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Exploring Stew: History of the One-Pot Meal and Worldwide Recipes

Updated on May 24, 2018
Carb Diva profile image

Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

Stew!
Stew!

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!

--Shel Silverstein

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.

The Recipes

All American Beef Stew

For our first recipe, I wanted to share with you a traditional "American Beef Stew." There are 992,000 (give or take a few) recipes on the internet but for the very best, I know I can rely on Kenji of SeriousEats.

This is more than a mere recipe. Kenji takes the time (and supplies wonderful photographs) to explain how to select the perfect cut of beef, the proper searing of the meat, preparation of the vegetables, and how to amp up the umami flavors.

Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon

Julia Child was an American chef, author, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American public with her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her recipe for beef bourguignon is a classic and the original broadcast from her show "The French Chef" is in the video below.

Earthy Mushroom Stew

Click thumbnail to view full-size

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

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter, unsalted
  • 1 cup yellow onion, minced
  • 5 cups mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 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)

Instructions

  1. 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, black pepper, and tomato paste. Cook for about 2 minutes to meld flavors and remove from heat. Set aside.
  2. 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.
  3. Reserve 2 cups of cooking liquid from the saucepan and set aside.
  4. 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.
  5. * 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

Ingredients

  • 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)

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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 for the 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.
  3. Stir in diced potatoes and noodles and continue to cook until potatoes and noodles are cooked through.
  4. 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.

Spaetzle

spaetzle ready to be tossed into the goulash
spaetzle ready to be tossed into the goulash

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):

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

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    • Carb Diva profile image
      Author

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Chefmancave - I agree; nothing from a can will ever taste as good as home made. When you make it yourself you always know what is inside. As for "stoup", I think that's a good name for the soups that my mother made. In her kitchen soup was not an appetizer--it was the meal and was so thick you could eat it with a fork (hey, didn't Chunky Soups use that?). Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

    • chefmancave profile image

      Robert Loescher 2 years ago from Michigan

      Great article. A super job showing the diversity of "stew".

      Rachel Ray coined a word "stoup" - a mixture between stew and soup. My favorite recipe from her is Meatball Stoup. I grew up with Dinty Moore Meatball stew but once I made my own Meatball stew with all fresh ingredients I will never go back.

    • Carb Diva profile image
      Author

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Flourish - I honestly have never tried Brunswick stew (although I know what it is). Will have to add to my list. Thanks.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I love that you combine recipes with poetry. Unique! When I think of stew, I automatically think Brunswick stew, a staple of these parts.

    • Carb Diva profile image
      Author

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill - Yes, it is certainly that time of year. Hope you have a good weekend.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Never has there been a more timely article. Thank you for this, Linda. I absolutely love stew on a cold fall day. I think Bev and I will be making one this weekend.

      Happy Saturday, my friend.

    • Carb Diva profile image
      Author

      Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Thanks Jackie - If nothing else, please try the earthy mushroom stew. It is so comforting!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Mm, yum; thanks for sharing. They all look delicious and I do love stews in winter!

      Loved the poem too!

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