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If you can boil water
you can make a good stew

By Richard Blunt

Issue #44 • March/April, 1997

Since childhood, homemade soups and stews have been high on my list of favorite foods. The aroma of a savory soup or stew slowly simmering on the stove top gives an added feeling of warmth and comfort to my home, especially during the winter months. I credit this lifelong love affair to the infinite variety of colorful, rich, and wholesome soups and stews that my mother and grandmother prepared from their mixture of German, African, English, and Native American culinary heritage.

The aromatic signals that broadcast from a slow simmering Virginia Brunswick, Kentucky Burgoo, French Chicken, Irish Lamb, or Louisiana Jambalaya stew, brings everyone into the kitchen anxious for a taste. Add the complementary aroma of fresh baked bread, and the sensory experience can only be described as sublime.

Dig into your memory and think of the best stew that you ever ate; it could be a spicy Mulligatawny, a Hungarian Goulash served with fresh sour cream, or any one of the limitless varieties made around the world. If all of the stews of the world were gathered together and published in a single printing, the result would resemble an encyclopedia. A glance at such a publication would reveal that there is a stew for every taste, level of kitchen savvy, and activity schedule. Stews make the best use of all seasonal ingredients, offering the imaginative cook the possibility of unlimited variety at relatively low cost. Most stews keep well in the refrigerator or freezer, allowing the busy cook to make the best use of limited production time.

My mother exemplified the busy, imaginative, cook who was forced to make best use of a limited amount of time to plan and prepare meals. She overcame this obstacle with an old, used, chest-type ice cream freezer, a large cast-iron Dutch oven, and an old gray metal box full of my grandmother's hand-written recipes. On days when she didn't have to work, she would make one of my grandmother's hearty soups or stews, using whatever meats and vegetables were on hand. The large capacity Dutch oven made it possible for Mom to prepare more than was needed for a single meal. She would then quickly cool the leftovers in the refrigerator and place them in the freezer for a future meal. There were always a few extra biscuits or pieces of corn bread to be saved as well. If she had some extra time, she would make a few loaves of what she called pastoral bread, a wonderful and simple bread that we used for sandwiches, toast, or as a complement to one of her delicious leftover soups or stews.

When she was short of time because of her unpredictable work schedule, we always had the "stew freezer" to provide us with a delicious and hearty meal. Leftover stew, by the way, usually develops more nuance and full body than it had the day that it was made. But you knew that.

Soups and stews have been part of the American diet from the beginning. During the early years, in contrast to modern times, the meat protein ingredient for soup and stew was supplied primarily from game animals. Today, domestic animals provide the bulk of our protein. In the earliest cookbooks, recipes for stews are hard to find. This is probably because stew was so common at every table that cookbook authors felt recipes were not necessary. It's a rationale worth considering because there is nothing elaborate or complicated about preparing a good homemade stew.

Experience has taught me that, if you can boil water, you can prepare any of the worlds classic stews. Any of them. Enjoying a hot bowl of homemade stew accompanied by a crisp salad and hot bread, fresh from the oven, is an experience that you, your family, and your friends will look forward to repeating often.

The two stew and bread recipes I am sharing with you in this issue have been in my family for three generations. Both my mother and grandmother were never reserved about sharing their wealth of culinary talent with everyone, so I am sure that they would be happy to know that their tradition of sharing good recipes still lives.

Before I start, the only piece of special equipment that I would suggest is a cast-iron Dutch oven with a capacity of at least five quarts. The most valued tools in my kitchen are the pieces of cast-iron cookware that I inherited from my mother. I have three skillets—two 10½-inch and one 14-inch—a chicken fryer, and a large Dutch oven. The chicken fryer and Dutch oven belonged to my great-grandmother. Cast-iron cookware has always been, and still is, inexpensive. It is the original nonstick cookware. Once seasoned properly, it will continue to improve with age. If you have a cast-iron Dutch oven, the following recipe will demonstrate just how easy and rewarding the preparation of a classic stew can be. A stainless steel pot with a heavy gauge aluminum bottom can be substituted for the cast-iron. But be aware that this type of pot does not distribute the heat as well as cast-iron, and scorching the stew is more likely.

Jambalaya Stew

Jambalaya stew is a classic representation of one of the most sophisticated cuisines indigenous to this country—Cajun/Creole. Since Creole and Cajun cuisines are often referred to as if they were the same cooking, let us pause to reflect on why they are close, but not the same.

Both cuisines were born in Louisiana and have French roots. Cajun is very old country cooking that originated in southern France. When the French speaking Acadians were expelled from eastern Canada because they would not swear allegiance to the English government, they migrated to southern Louisiana. They held fast to their culture and adopted their traditional French dishes to incorporate the wild fruits, vegetables, and greens that grew in the area. Cajun cuisine and culture is still very much alive in many Louisiana homes.

Creole, on the other hand, is city cooking that was born in New Orleans. In the early days many flags flew over New Orleans including French, English, Spanish, and Italian. Each nation that laid claim to the city imposed its own cuisine on the remaining residents. The resident cooks, most of whom were African, were usually retained in their positions by new reigning families. These Africans were creative and imaginative cooks, with a flair for incorporating their own home style of cooking into the ever-changing cuisines that flowed into the city. The result was the birth of Creole cuisine, a complex and sophisticated style of cooking that even reflects some Native American influence.

My jambalaya uses pork as the main protein, but chicken, shrimp, oysters, scallops, and rabbit can be substituted individually, or combined in quantities, that suit your own taste and budget. The sausage and ham in this recipe are flavor boosters. Cajun smoked tasso ham and Andouille sausage are preferred flavors, but other smoked hams and sausages will also work well in this recipe. I use Basmati rice in all stews and casseroles that call for rice. It's rich nutty flavor adds nuances that no other rice can provide.

Jambalaya Stew

Special Note: Do all of your measuring and dicing before you start cooking. You will then be able to devote all your attention to the progress of this delicate dish.

Special Equipment:

1 seasoned 5-quart Dutch oven with lid

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp peanut oil
3 oz smoked sausage, chopped medium (Andouille, Kielbasa or other smoked sausage)
6 oz smoked country ham, chopped medium
12 oz boneless pork cut into ½ inch cubes
1 medium green pepper, seeded, deveined and diced medium
2 medium onions, diced
4 ribs celery, diced (about 1½ cups)
1 tsp dried cilantro (1 Tbsp of fresh cilantro if you can find it at a decent price)

2 bay leaves
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp Kosher salt
1½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp fresh ground nutmeg
4 cloves fresh garlic, diced fine
1 28 oz can Italian plum tomatoes (drained and chopped)
¾ cup juice from the tomatoes
2 cups Basmati rice, rinsed in cold water and drained
2 cups fresh chicken stock (or 1 cup canned chicken stock and 1 cup of water)
½ cup scallions, chopped
8 oz bay scallops (optional)
Method:

1. Heat the peanut oil over a medium heat, add the sausage and ham, and cook until it's well browned. You will notice considerable shrinkage, but don't be alarmed. This is meant to add flavor and color to the stew, not bulk.

2. Raise the heat and add the pork and saute until the pork loses its pink color and starts to brown.

3. With the heat still raised, add the green pepper, onions, and celery and saute until the onions become translucent. Stir frequently with a good wooden spoon, scraping the bottom to prevent anything that sticks from burning.

4. Reduce the heat to medium and add the herbs, spices, salt, and garlic. Continue cooking the mixture for one minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and continue cooking until the pork is cooked through and tender. This should not exceed 10 minutes because pork, by its nature, is not a tough meat

5. Add the tomato juice, rice, chicken stock, and scallions and allow the mixture to come to a boil. Reduce the heat to bring the mixture to a slow simmer. Put the lid on the Dutch oven and allow the rice to cook for exactly 10 minutes. Remove the lid from the Dutch oven and place the scallops on top of the mixture; replace the lid and continue to cook the stew for exactly two minutes, and remove from the heat.

6. Allow the pot to sit, covered, for 15 minutes before serving, then remove the lid and gently fold scallops into the stew.

Brunswick Stew

Brunswick Stew and its close regional cousin, Kentucky Burgoo, are two of the finest regional stews in this country. Both are classic Southern hunter's stews that are traditionally prepared with whatever game meats are brought home from the day's hunt, along with fresh vegetables available from the garden. This stew is named for Brunswick County, Virginia, which has a history dating back to the days when Virginia and the Carolinas were British colonies. If you have read Gone With The Wind, you may recall from the first chapter that Brunswick Stew was served at the Twelve Oaks barbeque.

Both of these stews are at their best when prepared in large quantities and held under refrigeration for at least 24 hours before being served. I have chosen Brunswick for this column because it's easier to prepare then Burgoo and does not have to be prepared for an army to maintain its integrity. Of the wild game meats, squirrel or rabbit are the first choice for this recipe. But I have chosen chicken thighs because the meat remains sweet and moist during the cooking process, as does squirrel and rabbit, and it is the meat you're most likely to find available. Although the taste of chicken isn't as interesting as squirrel or rabbit, the overall quality of the stew does not suffer.

Your choice of vegetables and starches need not follow my recipe. Feel free to use cabbage, okra, beet greens, spinach, collards, turnip, rice, or anything else that suits your taste. Be aware, that the volume of this recipe uses all available space in a 5-quart Dutch oven. If anything you substitute increases the volume of the stew, you will have to use a larger pot. However you make it, I think you'll find sitting down to a steaming bowl of Brunswick Stew, a tall glass of English porter, and a warm chunk of pastoral bread on a cold winter night is wonderful.

Brunswick Stew

Ingredients:

4 lbs chicken thighs with skin removed
flour for dredging
1/3 cup peanut oil
4 cups fresh unsalted chicken stock—or 2 cups canned chicken stock and 2 cups of water
1 cup dry fruity white wine—or 1 cup English pale ale
1 28 oz can diced plum tomatoes (without the juice)
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
2 cups yellow onion, diced medium
3 medium size carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch chunks

3 ribs celery, diced medium
2 cups fresh or frozen butter beans (use baby limas if you can't find butter beans)
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 dried bay leaves (If they have been in your kitchen for more than six months, get some new ones)
½ tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 medium yellow summer squash, split along the vertical and cut into one inch chunks—or ½ cup fresh or frozen okra
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Method:

1. Place the flour in a large paper bag, like the ones that you get at the supermarket. Add the skinless chicken thighs and secure the bag at the top to prevent the flour from escaping. Shake the bag until all of the chicken is coated evenly with flour.

2. Heat the peanut oil in the Dutch oven over a medium heat. Shake any excess flour from the chicken pieces and place them in the oil, without crowding, and brown evenly on both sides. You will find it necessary to do this in two batches, adding additional oil as necessary. Take care to periodically scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent any sticking matter from burning. After browning, set the chicken aside on paper towels to drain.

3. Deglaze the bottom of the pot with two cups of chicken stock, then add the remainder of the chicken stock, the wine, and the chicken pieces. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat to a point that will maintain the stock at a slow simmer. (Slow simmer means no bubbles popping at the surface.) Cover the pot and simmer the chicken until tender, between 45 minutes and one hour.

4. Turn off the heat and remove the chicken to a platter to cool. Carefully remove all the fat and scum that is floating on the surface of the stock. Return the stock to a boil over medium heat, and add the diced tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, butter beans, corn, and seasonings. Return the stew to a slow simmer until the vegetables become tender, about 45 minutes. While the vegetables are cooking, remove the bones from the cooled chicken.

5. Return the chicken to the stew, along with the squash and garlic, and continue simmering until the squash is tender, but not mushy. Adjust seasoning with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Turn off the heat, cover the stew, and let it sit for at least one hour before serving. Slowly reheat if necessary.

Pastoral Bread

To make this bread you need only one pan—your 5-quart Dutch oven. The ingredients are basic as well: bread flour, water, yeast, sugar, and shortening. I always make a double batch of this dough, bake half, and freeze the rest for another time. When you bake this bread in the Dutch oven, the resulting loaf is one of the most impressive breads in existence. It is a full 10 inches in diameter and at least 8 inches high at the top of it's peak. A full-sized Italian panetonne looks like a muffin standing beside this bread. This loaf is also a beginning baker's dream because it comes out of the oven picture perfect every time and it tastes as good as it smells and looks. If you don't have a Dutch oven, use three standard loaf pans. But I must stress the importance of using hard wheat bread flour when making this bread. All purpose flour does not contain enough gluten to meet the special proofing and baking requirements of this loaf.

Pastoral Bread

Ingredients:

2 pkgs active dry yeast
2 Tbsp sugar
1/3 cup peanut oil

3 cups warm water (110º to 115º F)
5 cups hard wheat bread flour
2 tsp kosher salt
4 to 5 cups additional bread flour as needed shortening
Method:

1. Combine the yeast, sugar, peanut oil, and warm water in a suitable size bowl, and mix with a wooden spoon or wire whisk. Set the mixture aside for the yeast to proof, about 15 minutes.

2. In a large bowl mix the five cups of flour with the salt. Add the yeast mixture and beat with a wooden spoon to form a heavy batter. Stir in additional flour, one cup at a time, until the mixture forms a stiff dough that does not stick to the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a floured surface, then knead until the dough is smooth, does not stick to the surface, and springs back into shape when poked with your finger. This requires 15 minutes, minimum.

3. Coat the inside surface of a large mixing bowl with shortening, place the dough inside, cover with a clean cloth, and allow the dough to rise until triple in bulk. This will take about one hour.

4. Punch the dough down and knead it into a smooth ball. Coat the inside of the Dutch oven and lid with shortening. Place the dough inside and put the lid in place. Let the dough rise until it touches the lid. Watch this rising carefully; you do not want the rising dough to lift the lid.

5. Place the loaf in a preheated 375º F oven. Bake for 10 minutes, with the lid in place. Remove the lid and continue baking until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. This will take between 35 and 50 minutes. Remove the fully baked loaf from the pot and place it on a rack to cool.

As you will discover, this makes a loaf large enough to feed a small army. Take heart with the fact that, just like your stew, it freezes well.

Corn bread for a Cajun/Creole stew

Jambalaya is a casserole type stew that cries out for a good corn bread. The following is a recipe that I created as a special complement for this spicy, rich tasting stew. The recipe makes enough corn bread to feed eight hungry adults. If you are lucky, there may even be a piece or two left over for you to enjoy with your morning coffee.

Corn bread for a Cajun/Creole stew

Ingredients:

1 cup all purpose flour
2½ cups yellow or white corn meal
3 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp baking powder

1½ tsp Kosher salt
4 whole fresh eggs (slightly beaten)
1¾ cup buttermilk (any milk—whole, skim, or lactose free—will also work well)
½ cup melted butter or margarine
Method:

1. Combine and mix together the flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.

2. In a small bowl combine and mix the eggs, milk, and melted butter or margarine.

3. Gently fold the egg mixture into the dry ingredients using a spatula or wooden spoon. Do not overmix; a few lumps in the batter are OK.

4. Spoon the batter onto a 12 x 16-inch greased baking pan. Let the batter rest for 10 minutes.

5. Bake the corn bread in a preheated 425º oven for about 25 minutes or until it is nicely browned on top and a tooth pick comes out clean when inserted into the middle.




Read More by Richard Blunt

Read More Food & Recipes Articles

 
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