I often wonder who discovered caviar as a delicacy ... or fois gras. I ponder what culinary explorer created sushi or tabbouleh? What conditions led to Yorkshire pudding or lemon meringue pie? What ingenuity led to cheese soufflé or pancakes? I'll leave those questions to future columns but stews ... I get stews. Stews were obviously created by a woman - a woman trying to use up all the leftover, less-than-fresh-picked vegetables, or a woman trying to improve the flavor of some tough, smoke-dried bear, tiger or buffalo meat. As for my theory about the evolution of stews, history shows that stewing dates back 8,000 years or more. Recipes for ragouts or stews of various types are found in one of the oldest cookbooks in French; lamb and fish stews are found in a cookbook from fourth century Rome.
Technically, a stew is a batch of ingredients that has been cooked in water or a water-based liquid, and then served without being drained, pureed or mashed. Ingredients may include any combination of vegetables (potatoes, beans, etc.), fruits (such as peppers and tomatoes), meat, poultry, sausages and seafood. Besides water, wine and food stock are commonly used. Herbs and seasonings add flavor to the mix and sometimes thickeners are used. Stews are usually cooked at low temperatures (i.e., not boiled) to allow flavors to marry.
"The distinctions between stew, soup, and casserole are fine ones," according to Wikipedia. "The ingredients of a stew may be cut into larger pieces than those of a soup and retain more of their individual flavors; a stew may have thicker liquid than a soup, and more liquid than a casserole; a stew is more likely to be eaten as a main course than as a starter, unlike soup; and a stew can be cooked on either the stove top or in the oven, while casseroles are almost always cooked in the oven, and soups are almost always cooked on the stovetop." Sounds reasonable to me.
Like soups, stews are very forgiving, which means you can be creative in the proportion of ingredients and mix of combinations you use. That allows for a lot of culinary license to create your own recipes, something a cook loves to do. The key to great stews is allowing them to simmer for sufficient time for any meats to get tender and for the flavor of all the ingredients to emerge and blend well.
So, as the cool weather comes upon us, try one of the stew recipes included here. One is an all-time favorite of cooks everywhere, a classic Brunswick stew; the other is a relatively new addition to my recipe library. While you're at it, try serving your stew in individual bread bowls. Kids and adults alike will enjoy the built-in complementary bread.
Jacqui lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Creating a Bread Bowl
Savory Autumn Stew (serves 4)
Brunswick Stew (serves 6)