Stew Basics



My friend, Tim Roper (a.k.a. The Meat Trapper) just emailed, asking if I had a stew recipe.... actually, I don't.  Stew, as he pointed out about chili, is more of a style of cooking than a recipe and can be made with a variety of ingredients.  It may be surprising to some that where I come from, beef stew isn't the norm.  On the coast, we have traditional salt water caught fish stews that have origins in the British Isles.  Around the rivers and swamps, we have catfish stews and even catfish stew festivals.  Further inland, venison stew or bear meat stew is a meal for special family gatherings.  Somewhere in between those regions, we have North Carolina style Brunswick Stew.... named for either Brunswicktown (an abandoned colonial fort), Brunswick County or a British royal... which does not get the respect it deserves. 

NC Brunswick Stew may be older than Virginia Brunswick stew, and is certainly older than Georgia Brunswick Stew.  Unlike VA and GA, NC Brunswick Stew is not solely pork based.  It is usually a mix of at least three meats, two of which are usually wild game.  The recipes depend on one's personal taste and the meat on hand - any combination of pork, chicken, venison, squirrel, coon, rabbit, possum or turtle would not surprise a NC Brunswick Stew connoisseur.  Added to the meats are usually tomatoes, corn and lima beans.  Truly, this is a mix of a British stew tradition with American ingredients from an era long before when America became a nation or even when British immigrants had access to more English style ingredients in true colonial times.

So, what is stew?.... well, it isn't soup.  Soup is a thinner, usually broth or stock based liquid dish.  It isn't chowder.  Chowder is usually milk based, not counting Manhattan Clam Chowder (btw, did you know that the residents of Manhattan rioted in support of the South's God-given right to secede and that Lincoln essentially had to invade New York before he invaded the South? ...I bet that wasn't in your US history book in school... or that Union officers were allowed to keep their slaves... just "food for thought").  Stew isn't chili.  Stew isn't gumbo.   

To add a little more confusion, "stewing" is a cooking technique that does not necessarily result in the dish we know as stew.  Stewing is to cook meat, vegetables, etc. low and slow in liquid until soft, purely for the purpose of making them soft.  So, a can of stewed chicken doesn't taste like chicken stew.... it is just soft, bland... unappetizing canned chicken.

Stew is usually made from a tough, flavorful cut of meat (but can be made from fish, chicken, etc).  Stew is usually thick - thicker than soup but thinner than gravy.  Stew usually contains vegetables.  Stew is usually mildly seasoned - it isn't spicy.  Stew is comfort food and especially good on a cold day.  

Meat:  These days, folks probably associate stew with beef, so lets take that as an example.  Any of your tougher, more coarsely grained cuts of beef would do.  You want meat that will stand up to long hours of stewing and still have some chew between the teeth.  Chuck would be a good choice, as would bottom round... or anything labeled "stew meat".  In many countries, their stew meat is a cow's foot... and their stews are all the better for it... but, we'll stick with what you can buy at your local Piggly Wiggly (you do shop at Piggly Wiggly.... the southern chain that is America's first modern grocery store... don't you?).  Stew meat is not ground.  Cut your meat into cubes or chunks about an inch... maybe a little larger, in size.  Dry well, salt and brown well in a cast iron dutch oven or pot (cast iron is better), in a little fat - beef suet is best, but oil will work; butter would burn on its own, but if clarified or added to cooking oil, it will work fine.  My preference is to fry some bacon along with the beef, so that the beef browns in the bacon fat.

Vegetables part 1:  After the meat browns, add plenty of chopped onions and chopped mushrooms (any type you like) and brown them. 

Thickening: Stews can be thickened with several ingredients - flour, potatoes, corn starch, arrow root, masa and even blood.  Yes, blood.  In fact, blood is the most traditional means of thickening stews.  If you use blood, you add it at the end, with the stew not boiling and off the heat but still hot.  Just stir it in slowly and let it thicken.  If you use blood, more power to you.... it is very healthy, but it is not my choice.  Potatoes would be most people's choice, but not mine.  If you use potatoes, you can either cut them into chunks a bit smaller than the meat and add them to the stew after other liquid has been added, so that the potato starch will thicken the soup as they cook in the stew.  Or, you can stir in some mashed potatoes, or even dried potato flakes.  My choice is flour.  After the meat and onions have browned, I push them to the side, add a little more fat and brown two spoons full of plain, all purpose flour, just like I would for gravy..... which is basically the brother to stew.... so is pot roast, btw.

Liquid:  After the flour browns (or before adding an other thickener) you need to add some liquid to make your stew a member of the soup family as opposed to just beef and onions in a thick gravy.  Here, you have 5 choices: 1) Water, 2) Stock or Broth, 3) Wine, 4) Beer or 5) the liquid from shellfish like Oyster Liquor or Clam Juice.  I use wine or dark beer and broth or stock.  Water has no flavor.  Why use water?  In this recipe, I would add about a pint of good, rich stock or bone broth (bones with a little meat on them and vegetable trimmings browned before slow boiling for 24 hours+).  I would also add about 8 oz of a rich red wine that is not too tanic or brightly acidic - red zinfandel or shiraz would be my choice.

Vegetables part 2: Add your favorite vegetables.  I would add celery, carrots, maybe a little crushed garlic, green peas or baby limas... definitely some kind of green bean or pea.... maybe some whole kernel corn... maybe.... tomatoes, turnip root, parsnip, celery root, asparagus cut into one inch pieces, chopped spinach, mild green peppers like bells, squash, pumpkin, leaks.... whatever you like that will not over power the stew, but not too many so that the vegetables over power the stew.  Those that would not work well would be those that would over power the stew, like okra due to its mucilaginous properties, strong greens like turnip or collard or starchy legumes like black eyed peas... unless you particularly like that combination.

Seasonings:  Black pepper - I wouldn't use red/hot peppers in a traditional stew.  Salt to taste.  Thyme - meat loves thyme and its use in a stew is very traditional.  That is all that is essential.  Other good additions could be bay leaf, rosemary or parsley.  I would not use any spices other than pepper, but a tiny pinch of allspice or nutmeg is traditional... so is one or two whole cloves.  I like cloves with onion, so I might go that route... the decision would be made by sniffing stew and the cloves a few times, taking a sip of wine and getting an idea of how the combination would taste.  Lavender is another traditional herb... but I hate lavender and it may lower testosterone, so that is a definite "no" for me.

So, depending on which thickener you chose, and when it should be added, that is it.  Cook it low and slow, "stew" it for a while - the longer the better - uncovered so it will cook down and thicken.  Taste from time to time.  When it is thick enough, salt to taste.  If you salt to taste before the water evaporates, it will end up too salty. 

Comfort:  Serve in a big bowl, grab a freshly baked, buttered yeast roll, pour some more wine or beer and dig in.... stew is simply satisfying.

End Notes:
1) Be sure to check out Tim Roper's YouTube channel - he's a damn good cook: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcSC-NJ9KwIXozBUMvdu67g
2) Two very cool, short documentaries on Brunswick Stew.... which conveniently leave out the king of Brunswick stews, NC style, but is good anyway: http://www.folkstreams.net/film,336 and http://www.folkstreams.net/film,333
3) Catfish Stew Festival: http://portercalls.com/catfish_stew_cookoff.htm
4) History of Piggly Wiggly: http://www.pigglywiggly.com/about-us
5) The photo is just one I found online - I'll switch it out the next time I make a good pot of stew.
6) Frogmore Stew is not a stew.  It is just a regional name for a Low Country Boil... it is absolutely fantastic though.

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