Like individual snowflakes, the construction of each batch of stew is a variation on a theme, just as it has been since the ancient convergence of fire and pottery.
In our house, stew making is a culinary scavenger hunt. We gather elk or venison from the freezer, pull out any unsung, forgotten vegetables from the fridge crisper and, from the dark corners of the pantry, scrabble for soil-dusted potatoes and their oniony cupboard mates. Each is chopped and added to a pot of simmering water, the results of which will never be duplicated.
Like so many of our culinary staples, stews and soups were born of necessity and practicality. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to go to a well-stocked grocery store with our customized shopping lists. On a long ago January afternoon, dinner looked a lot like whatever had been processed and stored during harvest season, thrown into a pot. Every matriarch knew that making a stew or soup magically stretches a handful of ingredients into something more delicious and abundant than the sum of its parts.
Additionally, back when more of us were hunting or raising a backyard steer or two, we were regularly confronted with whole animals, meaning there were tougher parts to contend with; these are the cuts that become perfectly tender in a stew pot. This meat can be browned in fat and spices and then pressure cooked for a half hour with a bit of liquid, or slow cooked all day.
This is the utility of making stew. That rutabaga someone gave you from their garden, which stares at you forlornly every time you open the fridge? Chop and add it. That neglected splash of wine inching toward vinegar in the bottom of the bottle? Slosh it in. Broccoli stalks that you swear you’ll find use for? Peel, chop and simmer these little nuggets of crunch. Garlic is always a good idea. A can of tomato paste adds sweetness and depth. A bunch of kale, finely chopped, disappears seamlessly into a stew, foiling picky eaters. Some fat in the form of olive oil splashed in at the end of cooking, or a slab of butter at the start offers a signal boost to every bite. Lately, all of our stews sparkle with bright red chile powder, procured during an opportunistic refuge-taking at Chavez Southwest Market in Antonito during a passing, December blizzard.
Every culture has their requisite soup. The French have the summer vegetable-based Ratatouille; Mexico has posole, rich with hominy, chiles and pork; Vietnamese have pho, that deeply flavorful broth made from simmering bones and spices for days. The ancestral Puebloans heated rocks to infernal temperatures, dropped them into a clay pot containing water, and presumably added meat, dried beans, squash, corn and other available plants. Voila: stew.
Rather than a recipe, stews and soups lend themselves to guiding principles. In its most simple terms, as food writer Tamar Adler said, “Instead of trying to figure out what to do about dinner, you put a big pot of water on the stove, light the burner under it, and then, as soon as it’s on its way to getting hot, start looking for things to put in it.”
Rebecca McKibben, culinary manager of Manna soup kitchen, goes by feel, smell and luck.
Her go-to soup is chicken noodle, which she makes for any friend who gets the flu, or gets broken up with.
“You’re looking for that shimmery gold. It almost glitters,” McKibben said. Guidelines: bake a chicken, saute veggies, (preferably celery, onions, orange bell peppers, carrots), pull meat off bones, make bone broth, add veggies and meat back to broth, taste, analyze, adjust, add noodles. She adds a splash of vinegar to brighten the flavor. “Acid cuts through the one-note monotony of the fat.”
To maximize nutrition, Anna Marija Helt, a Durango-based clinical herbalist and microbiologist, suggests adding mushrooms.
“Fresh or dried, any organically grown or wild mushrooms (be 100% certain about identification) contain high quality protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as ‘glycans’ that strengthen the immune system. Mushrooms in general support healthy blood sugar regulation and have anti-tumor effects.”
Dried mushrooms can be found in bulk at Durango Natural Foods.
Buying local meat, potatoes, carrots and onions in bulk means that when you get your pot of dinner water boiling, you’re halfway to the finish line. Some farms, such as Mountain Roots Produce and Fields to Plate offer free delivery on large orders of storage roots and meat.
Enjoy winter; eat stew.
Rachel Turiel blogs about growing food and a family at 6512 feet at 6512andgrowing.com. Contaact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Mexican StewIngredients:1 pound beef, lamb, elk or deer, cubedOne medium onion, diced2-3 cups potatoes, cubed1-3 cups carrots, cubedTwo stalks celery, diced1 small can tomato paste1 cup wine2-4 cups water or broth¼ cup olive oil1 tablespoon red chileThree cloves garlic, mincedSalt to tasteMethod:
Brown meat, oil, onions and red chile over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Next, either pressure cook meat with additional wine and water for 30-40 minutes, then add everything else and simmer for 1-2 hours, or put everything in a slow cooker and cook on low heat all day.