Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Montana Memories and Root Vegetable Stew

When I go back in my mind to the best stews of my life, I find myself sitting at my grandmother's dining room table in Montana. Late fall snows dust the wide, terraced yard where her small orchards and gardens are scattered. The deer come in the dusk poking for forgotten apples. Homemade brown bread and raspberry rhubarb jam make the rounds while Grandma dishes up the first helping of stew.

Autumn is all about food that is both bold and soothing, and no main course embodies this better than a stew of hearty root vegetables. In this dish, several aromatics work together to create wonderful complexity and feature vegetables like turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas. The meat in this dish, whether chicken, beef, or venison, plays almost a supporting role to these earthy, fall flavors.

For Grandma's root vegetable stew, there was no written-in-stone recipe. The exact ingredients and quantities always changed depending on what she had on hand. As we were growing up, learning about food, Grandma used the stew as a chaperon for new tastes and textures she wanted us to discover. And while we ate, she taught us about food.

The venison in this stew, she would explain, was twice marinated to make sure it wouldn't be gamey and then browned with allspice, giving it a Scandinavian flavor. The chicken in another stew was cooked in a pressure cooker, making the meat insanely tender. And every vegetable, it seemed, came from the garden of a friend. In that way, we grew up very aware of our food and where it came from. The people of local religious communities and organic farmers seemed to stand around our table, their ghostly presence inviting us to not just enjoy but to be thankful for our meal.

Part of the charm of this type of dish is that unlike many prima donna courses, stew never holds form above function. The stews of my childhood were there to nourish us, to provide a place for the odds and ends of late summer cooking, and to fill us up when the constant chill made our hunger insatiable. The truest test for any stew is quite simply: Is it delicious? When autumn makes the days short and appetites big, a simple root vegetable stew has the power to satisfy a deep, primal part of ourselves, the part of us that knows winter is coming.

Hungry? Check out this link and the additional cooking instructions below.


Here are a couple of tips for making this stew a little more like the ones I remember:

Use rutabagas instead of beets, toss in a potato or two, and add a 1/2 to 1 lb. of your choice of meat. Brown 1" cubes of meat in a sauce pan if raw (with salt and pepper to taste) before adding stock to boil. If using cooked chicken, add in with veggies. If using fish, add 1" cubes during last 10 minutes of simmering and test for doneness (flaky, opaque) before serving.

Texture options: Smash some of the veggies with a fork for a courser stew. You can also puree part or all of the finished stew for a creamier, more refined texture.

Have fun connecting with your inner hunter/gatherer with a big bowl of this stew!

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