It was a gloomy Sunday, chilly and damp.
It was the sort of dampness that got into your teeth, a life-on-an-island dampness that keeps your clothes from ever drying out and makes you hesitate before showering because you know the towels will still be a little wet.
Between the chill and the damp, there was only one thing to do: Make a big pot of stew.
It was, as it happened, the first stew of the season. It will not be the last. When the sun hangs low in the sky and night comes early, there is nothing quite so warm and comforting as stew. It warms you from the inside out, and just makes you feel better about the world.
It takes a while to cook, yes, but there is comfort in that, too. As the pot gently simmers and the house is filled with an ambrosial aroma, you get an extended preview of how the meal will taste. And if it is a big enough pot of stew — and stew should always be cooked in large quantities for this very reason — you can also anticipate how much better the leftovers will taste the next day.
Because it was the season’s first stew, I wanted to keep mine light and make it with veal. Alas, the appropriate cuts of veal were hard to find, so instead I decided to go with beef. It’s just veal that is older and wiser, I reasoned.
I had a couple of ideas I wanted to try out with this stew. Perhaps the most revolutionary was the use of tomato puree as the base. You almost never see tomatoes in any form as the braising liquid for beef; I’m the only person I know who does it. But the flavors are perfect together, with the lightly sweet and subtly acidic tomato gradually blending with the hearty meatiness of the beef. It is the same idea behind a tomato sauce with meatballs.
The tomato puree by itself would be too much of a single note, and also too thick, so I decided to thin it out a bit with red wine. I did not want the wine flavor to overwhelm the rest of the dish or to take center stage, as it does with boeuf bourguignon, so I reached for a lighter red wine. I selected a pinot noir, following the hard-and-fast rule of cooking: Never cook with wine you would not drink. On the other hand, you’re just pouring it into a stew, so I bought the least expensive drinkable wine I could find.
My next idea for this stew was to flavor it with fennel. With its licorice taste (but in a good way), fennel pairs excellently with tomatoes, and it is also a good match for pinot noir. I decided to use a single bulb of fennel and slice it thin, but if you are particularly fond of the flavor you could easily get away with using a second bulb.
And because I was already thinking in terms of fennel, I decided also to add Italian sausage. Sausage is not what immediately comes to mind when making stew, but it contributed a marvelous layer of complexity to this warm and soothing stew.
I was still feeling stewish the next day, and the temperature had not risen appreciably, so I decided also to make a chicken stew. And for anyone who has ever lived in Virginia, chicken stew means just one thing: Brunswick stew.
Brunswick stew is a filling and lightly sweet concoction of shredded chicken, corn, beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. Brunswick County, Va., and Brunswick, Ga., both claim credit for the dish, which has been around at least since Colonial times,
Back then, it was typically made with rabbit or squirrel, and some old-timers still claim to put a squirrel or two in their pot. But since about 1929, the de facto go-to Brunswick stew for the entire southeastern corridor has been Mrs. Fearnow’s, easily recognizable by its bright yellow cans. It is the Brunswick stew everyone tries to re-create at home, the Holy Grail of Brunswick stews.
I have a recipe I think is pretty close.
I picked up some ideas for it from a blog called My Life in Color and other ideas from suggestions made on a different blog. The suggestions were written by George Fearnow, grandson of the original Mrs. (Lillie Pearl) Fearnow. And finally I added some ideas of my own that just seemed right at the time.
The stew begins with chicken and chicken stock, and to get the richest possible flavor I opted to simmer a whole chicken (with onion, carrots, celery, and parsley) in store-bought chicken stock. You could skip this step and just use the store-bought chicken stock, but you have to cook the chicken somehow, so you may as well get the most flavor out of it. You’ll have stock left over, the most flavorful stock you’ve ever had, which you can refrigerate or freeze for later use.
In his notes, Mr. Fearnow recommends using white shoe peg corn, which I did (it was frozen). And although Mrs. Fearnow’s uses lima beans, which are typically green, I chose instead to use canned butter beans. Scientifically speaking, they are the same thing, though butter beans are cream colored.
Mr. Fearnow also should be credited for suggesting that half of the tomatoes should be hand-crushed, while the other half should be hand-diced. That adds two different textures as well as visual appeal to the stew. But don’t take the shortcut and buy cans of crushed tomatoes and diced tomatoes; one is a liquid and the other is too firm. It takes no time to dice whole canned tomatoes yourself, and hand-crushing is even faster. Just be sure to cut off the tough stem end first.
One thing Mr. Fearnow suggests, that I chose to ignore, is to use an equal amount of sugar and salt. I decided to forego the sugar entirely, even though it is listed as an ingredient on the Mrs. Fearnow’s can (for that matter, so is dehydrated parsley, which I also left out). Between the tomatoes and the carrots, the stew is sweet enough that it does not need additional sugar.
So my Brunswick stew is not exactly the same thing that comes in the can. But maybe it’s…better?
Contact Daniel Neman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6155.
Beef Stew with Fennel and Sausage
Preheat oven to 350°.
Spread flour on a plate, and mix in generous amounts of salt and pepper. Dredge meat through the flour, tapping each piece to remove excess flour. Put oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown beef on each side (you may have to do this in batches, and you may need more oil). Remove meat, add onions, and cook 1 minute.
Deglaze pot by pouring in wine and using a wooden spoon to stir up all the brown bits from the bottom. Allow wine to reduce by about half, and add the remaining ingredients. Season generously with salt and pepper. Return the meat to the pot and bring to a simmer. Cover, and transfer pot to the oven. Cook until beef is fall-apart tender, about 2 hours.
Yield: 8-10 servings; Source: Daniel Neman
Cook's note: For best flavor, create your own stock by simmering chicken and a few vegetables in homemade or store-bought stock (first step, below). If you would rather save time and a little money, skip the first step and use chicken that has already been cooked. You will still need to use perhaps 1 quart of stock later in the recipe.
Place whole chicken in a large stockpot, add chicken stock and, if needed, extra water to cover by a few inches. Peel and cut 2 of the carrots into large pieces, and add them, the celery, quartered onion, and parsley to the pot. Turn heat to high, bring to a boil, and immediately lower temperature to a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 1 hour, skimming off foam and scum that accumulates on the surface for the first several minutes. Remove chicken and set aside; reserve stock. When chicken is cool enough to touch, remove skin and shred the meat.
Peel and mince remaining two carrots. Dice the tomatoes from one can, reserving the juice. Remove the tough stem ends from the tomatoes in the other can with a paring knife, and use your hands to crush the tomatoes, reserving the juice.
Melt butter over medium-high heat in a stock pot or large Dutch oven. Add minced onion and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add corn, beans, minced carrots, all tomatoes and their juice, shredded chicken meat, and 2 cups broth. Season with salt, black pepper, and a little red pepper to taste (the stew is generally not spicy, but a lot of people like to put hot sauce on it after it is served).
Simmer 2 hours, adding more broth if needed. Add the Worcestershire sauce and potato cubes and continue simmering until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Adjust for seasonings.
Yield: 8-10 servings; Source: Adapted from My Life in Color