Foodie Friday: [Lamb] Stew

We had a wonderful, beautiful, sunny, 55+ degree Saturday last week.  It was lovely.  Now it’s cold again, although at least it’s normal winter cold (lows in the 10s, highs in the 20-30s) and not stupidly absurdly cold, and the snow almost all melted.  I can deal with this.

But even normal winter likes nice warm cozy food.  Therefore, stew.  You can make stew out of just about anything: beef, lamb, veal, venison, goat.  I guess I probably wouldn’t make stew out of chicken or fish, because I have better things to do with those.

So anyway, you start with some vegetables.  I always include an onion and some carrots. This time I also put in some celery, half a sweet potato, and one very small sad turnip (you might also use parsnip, celery root, rutabaga, potatoes, etc.) – all chopped into bite-sized pieces:

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The onions and celery are separate from the carrots and other stuff because they’re going to go into the pot first.  These are what we call “aromatics” – things we cook first to make their flavor wonderful.  The other ones will go in later.

Then you’ll need  some stew meat.  I used lamb, because I had a small package of lamb stew meat from my local butcher.  You can buy your stew meat pre-cut, or you can buy a larger cut and cut it up yourself.  You don’t need tender cuts for this – stewing as a technique works best on tougher cuts with more connective tissue.

Mix up a handful of flour, salt and pepper:

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Then dredge (also known as “toss” or “push your meat pieces around until covered”) your meat in the flour mixture.  You want them all nicely covered, but not with giant lumps of flour attached. They should look like this:

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Great!  Set that aside for a few minutes.  (Out of reach of cats, dogs, small children, etc.)

Apply your favorite soup pot to the stove.  (The pot I’m using here was overkill for this batch of stew.) Put a blob of your favorite cooking fat into the pot – you might use vegetable oil, shortening, lard, or – my favorite – bacon grease!  You don’t want to use butter or olive oil, though – they’ll burn at the temperature you need them.

Get it good and hot:

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And then toss in your meat pieces:

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Brown them on one side (1-2 minutes) and then turn the pieces over and brown the other side:

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Om nom.  Some of the flour mixture will stick to the bottom of the pan and get all tasty and brown. You want this!

When your meat bits are browned, take them out and set them aside for another minute.  (Continue to keep out of reach of dogs, cats, small children, etc.)

Add your aromatics (onion, celery, garlic, etc.) to the pot and stir them around for a while:

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You want them to get a bit cooked but not browned, and do your best to start scraping up the tasty browned bits from the bottom of the pan:

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Then throw in your other veggies:

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I added my herbs at this point (rosemary and marjoram):

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And then you’ll wanna toss your meat back in:

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And enough broth to cover everything:

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While that’s coming up to a boil, add in some other seasonings.  Most red-meat stews can benefit from a bit of tomato paste:

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(Yes, I use my knife to get tomato paste from the can.  I also use my knife to get minced garlic, stock concentrate, and many other things out of jars.  I don’t want to get a bunch of spoons dirty.)

Now, stew is extremely flexible, but runs the risk of being exceptionally bland.  So add in your favorite seasonings.  Salt and pepper are mandatory.  My standard additions are A1 Steak Sauce (I don’t put it on steak, only in stew and pot roast) and worcestershire.  You could also add a bit of a seasoning blend (like a steak seasoning or Mrs. Dash), or a bunch of herbs like tarragon, chervil, savory, thyme, etc.  Goat in particular lends itself to some crazy seasonings like Jamaican jerk.  My rule of thumb is that if it smells good with the flavors already in your kitchen from getting you this far, it’ll probably be tasty.  A teaspoon total is a good measure for dried herbs and spices, a tablespoon each for any liquid flavorings – use these as starting points and adjust from there.

Stir it all together, bring it to a boil, and then turn down the heat and put a lid on it.  You want to let this stuff go for a while – probably around an hour if not more.  A few really cool things happen in this time.  The flour that mixed in with the fat when you browned the meat formed something akin to a roux, which during this time will thicken your stew into a nice rich texture.  The connective tissue in the meat will melt away, which makes the meat super-tender while making the stew even more rich in texture.  The flavors meld together (the tomato paste in particular, which almost vanishes and just leaves a subtle depth), the onions and carrots become lovely and sweet, and everything mellows out.

Incidentally, you can also make this whole thing in a crockpot.  Do everything exactly as described above, but switch to a crockpot after you cook up your onions and celery, and let it go on low for 8-10+ hours.

You can also make this recipe in larger quantities.  Just use more of everything.  It keeps well for leftovers and also freezes pretty well, so it’s a good option to make a bunch of.

Either way, when you get to where you want to be, it’ll look about like this:

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Except hopefully you chose a more appropriately-sized pot than I did.

I forgot to take a picture of it in a bowl, so let’s just pretend that you have a lovely photo here with a few sprigs of fresh herbs (that came from ??? because my herb garden froze over months ago) and some nice toasted french bread.  Or something.

Also, in case you’re wondering, I no longer have a vegetarian in the house.  Just so you don’t think I’m being a giant jerkface here.

Foodie Friday: Stupid-Simple Butternut Squash Soup – with Bonus Biscuits!

Well, then. Hello, Sunday! The weather here has only gotten better insofar as it no longer hurts your face to go outside – it’s still mostly gray, sloppy, and cold. My day job is still bonkers, and because that wasn’t enough for my crazy self, I also took on a pretty big freelance gig with a pretty tight turnaround. Such is my life.  I hope you can all forgive me.

Thankfully, I have a spouse who is willing to make dinner.

On the one night this week I did get to cook myself, I wanted easy, warm, and cozy food. I’m also still working on a budget, and I still have a vegetarian in the house. (Vegetarians are great; I just need more practice at cooking veggie-friendly food.) So of course, I decided that soup is the way to go.

Butternut squash is warm and cozy no matter what you do with it.  Soup is kind of a cop-out with this wonderful veggie, but it’s such a delicious cop-out that I don’t mind.  It’s very quick – maybe 30 minutes start to finish? – and very flexible.

So, we start with Le Butternut Squash:

These things last forever, by the way.  Buy enough in the fall to last until the following May, and just store them somewhere cool and dry.

These things last forever, by the way. Buy enough in the fall to last until the following May, and just store them somewhere cool and dry.  I use about one a month.  (Bonus points, sometimes they’re hilariously phallic!)

So you want to start by peeling and cubing your squash.  First, I want to say that peeling any other squash is a royal pain in the ass, so don’t even try it with anything else.  Second, the only way to peel butternut squash is with a very sharp steel or ceramic peeler – then it’s actually pretty easy.

This is probably ~4-5 cups of squash cubes.  You can buy pre-cut squash if you'd like.

This is probably ~4-5 cups of squash cubes.

You can also buy this stuff pre-cut at the grocery store these days.  Or, if you want to DIY but don’t have a sharp peeler, you can halve the thing longways and either roast it with a little olive oil, S&P (350°) for about 45 minutes (drool), or nuke it for 5-10 (fast!).  These latter two options have an extra bonus of reducing the simmer time for the soup itself.

Ok, squash get!  Now chop up an onion:

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And throw it into a soup pot (also known as a kettle, pasta pot, or very large saucepan) with some olive oil over medium-high heat.

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Then throw in the squash, assuming you haven’t otherwise cooked it yet:

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You’re gonna cook this stuff for a while, maybe 5-10 minutes or more, until the onion is translucent and maybe juuuust beginning to brown. Stir occasionally – you want the heat high enough to do something but low enough that you don’t have to stand there tending it the whole time.  You can use this intermediate time to do something like make a salad or whip up a batch of biscuits.  Hmm…biscuits…

Once your onions look tasty (the squash won’t look anything more than a bit soft/wet on the sides – it won’t brown), add about 4 cups of broth.  If you have pre-cooked your squash, now is the time to add it. I used vegetable broth made from Better than Bullion, but I’ll often use homemade chicken stock.  Bring that up to a boil and then turn it down to simmer for 15-20 minutes.  Put a lid on it if you have one handy.

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You may need more or less liquid depending on how much squash you have. You want just enough that your squash cubes are just covered.

It was about this time that I decided I wanted biscuits with my soup – nice cheesy herby biscuits. So I started working on those. They’re easy-peasy – you just take your favorite biscuit recipe (even Bisquick) and stir in some shredded cheese and herbs when you mix the wet and dry ingredients.

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Shredded smoked gouda, and dried parsley, dill, sage, and savory. Savory, as it turns out, is a cranky little plant and will stab you if you try to rub it to break it down, so don’t try to rub it with your fingers.

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Dry ingredients!

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Wet ingredient!

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They’re mixed together! It’s biscuit dough!

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Biscuit dough on the baking tray! Here’s where you want to learn from my mistakes – if your biscuits have cheese in them, use parchment paper on your baking sheet.

Then I decided I wanted decadent biscuits, so I brushed them with melted garlic butter.

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Into the oven with those bad boys – whatever your biscuit recipe tells you.  Mine took a little longer than advertised.

When those get close to being done in the oven, you want to blend up and season your soup.  I have a stick blender that I totally love for this kind of thing, but you can use a regular blender, too – just let the soup cool a bit and be careful.  I blend the everliving daylights out of mine, since I like a silky velvety soup like the ones I ate in Australia a few years ago.

Now, seasonings.  Salt and pepper is almost mandatory, but from there, you can do wherever you’d like. For an eastern style, try adding some coconut milk, ginger, and curry powder.  You could do a southwestern hint with lime juice and chili powder.  A sweet-style soup might have a bit of maple syrup and maybe some cloves, mace, or allspice.  You can add some cream or crème fraîche or yogurt if you’d like a creamier soup.  I ended up using salt, pepper, and just a hint of ginger and curry – just enough to add some flavor complexity, not enough to make it taste like squash curry.

You may have to reheat the soup a bit depending on how much stuff you put in it and how cold it was.  Do that.  Then serve this soup with your wonderful cheesy-herby-buttery biscuits.

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Le Wonderful Soup. This pot may have been overkill, but better too big than too small.

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And the biscuits, in all their cheesy-herby-golden-brown-glory.

Foodie Friday: Cheap Soup

Winter here in Ohio has been rough this year.  This is what it looked like out my window today:

There's a water main break over on that corner, hence the giant piles of ice.  It's supposed to be fixed by 1/31!!!…...

There’s a water main break over on that corner, hence the giant piles of ice. At least they’re going to have it fixed by 1/31! … … …

So of course I want warm, comforting, cozy food.  Who wouldn’t?

As it turns out, I also have a vegetarian houseguest this week, so my normal go-to comfort foods (pot pie, roasted chicken, braised beef/bison/vension) are right out.  No problem, I have lots of vegetarian go-to recipes.  We made veggie lasagna earlier this week (guess how many pictures I took?) and that wonderful lentil-mushroom pot pie with gouda biscuit topping which you should totally make if you haven’t yet.

But, as it turns out, I’m also on a budget, so I have my go-to low-cost comfort foods.  This recipe is a favorite fall-back.  It’s largely based on Poor Girl Eats Well’s Smoky Split Pea Carrot Soup, but (as with all my food) I don’t actually measure anything, and I throw in whatever sounds good at the moment.

You start with (you’re never going to guess this): some chopped veggies!  In this case, I started with garlic, an onion, and the most sad pathetic wilted limp floppy carrots you’ve ever seen, from the bottom of my fridge.

See that purple-skinned carrot on the edge?  I grew that one!  It's the last of my summer garden carrots.

See that purple-skinned carrot on the edge? I grew that one! It’s the last of my summer garden carrots.

It didn’t seem like quite enough, so I added these two hakurei turnips from the same bottom of my fridge.

They've been patiently hanging out since CSA season, which ended the first week of December.  Held up better than the carrots.

They’ve been patiently hanging out since CSA season, which ended the first week of December. Held up better than the carrots.

You could add all kinds of things here – potatoes, parsnips, celery (celery root?), jerusalem artichokes, salsify, maybe even rutabagas or a golden beet.  I think I’d stick with root vegetables, and I’d stay away from normal red beets unless I wanted split pea borscht.

Olive oil in a pot, start the onions and garlic first.  Add your spices now (cumin, salt and pepper, and smoked paprika – yeah!) so the flavors bloom some.

 Bonus smoky flavor if you, like me, let your onions burn a little bit.  It's a feature.  Really.  You can trust this faceless person here, right?


Bonus smoky flavor if you, like me, let your onions burn a little bit. It’s a feature. Really. You can trust this faceless person here, right?

What’s that, Lyz? Bloom?  Well, the flavor from spices comes from the essential oils in each spice, so you can really get way more out of your spices by adding them into your starting-saute and letting them sizzle for a few minutes.  Don’t overdo it – burnt spices are awful – and remember that it’s not as effective with herbs (and doesn’t do a damn thing with salt).

Add the carrots (and turnips or whatever else you’re using), your split peas (rinsed and picked over, please!), and enough water to cover everything by an inch or so.  You could also use broth, stock, or add in some bullion here – I didn’t, because I currently don’t own any vegetarian soup base.  You could also add a ham bone (my butcher carries WONDERFUL smoked ham hocks for dirt-cheap) and/or some chopped-up ham here, if you were inclined to do so.  Just remember, ham is not vegetarian.

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Bring it up to a simmer and let it go for a while.  PGEW suggests 20 minutes, which I have never found to be enough.  I let mine go for closer to an hour tonight and it was lovely – but you could probably stop somewhere more like 40 minutes and be fine.

Now, while you’re waiting for your dinner to cook, let’s talk about split peas.  Split peas are cheap, hearty food – lots of fiber and protein, plus some iron to boot.  They come in two colors (at least!) – the typical green ones, and also in yellow.  The yellow ones are theoretically a little sweeter, which sounds pretty good.  However, the green ones come at something ridiculous like 69¢ for a pound at Aldi, and you cannot beat that price – so I’ve actually never tried the yellow ones.  (Have you?  Let me know how they are!)

Since your soup is obviously not done following our little pea chat there, go make some biscuits or get some bread to go with this soup.  I got my spouse to make some herb-garlic-cheese dinner rolls, but even refrigerator biscuits or grocery store rolls/bread would be fine. Heck, sliced bread is fine.  Go to war with the bread you’ve got.

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Let’s assume that the soup has cooked for its allotted time by now.  Your peas should be tender, not crunchy – crunchy peas are a total bummer in this soup, not that I’m sure there’s ever a time and place for crunchy split peas.  Take about half the soup out, and blend one half or the other (or more or less, it’s up to you) with your favorite blending implement – if necessary.  Mine just sort of smoothed out as I stirred it.   (Incidentally, this is a good time to take out the ham bone if you put one in.  We’re not playing “Will It Blend?” here.)

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Then recombine your two parts of soup.  You may need to add liquid, adjust seasonings, or reheat it some if it’s gotten cool while blending.  If you didn’t add chopped ham before and you’ve changed your mind, this is a perfectly good time to throw it in and heat through.  Top with your favorite soup toppings: bacon bits (not vegetarian!), crème fraîche, croutons, shredded cheese, toasted bread crumbs, crispy fried shallots, whatever.  Or nothing.  Nothing is a totally valid soup topping.

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Eat.  Warm.  Cozy.  Bread.  Blankets.  Kittens.  Sleep.