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Monday, July 07, 2014

Pioneer Stew - Recipe and What the Heck is it?

One of the staples of the pioneer diet was stew.  The dish had numerous benefits. . .it could be made from almost anything, it could be made entirely in one pot, it made scarce meats and veggies "stretch" as far as possible, it could be made ahead and reheated as needed on the trail, it helped lean, tough wild game become more tender in the long cooking process, and it provided a liquid that could replace butter on bread . .just sop up that yummy gravy with a dried out biscuit or slice of bread, and you were good to go.  

So no wonder you see movies or read books about pioneers that are chock full of stew references.  And there was nothing fancy here. . .While I may use bay leaves and a rich, dark roux for my contemporary version, or add a dash of Worcester, some garlic or a sprinkling of herbs to wake up and deepen the flavor, those on the frontier had a much simpler version.

With only salt and pepper and the flavor of the bare ingredients themselves, you might think that the basic recipe was bland and flavorless, but you'd be wrong.

Wild game back in the day wasn't force fed corn or genetically engineered foods.  They grazed on wild grasses, seeds, nuts and foliage and the meat, while leaner, was certainly more flavorful than present day store bought versions.  Even farm raised meats tended to be fed traditional foods like heirloom grains and wild hay and were often left to graze or range on healthy, natural foods.  So, whether wild rabbit, venison, or home raised chicken stew, the meat was traditionally more flavorful.

Likewise, vegetables grow from traditional varieties, rather than hybrids developed to increase size and productivity, typically had a whole lot more flavor, too.  If you've ever grown your own potatoes, you'll understand what I'm talking about here!

Then, like now, the stew-making process was much the same:  sear your meat in the fat of your choice, when the meat is browned, add some flour and cook for a minute or two.  Add your potatoes and other veggies and then cover with water.  When the meat and vegetables are tender, season with salt and pepper and you're done!

The only real differences between the traditional Pioneer Stew and what we make today is that they didn't always have the veggies we think as standard in a stew (carrots, onions, celery, etc.) so they'd use whatever was at hand, they often didn't peel the potatoes and they frequently used bone in meats like rabbit or chicken or pheasant, etc., (which actually improves the flavor quite a bit. . .bones are tasty!).  Here's a basic recipe:

  • Cutting Board
  • Knife
  • Platter
  • Long Handled Spoon (slotted is best)
  • Dutch Oven or other Heavy Pot (I use a four quart)
  • Stove

  • 3lbs Meat (your choice. . .beef works well, as does venison, chicken, rabbit, etc.)
  • 1/2 cup Bacon Fat  (yeah, no points for healthy here!!)
  • 1/2 cup Flour, divided into 1/4 cup portions
  • 4-5 Large Potatoes, skin on and cut into large bite sized chunks
  • 2 Large Onions, cut into very large dice
  • 4-5 Carrots, peeled and cut into large bite sized chunks
  • 4 Stalks of Celery, washed and cut into large bite sized chunks
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

  • Either cube your boneless meat into 1 1/2 inch dice or portion your bone-in meat into individual sized hunks.
  • Sprinkle 1/4 cup of flour on the meat and mix to coat evenly and well.
  • Heat bacon fat in your heavy pot over medium heat
  • When meat sizzles when it hits the pan, add 1/3 of your meat (avoid over crowding your pain as it brings the heat down too much and your meat parboils rather than sears)
  • Stir well to cook evenly
  • When the meat is brown on all sides, remove to the platter, draining with spoon as you lift meat out
  • Repeat with the next 1/3 of meat and the last 1/3
  • Add the onions to the pot and cook until just browning and translucent
  • Sprinkle the onions with the reserved 1/4 cup flour and stir well, cooking for two more minutes
  • Add meat and any captured juices back to the pot
  • Add potatoes and cover all with water
  • Simmer,covered, at a medium-low heat for at least one hour
  • About a half hour to forty five minutes before serving (depending on how done you like your carrots and celery and how big you cut them!), add the rest of the veggies to the pot.
  • Before serving, adjust the gravy. . .if it's too thick, add a little water.  If it's too thin, turn heat up a little and stir frequently while reducing the liquid.
  • Salt and pepper to taste 
  • Serve with biscuits or bread

Feel free to substitute with or add your favorite veggies.  We often use turnips and parsnips and sweet potatoes, etc.  No right or wrong with stew!!

Paler than I usually make as they didn't typically use a dark roux!

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