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Exploring Stew: History of the One-Pot Meal and Worldwide Recipes
I have nothing to put in my stew, you see,
Not a bone or a bean or a black-eyed pea,
So I'll just climb in the pot to see
If I can make a stew out of me.
I'll put in some pepper and salt and I'll sit
In the bubbling water--I won't scream a bit.
I'll sing while I simmer, I'll smile while I'm stewing,
I'll taste myself often to see how I'm doing.
I'll stir me around with this big wooden spoon
And serve myself up at a quarter to noon.
So bring out your stew bowls,
You gobblers and snackers.
Farewell--and I hope you enjoy me with crackers!
Oh how ghoulish! A perfect poem for this time of year, and what an introduction to the topic "stew". A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the history of soup.
Soup, Stew, What's the Difference?
Well, those who pen the definitions in dictionaries agree that stew (the noun) is "a dish of meat, fish, or other food, cooked by stewing." On the other hand, soup is "a liquid food made by boiling or simmering meat, fish, or vegetables with various added ingredients."
Many people and cultures present soup as an appetizer--a clear broth with or without a few beautifully prepared vegetables simmered within, or a cold vegetable or fruit appetizer (great in summer!).
Stew is not an appetizer, nor a light introduction to the main course.
It is the main course, the star of the show, and the perfect comfort food for those days when there is more darkness than daylight, when outdoor temperatures begin their descent toward freezing, and (this human) dreams of hibernation.
In The Beginning
When was stew invented?
There is no way to come up with a definitive answer, but the advent of combining ingredients in a pot to create a nutritious, filling, easy-to-digest meal (“stew”) probably occurred some moments after the discovery of fire, or perhaps more precisely, when prehistoric man took that first step in learning how to cook—learning how to boil water.
In her book, Food in History, Raey Tannahill states that we knew about boiling water long before the invention of pottery (about 6,000 B.C.). She believes that prehistoric men used reptile shells or the stomachs of animals they had killed as vessels in which to boil liquid.
And, after learning to boil water, man made another discovery. Boiling foods not only makes them taste better, it creates new flavors. Cereal grains and some root vegetables, when heated in water, break down, soften, and release starchy granules. These starches then thicken the cooking liquid, the flavors of the individual ingredients combine, and a stew is created.
So What Are the Basic Parts of Stew?
Basically, any combination of two or more ingredients simmer in a liquid (broth) is a “stew”. Beef Stroganoff, Coq au Vin, Paella, Hungarian Goulash—all of these are a stew.
Goulash dates back to the 9th century, a sustaining dish prepared by Magyar shepherds. Byron mentioned Irish stew in his ‘Devils’ Drive (1814):
The Devil…dined on…a rebel or so in an Irish stew.”
Archeological remnants have been found to show that stew was a common food for Vikings and our European ancestors throughout the Middle East. Stew was eaten by princes and paupers alike, carried to the New World, and travelled across the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. It sustained cowboys on the cattle drive, nourished a generation through the Great Depression, and has been a part of human existence for …millennia.
Equipment You Will Need
- Large stockpot with lid
- Kitchen twine
- Knife for slicing
- Cutting board
- Large sauté pan
This first one is adapted from a traditional French recipe.
I have replaced the conventional duck confit with chicken tenders--certainly easier to obtain, much less costly, and more aligned to the typical American palette.
Be forewarned--this is an all-day recipe. Not something that you can whip up for the family when you get home from work. Plan ahead. A great meal for leisurely cooking in the kitchen on the weekend.
All Day Cassoulet
- 2 cups Great Northern or dried navy beans (see Note below)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 medium onion
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 medium carrot
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders
- 1 1/2 pounds sausage (I like Aidell's chicken sausage but use whatever you prefer), sliced
- 2 large onions, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 1 can (14 oz.) diced tomatoes
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 4 cups coarsely torn fresh bread (preferably from a crusty, rustic loaf)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
About Preparing Beans
There are two ways to prepare dried beans. The first, and the one you are probably most familiar with, is to sort them (there COULD be rocks hiding in there), place in a pot, cover with water and let soak overnight. I don't know about you, but I don't often (ever?) plan that far ahead. If cooking beans means that I need to prepare the night before, cooked beans aren't going to happen in my house. There's another method--an easier method and it works just as well. Sort the beans, place them in a cooking pot (with lid) and cover with water. You want the water to go about 2 inches over the top of the beans. Bring a a full boil over high heat and boil for one minute. Turn off the heat, put on the lid and let them sit for one hour. No peaking! OK, now you're ready to proceed with the remainder of the recipe.
First, cook the beans:
Cut a square of cheesecloth, about 6-8 inches. Place the bay leaf, rosemary, and thyme in the middle of the square and tie up with string/kitchen twine. You want the herbs to flavor the beans, but you don't want them (especially the rosemary leaves) to get lost in the broth. This little bundle is referred to as a bouquet garni (yes, it's French!).
Push the cloves into the onion; place the onion, celery stalk, and carrot to the pot. Add enough cold water to cover to about one inch above. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer gently until beans are tender throughout but not falling apart, 40 to 50 minutes. Discard the onion, celery, carrot and bouquet garni. Set the beans aside--DON'T drain!
Next, the meats and vegetables:
While the beans are simmering prepare the meats. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the chicken tenders about 5 minutes, or until browned on all sides. Don't overcrowd the pan or the chicken will steam and not brown. It's best to cook in small batches. Remove the browned chicken pieces to a plate and set aside.
To the same pan add the sausage and cook about 5 minutes or just until it begins to brown and caramelize. Remove to the same plate as the chicken.
Now add the diced onion to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion becomes translucent and begins to color. Toss in the garlic slices and cook an additional minute. Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
Now, get ready to assemble the casserole:
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
Using a skimmer, remove half of the beans from their pot and place in the bottom of a Dutch oven. The next layer is one-half of the tomatoes.
Next, the chicken, sausage and onions, followed by the remaining tomatoes and the remaining beans. Add enough cooking liquid so the beans are almost, but not quite, submerged. Reserve the remaining liquid.
Transfer pot to oven and cook, uncovered, for 2 hours. Check the liquid every 30 minutes to make sure it is no more than 1/2 inch below the beans, and add liquid or water as necessary. Do not stir.
After the Cassoulet has cooked for 2 hours, toss bread and butter in a bowl. Sprinkle over Cassoulet, and return to oven until beans are tender and bread is golden, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Before serving, let Cassoulet stand at room temperature for 20 minutes to cool and to allow the beans to absorb some of the liquid.
I created this (winning) recipe several years ago in response to a contest sponsored by the magazine Better Homes and Gardens. It showcases the ingredients indigenous to the Pacific Northwest--salmon, mushrooms, and fresh asparagus.
Pacific NW Paella
- 4 slices applewood smoked bacon
- 8 oz. fresh crimini or button mushrooms, sliced
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup uncooked long grain white rice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 14-oz can chicken broth
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 lb. salmon filet, cut 1-inch thick
- 1 lb. asparagus spears
- 4 oz. smoked salmon, skinned and flaked
- 1 roma tomato, chopped (about 1/3 cup)
- In a large deep skillet or paella pan, cook the bacon over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally. Drain bacon on paper towels. Crumble bacon and set aside. Reserve drippings in skillet.
- Stir the mushrooms, onion, and garlic into the bacon drippings. Cook and stir about 5 minutes or until the onion is tender. Stir in rice and olive oil, stirring to coat rice. Add chicken broth and water. Bring mixture to boiling; reduce heat. Stimmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cut salmon into 1-inch pieces; set aside. Snap off and discard woody bases from fresh asparagus. Cut asparagus into 1-inch pieces; set aside.
- Place salmon pieces around the edge of the pan. Sprinkle the asparagus over all. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes more.
- Add smoked salmon, arranging in a circle inside of salmon chunks. Sprinkle the tomato in the center. Cover and simmer 5 minutes or until asparagus is tender.
- Sprinkle crumbled bacon over all.
I adapted this recipe from one published in the October 2006 issue of Sunset Magazine, "Mushroom Potato Soup with Smoked Paprika". That original recipe called for dried porcinis, pancetta, wine, and chicken stock. A great recipe, but I decided to play with it a bit to turn into a vegetarian meal that my entire family could enjoy
Earthy Mushroom Stew
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter, unsalted
- 1 cup yellow onion, minced
- 5 cups mushrooms, sliced
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 cups russet potato, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 cup wide noodles, (I used No Yolk egg noodles)
- 3 cups mushroom broth, * (see note below)
- Place olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add butter. When butter is melted toss in onion; cook about 5 minutes or until soft and beginning to color slightly. Add sliced mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are browned--about 5 minutes more. Stir in paprika and tomato paste. Cook for about 2 minutes to meld flavors and remove from heat. Set aside.
- Bring 2 quarts water to boil in a large saucepan. Add diced potatoes; cook for 10 minutes and then remove with skimmer and set aside. In same saucepan cook the noodles according to package directions. Remove with skimmer and set aside.
- Reserve 2 cups of cooking liquid from the saucepan and set aside.
- Place the mushroom broth in the saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the reserved potatoes, noodles, 2 cups reserved cooking liquid, and onion/mushroom mixture. Simmer until heated--about 5 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
- * I used creamy portabello, but you could use vegetable broth, or (if you aren't worried about creating a vegetarian meal) chicken or beef broth.
Carb Diva's Hungarian Goulash
- 3 pounds beef for stew, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 tsp. olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups chopped onions
- 4 cups beef broth
- 1/2 pound potatoes, grated, about 3/4 cup
- 1 tablespoon paprika, (sweet Hungarian or smoked)
- 1 tablespoon tomato sauce
- 1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
- 3/4 pound potatoes, peeled and diced, about 1 1/2 cups
- 1 cup dry noodles (or see recipe below for spaetzle)
- Heat olive oil in 4-quart Dutch oven over medium heat; add about 1/3 of the beef to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally until browned on all sides. Remove from pan and repeat with remaining beef. It is important to not crowd the pan. If the pieces of beef are too close together they will not brown properly--instead they will simply steam. Add more oil to the pan as needed.
- To the same pan stir in the onions and cook until onions begin to brown. Return browned beef chunks to the pan. Stir in remaining ingredients except diced potatoes and noodles. Heat to boiling; reduce heat and cover. Simmer 1 1/2 hours or until meat is tender. Note that the grated potatoes will fall apart--they are intended to thicken the soup.
- Stir in diced potatoes and noodles and continue to cook until potatoes and noodles are cooked through.
- If using the recipe for spaetzle in place of dry noodles, stir just the potatoes into the stew. Add the cooked spaetzle in the last minute or two of cooking--they are already cooked and just need to be heated through.
But, If You Want to Take This to the Next Level
In place of the noodles you could use cooked spaetzle (a German noodle dumpling):
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons milk
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. In another mixing bowl, whisk the egg and milk together. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the egg-milk mixture. Gradually draw in the flour from the sides and combine well; the dough should be smooth and thick. Let the dough rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot, then reduce to a simmer. To form the spaetzle, hold a large holed colander or slotted spoon over the simmering water and push the dough through the holes with a spatula or spoon. Do this in batches so you don't overcrowd the pot. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until the spaetzle floats to the surface, stirring gently to prevent sticking. Dump the spaetzle into a colander and give it a quick rinse with cool water.
© 2015 Linda Lum