Stew

A pot of hearty food, nicely seasoned and bubbling away in the kitchen, goes a long way toward warming winter nights.

(Photography by Patricia Lyons)

On a cold, cold night, a big pot simmers on the stove. The house smells wonderful—garlicky, spicy, heady with the warm, dark aroma that emanates from meats and vegetables and spices cooked long enough to become something greater than the sum of its parts.

     Stew is a term so broad that it’s got one of those circular definitions: a dish that’s cooked by … stewing. So we supplement with our own definitions: savory. Hot. Good for a winter’s night—serve with a salad and crusty bread, and you’ve got a meal. Good for a gathering of friends. Makes great leftovers.

     And it’s more than thick soup. Along the soup continuum, which runs from consommé to gumbo and beyond, the balance of liquid to solid tips more toward liquid; you have to eat soup from a bowl. Stew, on the other hand, involves just enough liquid to cover the solids and could be eaten off a plate (although there’s something about cupping a bowl in your hands and inhaling—stew wants a bowl). The cooking is typically long and over relatively low heat, which helps break down the fibers in tougher cuts of meat.

     That’s good, because one quirk of stew is that it tends to be made with whatever’s on hand, which often includes those lesser cuts, coarser whole spices and vegetables, even game. For instance, Brunswick stew, said to have been created in the 1800s by a slave for his master’s hunting party in Brunswick County (Virginia, not Georgia, which has its own version), featured squirrel, rabbit, corn, onions and beans—as humorist Roy Blount Jr. famously quipped, “Brunswick stew is what happens when small mammals clutching ears of corn fall into barbecue pits.” Similarly, Mulligan stew apparently originated as a mélange of whatever hobos could contribute to the pot bubbling over a fire in the train yard. In Kentucky, it was called burgoo. In fact, because availability of ingredients so often depends on geography, many stews are named according to where they’re from and then to their central ingredient: Georgian pork stew, Provençal fish stew, Irish beef stew, Moroccan lamb stew.

     The main ingredient in all? Heat. Or is it? M.F.K. Fisher, in a 1950 essay entitled “Honest Is Good,” in Good Cooking—The Complete Cooking Companion, had another take on what makes this comfort food truly magical:

“I remember the best stew I ever ate,” she wrote. “It was not a bouillabaisse at Isnards’s in Marseille. It was made, further south on the Mediterranean at Cassis, by a very old small woman, for a great lusty batch of relatives and other people she loved. Little grand-nephews dove for equally young octopi and delicate sea eggs, and older sons sent their rowboats silently up the dark calanques for rockfish lurking among the sunken German U-boats from the First War, and grizzling cousins brought in from the deep sea a fine catch of rays and other curious scaly monsters. Little girls and their mothers and great-aunts went up into the bone-dry hills for aromatic leaves and blossoms, and on the way home picked up a few bottles of herby wine from the tiny vineyards they worked in the right seasons.

     “The very old woman cooked and pounded and skinned and ruminated, and at about noon, two days later, we met in her one-room house and spent some twenty more hours, as I remember, eating and eating … and talking and singing and then eating again, from seemingly bottomless pots of the most delicious stew in my whole life. It had been made with love.”


(Photography by Patricia Lyons)

BRUNSWICK STEW

4 slices bacon

1⁄4 cup safflower oil

2 rabbits, cut into 6 pieces each

4 turkey legs

2 large onions, halved and sliced

3 cups chicken stock

1 bay leaf

5–6 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bags frozen and shelled edamame

2 bags frozen white corn

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

Preheat oven to 350. In a deep, heavy-bottomed, oven-proof pan, brown the bacon in the oil, then drain on paper towels. Season the rabbit and turkey with salt and pepper. Brown well in the oil, remove and drain on paper towels. Sauté the onion for 8–10 minutes, scraping browned bits from the pan. Return the bacon to the pan, and add the chicken stock, bay leaf and thyme. When the liquid has heated through, return all the meat to the pan, cover it and bake for 1 1⁄2 hours. Remove from oven, and remove the rabbit to cool. Add the edamame, corn and tomatoes. Return the pan to the oven. When the rabbit is cool enough to handle, pull the meat from the bones. Return the meat to the stew. Cook for another 15 minutes. Check seasoning, and serve with cornbread.


(Photography by Patricia Lyons)

PORK AND GREEN CHILI STEW

1⁄4 cup safflower oil

4 cups pork, cubed

1 1⁄2 teaspoons cumin

1⁄4 teaspoon smoked paprika

1⁄2 teaspoon chili powder

2 1⁄2 tablespoons salt

2 large onions, diced medium (about 6 cups)

3 large poblano peppers, deseeded and diced medium

1 4-ounce can diced, fire-roasted green chilies

8 cups water

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. When very hot, add the pork and brown well. Remove the pork and drain on paper towels. Sauté the onions and poblanos 5–6 minutes, scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the spices and continue to cook for 4–5 minutes. Return the pork to the pan. Add the diced green chilies and the water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 40–45 minutes on low heat, until thick. Check the seasoning.

CORN STICKS

1 cup blue cornmeal

1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour

1 1⁄2 teaspoons black pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1 1⁄4 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons butter

Mix the dry ingredients. Melt the butter. Beat the eggs with the buttermilk. Combine the three and add to the dry ingredients. Bake in a greased mold at 400 degrees for 8–10 minutes.


(Photography by Patricia Lyons)

SALMON AND CORN CHOWDER

—adapted from Simply Stews, by Susan Wyler

1 1⁄2 pounds salmon fillet, skinned, deboned and cut into 1-inch pieces

salt

black pepper, freshly ground

4 large ears sweet corn

2 tablespoons butter

1⁄4 pound applewood-smoked bacon, diced small

2 medium onions, diced

3⁄4 cup dry white wine

1 cup clam juice

2 cups whole milk

1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne

4 medium red potatoes, peeled and cut into 3⁄4-inch dice

1 cup heavy cream

1⁄4 cup fresh chives, minced

Season the fish lightly with salt and pepper, then cover and refrigerate. Cut the kernels off three of the ears of corn, and use a hand grater (large holes) on the fourth. Set the corn aside. In a large, flameproof casserole, melt the butter over medium heat. Sauté bacon until lightly browned. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside. Add onions and sauté until golden. Pour in the wine, turn the heat to high and boil until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the clam juice, milk and cayenne, and return to a boil. Add the potatoes, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 8 minutes. Add the corn and cream and cook for another 3–5 minutes, until the corn is tender but still toothy. Add the salmon and bacon and simmer until the fish is opaque, about 5–7 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the chives, and serve immediately, sprinkling some of the remaining chives onto each serving.


(Photography by Patricia Lyons)

CURRIED WINTER VEGETABLE STEW

1 large butternut squash

16 cups water

2 carrots

2 parsnips

2 ribs celery, diced

one small onion

1⁄2 ounce fresh ginger, cut into nickel-size slices

1 ounce fresh cilantro, with stems, chopped

2 tablespoons salt

2 whole cardamom pods, crushed

1 tablespoon peppercorns

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds

1⁄2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 small bay leaf

FOR THE STOCK:

Peel the squash, carrots and parsnips, and remove the seeds and fibrous membrane from the squash. Place all the peelings and seeds in a large oven-proof pot with the water. Add the onion, cilantro, salt, cardamom, peppercorns, fenugreek, cumin and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, skim any foam that rises, and simmer over low heat for one hour, until reduced by half. Strain—you should have about 8 cups.

FOR THE STEW:

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

6 cups butternut squash, cut into

1-inch dice

2 cups parsnips, cut into 1-inch dice

2 cups rutabagas, cut into 1-inch dice

2 carrots, cut into 1-inch dice

1 head cauliflower, in florets

3 cloves garlic, sliced

3 teaspoons salt

1 1⁄2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1⁄2 teaspoon turmeric

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne (optional)

In a large roasting pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions for 4–5 minutes. Add the other vegetables—except for the cauliflower—and sauté over medium heat for 8–10 minutes. Add all the spices and continue to cook for 1–2 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and the cauliflower florets. Add 6 cups of strained stock. Bring to a boil and bake, covered, in a 350-degree oven for one hour. Correct seasoning as necessary, and serve with brown rice.


Photography by Patricia Lyons, styling by Sarah Spencer Hurst, and food by J Frank.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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