It must have been my father’s snoring that drowned out the minister’s voice as he related the story of Jacob and Esau. I would have certainly picked up on the story of a red-haired brother (my own brother has red hair) giving up his entire birthright and father’s blessing for a bowl of lentil stew. Sounds like something my brother would have done. It wasn’t until years later when I found myself reading two excellent books: Student of Weather by Canadian author Elizabeth Hay and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, that I took some time to investigate Genesis. Both novels involve the brothers; indirectly in “Weather” and directly in “Red Tent.”
The history of stew is as old as fire. Essentially, a stew is any combination of two or more ingredients, cooked slowly in a liquid. The old french verb, estuver, stems from the Latin roots meaning “from steam.” Before the invention of pottery, ancient people were using turtle shells and large mollusc shells for stewing. Cooking became easier after the development of pottery, although it took almost 10,000 centuries to finally invent the dishwasher which really improved things. There have been many references to stew throughout history, and the first actual recipe for a stew, ragout, can be found in a 14th century French cookbook.
Every culture has its own version of stew. The traditional Irish stew consists of mutton and root vegetables. It wasn’t until after the Irish immigrated to North America and times were better that the Irish stew became “fancied up” with better cuts of meats and the addition of Guinness stout. The benefits of stewing are numerous. In times of famine and hardship, it was a good way to make a substantial meal of available ingredients and the cheapest cuts of meat. Stewing makes otherwise tough cuts edible, and also disguises their appearance in the gravy. How else could you serve an oxtail? Goulash has sweet paprika; Bourguignonne has red wine, the New England Boiled Dinner is only corned beef, onion and cabbage. But they are all stews.
Stewing is a great way to free you from the kitchen while dinner cooks. It is also one good way to make use of your crock pot. The longer, slower cooking allows all of the flavours to develop and mingle. In fact, many stew lovers would argue that the stew is better the second time it is heated up, which makes it a great meal when you have a large crowd coming and you need to get all of your preparations done the day before. And for me, the best part is less pots to clean.
Most stew recipes call for braising or browning the meats and even sometimes the vegetables before starting the stewing process. This will bring out the lovely brown flavours and colours in the ingredients, or caramelize, a buzz word in today’s culinary scene. This can be done either in a heavy skillet or in the oven at a high temperature. Basically, you are degrading the natural complex sugars into products that impart a caramel flavour and colour. This is why properly caramelized carrots, onions or corn have an even sweeter flavour after caramelizing. You can’t go into any restaurant these days without seeing a caramelized onion somewhere on the menu.
Stew is a comfort food. Bon Appetit has called Braised Short Ribs its “Dish of the Year” for 2001. They feel that after the tragedies of this past year, it is time to return to less fussy and lavish foods, and back to the basics of more grounded cuisine. I think that they are right.
If you are interested in reading about Jacob and Esau, you will find the story in Genesis, Chapter 25. If you are in a book discussion group, you will find the parallels between the sisters in Student of Weather and the feuding brothers worthwhile spending time on.