One of the best parts about cooking real food, is that you can change your mind in an instant. You might feel like Thai food on Saturday when you are shopping, but on Wednesday, you are leaning to Mexican. I’m spoiled, but I am spoiled because I have those choices. This article illustrates the freedom of real food with total transformations of basic crock-pot stew.
I bought a beef shank ($2) to make beef broth. As I prepared to make the broth, I decided there was too much meat on the bone for that purpose, and decided to make stew. No imagination at all, just meat, potatoes, kohlrabi (no turnips on hand), onion and carrots into the crock pot until it was full. Add water and cook overnight.
Trouble is, I like stew, but not that much. I already have beef barley soup and a couple of packages of stew in the freezer. One thing I have noticed in my cooking from other cultures, is that almost every type of food has a stew, and my stew ingredients were pretty much standard. Root vegetables. They store well, and can make a bit of meat go a long, long way. Cooks around the world face the same challenges.
Curry: My first idea was to make a curry. My favorite curry has potatoes, onions, carrots, cauliflower and peas, so my base stew ingredients were pretty close. I took one serving of my stew and placed it in a small pan. I added a generous tablespoon of Vindaloo curry paste, simmered for a few minutes.
It worked. Man, did it work! The meat was a bit strange, as I tend to do mostly vegetarian curries, but it bore no resemblance to beef stew, and it was one degree hotter than I wanted — as always. (I think I want curry one degree hotter than I think I want it — it happens too often to be a true mistake). Warmed pita bread, raw vegetables and cooling sour cream completed the meal.
Aside: Vindaloo Curry Paste is one of the few pre-made products I have in my home. The list of ingredients is not shocking (product page with nutrition information) and it is stunningly delicious. It also lasts forever … nothing would dare grow in that fiery environment. A bottle is around $5, and keeps me in curry for months.
Update: Since writing this article, I have discovered that the citric and lactic acid used in the Vindaloo paste have a good chance of containing genetically modified products. I try to avoid GM products as much as I can. I’ve found an option that I will try shortly, but wanted to post it now in case anyone shares my disquiet with scientifically altered food. Jamie Olliver has posted several different curry paste recipes. They seem easy enough to make.
Mexican: Slow cooked meat and potatoes are as common as chilies in true Mexican cooking. The Mexican version may have been my favorite of the entire bunch. I made some tortilla chips with half of a large flour tortilla, using the same method as I use for making crackers. Before cutting the individual pieces and baking, I brushed on a paste made from dry chilies. (In future posts, I will cover many methods for reducing the time-consuming nature of authentic Mexican ingredients. Hint: the freezer has a starring role.) You could brush oil on and sprinkle with chili powder for much the same result.
I browned some Serrano pepper and garlic for about a minute before adding the serving of crock-pot stew. I also added some chili paste (the one I used on the chips), but again chili powder would work. I let it simmer for a few minutes before putting into a large bowl.
The toppings make this version. I spread the custom chips around the edge of the bowl, and added sour cream, a bit of grated cheddar cheese, chopped tomato and cilantro. Note: I would have preferred Queso Fresco, but I cannot find one I like in my Mexican-food wasteland. Feta cheese makes a decent substitute, but I didn’t have any on hand.
Borscht: This European variation turned out to be the easy one. I simply put the base stew in a pan, added cooked beets and used a fork to coarsely mash the vegetables. I let the mixture simmer for a few minutes to blend the flavor. Done! A dab of sour cream to the center of the bowl completes the transformation.
Canned beets would have worked well, but it is also easy to cook a whole beet quickly. Simply poke several holes in the skin, and cook it in the microwave. Three minutes is enough for a medium beet. Or, even better, bake or boil a bunch of beets. Peel, slice and freeze. Easy to do, and it’s wonderful to have ready-to-go ingredients in the freezer.
Beef stew with dumplings: Just because I didn’t want a bunch of stew meals, doesn’t mean I didn’t want any. But next to the exciting siblings described above, my plain version had to put on a bit of a show. I made a quick version of dumplings to add interest, and as a side bonus, thicken the stew. The base stew was never thickened.
Dumplings are actually quite easy to make, especially in small quantities. For my one serving, I put two generous tablespoons of flour into a soup bowl. I added about ½ teaspoon of baking powder, a dash of salt and a bit of oregano and basil. I added about a teaspoon of butter, and used a fork to cut the butter into the flour mixture. Adding enough milk to make a soft dough was the final touch.
Note: I find that if I keep my tools simple, extras like dumplings do not take much time or create much mess. In this case, the soup bowl rather than a mixing bowl means dishwasher rather than hand-washing. Using a fork is much more efficient than a pastry blender in a small bowl, and it is always handy. Just make sure you fill the bowl with water as soon as you empty it, and put the fork into the water. By the time you finish your meal, the dough is diluted enough that you can just pop your “tools” into the dishwasher.
I brought the soup to a boil, then reduced the heat to a good simmer. I dropped the dough into the pan in small pieces, covered the pan, and simmered the stew for about 10 minutes. (It’s best if you don’t open the lid while the dumplings cook.) If you make your dumplings small, they cook faster, and are easier to eat.
So, one boring crock pot of beef stew produced a wide range of tastes. This article underlines what is so special about real cooking. It is not only better tasting food that is better for you, it gives you the freedom to eat what you enjoy the most — every time.