Stews and soups are a large thread in our life tapestry. We have “for company” stews, also “lean budget” stews. The former tend to have formal names such as Beef Bourguignonne, an all too many of the latter have no names, for they are made from what’s on hand, an effort to heal a lean cupboard. It is probably safe to say countries outside the U.S. have their own no-name stews, but it seems, if we adopt them in this country they somehow acquire a name.
When asked, the difference between soups and stews, Pat Solley, food writer and webhost of www.SoupSong.com, summed it up like this: Stew is like a poem…and soup like a short story. Both contain similar things, but stews are generally more concentrated in flavor, with less liquid, a thicker texture, with ingredients cut into biggish pieces.”
We associate plain hot soups and stews with tenderness, comfort, sympathy or a melting of attitudes. The heartwarming story of Stone Soup reminds us of how, properly motivated, starving villagers’ donations contributed to the finest meal in their memory. Even gangster boss, Al Capone Capone, provided soup kitchens for many of Chicago’s unemployed during the depression.
A bare bones definition for stews is: Any combination of two or more foods simmered in a liquid. This dish, found in all cultures, is based on stewing meat, which not only tenderizes tough pieces, but allows flavors to blend and improve over time. Cooking ranges from one to four hours over low heat; low ovens should be set between 250 and 350-degrees.
Stews are ancient. The early Scythians, nomadic tribes of southeastern Europe and Asia, used animal organs to hold flesh and water, and they cooked their mixture over a fire of roasting animal bones. In a timeline, roasting preceeded boiling because pots were needed when boiling. Liquids in pottery did not develop until 8,000 years BCE. Later, 7000 years ago, archeological evidence shows early Amazonian tribes used turtle shells to boil fish, meat and other foods. Stews are mentioned in the ancient Apicius Cookery books starting in the 2nd century A.D. Early Aztecs, a little over 500 years ago, methodically sacrificed human beings in ceremonies staged atop pyramid alters. The resulting stew was a mixture of tomatoes, peppers, squash blossoms, plus the limbs of the sacrificed.
SOME OF THE WORLD’S STEWS:
Ballymaloe (Irish stew), sometimes made with Guinness Stout.
Basque Tongue Stew or Tripe Stew (Spain)
Beef Bourguignonne (French, beef, mushrooms, pearl onion, red wine, baked)
Borsch (European cold soup, fresh beets, cabbage, sour cream)
Bog ( southern stew with rice)
Brunswick Stew (southern with chicken, ham, lima beans (early versions called for squirrel meat. )
Burgoo (Kentucky made with chicken, tomatoes, curry powder, lima beans, file powder)
Campers stew (apt to be a combination of anything campers bring to the campsite.)
Chaudiere, (Canada, shellfish, fish, potatoes, salt pork)
Chowder (New England, borrowed from Chaudiere)
Chicken Foot Stew (Jewish, flavorful feet were free)
Cioppino (Spanish seafood and fish stew with tomato)
Egusi Soup (West African stew thickened with crushed pumpkin seeds)
Feiojada (Brazilian stew of meat organs)
Fish Muddle (southern chowder served with corn flapjacks)
Frogmore Stew (Low Country, shrimp, sausage and corn)
Ghanaian Groundnut Stew, (Africa, peanuts, vegetables, curry accompaniments)
Green Chili Stew (Southwestern, meat and hot green chilis.)
Groundnut Stew, Sierra Leone (Africa, fowl and peanuts)
Gumbo (Creole with seafood, sausage, file)
Hutespot (Dutch stew from the Hudson Valley)
Matelote Normande (French, is Matelote with hard cider and Calvados apple brandy)
Matelote (French, fish with wine, many herbs, mushrooms)
Meurette (French, red wine version of Matelote)
Moqueca de Camarao (Shrimp Stew, Bahian style)
Lapskaus (Norwegian stew)
Paprikash or goulash (Hungarian with seafood or meat, paprika, hot or sweet)
Pepperpot (West Indies, local ingredients found on each island.)
Pepperpot (Philadelphia-type, highly seasoned tripe)
Pine Bark Stew (Southeast, originally seasoned with small pine shoots, made thick enough to be served on pieces of pine bark)
Polish Stew (bacon, Kielbasa, cabbage and Oxtail Soup)
Pueblo Green Chili (Southwest, with meat, corn, tomatoes, potatoes and green chili)
Ratatouille (French, vegetables including eggplant and zucchini)
Sonofabitch Stew (cowboy dish of newly-killed calf, heart, liver, tongue, tenderloin, sweetbreads, brain and marrow gut seasoned with a “skunkegg,” which is an onion)
Stifado, Greek with meat, lemon olive oil, tomato paste
Succotash (Northeast and south, lima beans or red shell beans with corn)
Waterzooi (Belgian, Flemish stew of chicken or fish, thickened with egg yokes and cream.)
You will not make your best stew in a crockpot, for it takes some thought to determine the order in which you will add ingredients. Kuan Lee, while a Malaysian Voluntary Service Overseas worker in Ghana on the west coast of Africa, laid out what he termed, the Universal Method for Making Basic Stews, no ingredients essential, all amounts vary:
1. Heat oil while flavoring it with pungent onions, ginger, peppers, garlic and spices.
2. Add meat to hot, flavored oil and brown well.
3. Add liquid and vegetables which take longest to cook (roots, tubers)
4. Remove meat when cooked through, keep warm
5. Once root vegetables almost done, add stock and items which need less cooking such as tomato paste, groundnut or peanutbutter, beans, fruits and/or green vegetables.
6. Lastly add leafy vegetables such as spinach or kale.
Here’s four additional tips during the last few minutes of stew cooking:
1. Add more uncooked, chopped onions for a crunchy texture (a tip from Paul Prudhomme).
2. Add a pat of butter rolled in flour for flavor (a tip from Thomas Jefferson’s recorded recipes).
3. Add thinly sliced red radishes for a bit of a snap (a tip from Chef Debbie Platthy, Seminole, Florida).
4. Add any previously blanched-only green vegetables for brightness and crunch, (a tip from Deborah Madison.)
Madison, author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and her new book, Local Flavors, sums stews up this way: “To me, it simply means a mélange of individual ingredients simmered together at a leisurely pace. It is important to sauté early flavoring vegetables slowly and allow plenty of time for the sugars in the vegetables to caramelize and herbs to release their flavors … balance shapes, sizes, colors and textures along with flavors.”
In addition, Madison adds, “Wine helps keep vegetables from becoming mushy,” and she suggests serving stew with grains, couscous, polenta, croutons, toast, biscuits, even waffles.