Exploring Stew: History of the One-Pot Meal and Global Recipes
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 the autumn and what an introduction to the topic of 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.
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, humans 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.
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.
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
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.
- 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)
- 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.
- Bring 2 quarts water to boil in a large saucepan. Add diced potatoes; cook for 10 minutes and then remove with a skimmer and set aside. In the same saucepan cook the noodles according to package directions. Remove with the skimmer and set aside.
- Reserve 2 cups of cooking liquid from the saucepan and set aside.
- 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.
Note about mushroom broth: 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
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- Stir in diced potatoes and noodles and continue to cook until potatoes and noodles are cooked through.
- 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.
If you want to take this goulash to the next level, you could use cooked spaetzle (a German noodle dumpling) instead of the noodles.
- 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
- 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.
- 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