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Stewing - when, how, what?

"Believe it or not, there are no right or wrong ways to make stew"

Pip Spence on the Jamie Oliver website

I'm planning to make a beef stew for dinner this evening. Maybe with a vaguely Mexican flavour, because I have corn, but maybe not. I'll probably decide right at the moment of cooking. Because that's the wonderful thing about stew isn't it? Infinitely variable. Just throw stuff in the pot and cook it.

So my first impulse for today's post was to just run through a few basic things about making a stew. I was going to say rules instead of things, but really there are no rules. And again I will say, that anyone, and I do mean anyone, can make a stew without needing a recipe.

I do think there are two basic methods though. Although the difference is minor. The first is to just to throw everything in the pot and then cook it - either in the oven or on top of the stove, but in either case - long and slow. This method is usually done on the top of the stove.

The other is to first fry your aromatics which might just be onion but might also include other things such as garlic and celery, then add your spices and stir them around a bit, next in goes the meat - or fish - or root vegetables. Stir them around a bit and then finally add your liquid and the softer vegetables - later. Again, then cook long and slow.

Which reminds me I should go off soon and put my stew together so that it will cook long and slow - in the oven I think because that will warm the house a little. Mind you if you cook it in the oven it then becomes a casserole, which is a different beast. You cook it with the lid on and it tends to have a thicker sauce. Whereas a stew tends to be runnier. It doesn't matter which method I go for really, although I see that my original thought of just throwing stuff into a pot and cooking it has morphed into a two or three step process ending up in the oven as a casserole.

You'd have to say the end result is very similar though - the picture further up the page is 'the perfect stew', this one on the right is a 'basic casserole'. Not much difference is there?

It's just stuff in a pot. And what might that stuff be? Well anything really, but I suppose if there is any art in making a stew, it's knowing what would be good with what. Indeed that's where the genius of the innovative chef kicks in. On the left Irish stew - now how basic a dish is that? - but from Ottolenghi. Yes the base idea is still there, but there are little touches like wholewheat, celeriac, orange zest, more herbs than usual, and garlic and white wine. I doubt the Irish - or my mum - ever put white wine in their Irish stew. Not even Robert Carrier in fact.

Or - just one more example - Nigel Slater's Beef stew and dumplings. Nothing very unusual here either - other than red wine and those enormous dumplings, both of which make it different.

"You gather together the resources you have available to you, toss them together, add in your own ideas, and let it simmer. But the 'make it or break it' part is the extra flavors you add." Runa Pigden

And that's what I just did, but whether I have added enough flavours to make it special we still have to see. But that's half the fun. The surprise.

"There is a charm in making a stew, to the unaccustomed cook, from the excitement of wondering what the result will be, and whether any flavour save that of onions will survive the competition in the mixture." Annie Besant

And there's plenty of competition in mine. So much so that there is enough for at least two meals, which is always a bit of bummer. Although I could probably use some of it to make the soup for my book group lunch on Monday. We'll see.

As I said stew is infinitely variable - from the marginally watery rabbit stew with carrots and potatoes of my youth, to all those exotic dishes from around the world that we have grown to love - curry, goulash, bouillabaisse, pot au feu, tagine ... the list is endless really. Every nation on earth has a favourite stew recipe - well maybe there are one or two that don't, but not many.

And because it's so basic it's been around a long time. They used to think some time around the 8th to 4th centuries BC:

"Herodotus says that the Scythians (8th to 4th centuries BC) "put the flesh into an animal's paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself."" Wikipedia

Now however, anthropologists from the University of Michigan are claiming that the Neanderthals of around 300,000 years ago were cooking stews in a similar way to the Scythians, either in an animal paunch or a container fashioned from bark. For as Professor John Speth says:

"All you need is a waterproof container suspended over a fire — the water inside keeps the material from burning."

And there's the basic problem really. What to cook your stew in. Did Neanderthals know how to make clay pots? No pot fragments have been found I think, so probably not, although you would wonder why not? According to all those people on the net who tell you how to survive in the wilderness, it's pretty easy to make a basic clay pot and then embed it in the embers for cooking. It won't last long but it will do. The Neanderthals were supposed to be brainy so surely they could have worked out how to make a clay pot. They know that some primitive hunter gatherer societies used shells - large sea shells or turtle shells. Maybe coconut husks or similar, if wrapped in some wet leaves, might do the job.

Of course Professor Speth's research is disputed. You cannot prove this because the containers would not survive, but they do know that Neanderthals did indeed create fires but whether they did anything other than cook meat on it or even just kept themselves warm or frighten away animals is impossible to know. There's an interesting summary of this in an article on The Salt website, which is part of NPR the American public broadcasting service, by Sarah Zielinski called Stone Age Stew? if you want to learn a little bit more.

Eventually people learned how to make pottery, bronze and then iron pots and how to suspend them over a fire. A long time I think before they learned how to create an oven. Although sometimes the pots would have been buried with the embers, or hot rocks. Anyway - end result - stew.

Stew got a bit of a bad name over time. Partly I suppose because it was so humble - particularly in its very basic forms - rather like my mother's rabbit stew - a watery concoction with a few bits of meat, if you were lucky, and vegetables floating in it. Not that my mother's rabbit stew was ever anything but delicious. It was one of my very favourite meals growing up and when I tried another favourite - Irish stew - from Robert Carrier's New Great Dishes of the World - he's a fan - that was fantastic too, but unlike Ottolenghi, not fiddled with.

Why did it get a bad name? Well because of it's early meaning:

"Stew's path to modern crockpots, though, gets a little hazy right from the get-go. The first time that the Old French word estuve jumped to English shores as "stew," it meant either a stove, a heated room, or a cooking cauldron. That probably comes from way back, from the Latin extufare, meaning "evaporate," whose roots waft even further back to the Greek word typhos, "smoke."" Bon Appétit

But then:

"Later "heated room," especially for bathing (late 14c.). The meaning "stewed meat with vegetables" is first recorded 1756. The obsolete slang meaning "brothel" (mid-14c., usually plural, stews) is from a parallel sense of "public bath house" (mid-14c.), carried over from Old French estuve "bath, bath house; bawdy house," reflecting the reputation of medieval bath houses." Etymonline

There is also the meaning of 'to be in a stew' meaning to be anxious or upset about something. I am not anxious about my stew. I'm sure it will be eatable. Mind you, if it's only pretty ordinary I shall quietly be a bit upset. I shall stew about my stew.


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