The weather in late September was cold and rainy. It was the kind of damp gloomy weather that seemed to settle into my bones and called for the making home-made stew to dispel the chill.
This week, however, the weather has been warm and dry. Perfect weather to accompany the leaves turning color. And hell, making home-made stew still sounds appealing! So I have made a vegetable stew two ways already this autumn, once with fresh beans and once with yellow potatoes.
Returning to the theme of what European peasants would eat depending on what they could get out of their fields, gardens and root cellars, I found my way into the garden to see what is ready for the kitchen. Fresh beans are abundant, lima and fava beans. The fall batch of carrots is not ready, I should have planted earlier. If I grew celery, I would have a fall crop ready as well. The last of summer's tomatoes are ripe, and an early frost has not yet killed the vines. I have plenty of onions, garlic and potatoes harvested this summer.
As the previous week was damp and cool, mushrooms have popped up all over the yard. If I were a peasant in another land and time, I would be in the forest gathering mushrooms by the basket full. I would also be wary of any nobles hunting for game or the sheriff looking for poachers and trappers.
In many countries back in those days, hunting was right reserved for the landed nobility. Any peasant caught hunting or trapping game could be whipped, branded or suffer a worse fate. So, being a pious peasant, my basket would contain only mushrooms or perhaps chestnuts if I could find them.
Actually, it would likely be a younger daughter or son that would be gathering in the forest. As the father of the family, my days would be filled with toiling in the fields in a team. I would wield a long two handled scythe mowing the fields or beating out the grain from the chaff with a flail. When my long workday was over I certainly would hope to find my dinner board filled with a hearty stew, a good piece of bread and mug of small ale or fermented cider!
Three tablespoons of butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
Two stalks of celery
One head of garlic
One large sweet yellow onion
One teaspoon of red pepper flakes (or more)
Sixteen ounces of mushrooms
One hand full of cherry tomatoes
Two cups of fresh lima beans or fava beans OR 24 ounces of yellow fleshed potatoes
After a hard day’s work in the fields, I come home to find that my Goodwife has not yet returned from the bakers house, nor the brewers house, to start dinner. I wash my face and, muttering oaths and curses, stomp out to the garden. But wait! Ah, yes, here hidden in the thatch of the roof is the calf-skin of apple schnapps that I bought from Jans the Beekeeper. Hee!
Soon, having collected the beans, tomatoes, carrots and celery from the garden, I retrieve an onion and a head of garlic from the root cellar of my hovel.
My daughter returns from the forest with a big basket full of wild mushrooms. I am pleased that my wife has taught the girl to know good mushrooms from edible toadstools. I tousle her hair and tell her to start the fire while I finely chop the onions, celery and carrots. These three vegetables are the holy trinity of French cuisine, known as Mirepoix. Mirepoix makes an excellent vegetable stock.
I set a big pot to medium heat and to it add my butter or oil. Once the butter or oil is hot, I add the Mirepoix with a tablespoon of sea salt and stir it periodically until the onions are translucent.
While the Mirepoix is cooking down, I chop up the head of garlic and add it and the pepper flake to the pot. I then slice or cube the mushrooms and add them into the pot. I stir the contents of the pot frequently until everything is smelling delicious and is cooking down thoroughly.
If I am using potatoes, I peel them and cut them into bite sized chunks. I am using a potato called German Butterball but any yellow fleshed, not white fleshed, potato is fine for a stew.
I have a kettle of water set to boil. Into a small bowl that I have the cherry tomatoes in, I pour enough of the boiling water to cover them. After a minute in the hot water bath, the flesh of the tomatoes slip from the skins with a pinch between my thumb and forefinger.
Once the contents of the pot have been reduced to mushrooms and deliciously savory brown mush, I add one quart of boiling water to the pot and reduce the heat. Once the stock starts to simmer I add salt to taste. The stock is fairly tasty at this point and is close to finished. If I wished, I could reduce the stock to my desired intensity of flavor and then strain the liquid to save it as vegetable bullion.
Instead, I am going to add the sliced potatoes or my beans into the pot. There should be just enough liquid in the pot to cover the potatoes or beans. I put in my tomatoes into the stew at this point as well.
Within a half-hour for beans or twenty minutes for potatoes, the beans or potatoes are cooked through and the stew should be intensely flavored. Beans should be smooth textured to the taste. Potatoes should be easily split with a fork.
My Goodwife has returned with a bucket full of small ale and a pair of crusty hot baguettes in her apron just in time. As she pours the ale into mugs, I ladle the stew into the large depression in our table. My youngest starts for the stew with a wooden spoon but he catches my stern eye and waits for the blessing.
"With God's favor, our bounty is plentiful and our lives are enriched and full of joy!"
I break the bread, pass it round to my family and dip my piece into the savory stew
. Yes, life is good!
For A Season of Cider and Cinders: FallQuest 2011!