I call it gumbo, although my Cajun friends might howl in protest. Real gumbo is always made with the holy trinity of onions, bell peppers, and celery. Mine is, but only sometimes. Many chefs consider tomatoes to be a gumbo no-no, but I load up my stew with them anyway. And some might say that only a Cajun can cook authentic gumbo; while I am fascinated with Cajun culture and history, there’s not a drop of Acadian blood in my veins. Plus, I use prefabricated dry roux, sold in a glass jar, which is a sacrilege of an entirely different order, but a mighty fine shortcut.
All of which can be forgiven on a long, lazy February Sunday afternoon in the kitchen. In fact, much can be forgiven on those stew days, those wintry afternoons when I have the time and inclination to spend hours over a stove. Winter trees outside the windows scratch at the sky. Minnie is at my feet, begging for bits of duck meat or beef trimmings. There is wine and music and basketball playing in the background. It’s easy to forgive the Jenga towers of dirty pans, the garbage can heaped with onion skins and bell pepper innards and chicken scraps. And easy to forgive me — I hope — for changing back into pajamas right after church. Most of my best winter stews were concocted while wearing pajamas.
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Slowly cooking a winter stew — as opposed to using a slow cooker — has become one of the rarer pleasures of the modern world. It takes time and attention, two things in increasingly short supply. I blame the Crock-Pot, in part. It’s just too easy to dump in a few ingredients and let it do its thing. Whatever allure that standing over a stove for hour after hour ever had, the Instant Pot and air fryer have conspired to nearly whisk it away. Why wait three hours for a meal to come together when you can set it and forget it?
Well, just because. Quick-cooking a stew is like serving instant grits. It ain’t right, and if you don’t know it ain’t right, then maybe you don’t deserve the real thing.
I have half a dozen cold-weather stews that I rotate, from gumbo to chili to rich braised-shank stews that thicken with the gelatin that seeps from the bones. No matter the end result, however, my stews almost always start with a small mountain of diced veggies. After church, after lunch, I get to work. Onions, carrots, green peppers. Mushrooms, much of the time. There could be celery. There might be okra. There’s something meditative about all that chopping, rendering carrots and peppers into bite-size pieces. (But no potato. Never been a big potato-in-the-stew fan.)
Like power-washing the driveway, veggie-chopping results in instant satisfaction. I brown the veggies and meat in half canola oil and half bacon fat, which I store in a Mt. Olive pickle jar in the back of the refrigerator because that’s what my mama did. From this point forward, I’m riffing free of the teleprompter. Maybe I’ll add Madeira wine or dark beer. Maybe I’ll sneak in a triple dose of coriander or a dollop of sambal oelek. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what comes next. I’m flying by the seat of my culinary pants, and I’m often not sure where I’ll be landing.
My successful bending of the gumbo rules helped slip the leash off my winter stew cooking. Long ago I turned away from recipes, with their pedantic measurements and confining strictures. These days, I open the cabinets and freezer and vegetable drawers, and I make do with what’s on hand. I’ve made some weird concoctions, inspired by being too lazy to go to the grocery store. I’ve turned out dark chili dishes seasoned with bitter chocolate, and sweet-potato-and-sausage stews that could knock the frost off a pumpkin. Perhaps my most successful avant-garde attempt was a shredded chicken, pistachio, and collard chili. No joke. It was stupid good. I figure that if folks from Cincinnati can heat up what amounts to a Sloppy Joe (sans bun) and call it chili, then I can add nuts and greens to a rich, savory mix and do the same.
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Which brings me back to my disdain for cooking winter stews in any device that requires an electrical outlet. It’s not that I don’t love my slow cooker. It has its place. But when it comes to a serious winter stew or gumbo or chili, I like being tethered to the pot. I like to taste and season, fiddle with the burner heat, add seasonings and spices, and keep a sharp eye, or nose, out for seasoning that needs a bit of correction. The long cooking time works its magic on even the toughest cuts — silver skin and tendons soften and vanish, rendered into a silky, succulent broth.
These short February days turn stew day into a race with the sun if I plan on serving the goods for Sunday supper. These concoctions are almost always better the next day, or the next, as the flavors mingle and marry. A bit of time at low temperatures gives the vegetables more time to absorb all the tasty flavors and morph into a harmonious ambrosia.
After church, it’s back to pajamas and off to the kitchen — comfy clothes help the author’s culinary creativity ﬂow. photograph by Matt Hulsman
But taste isn’t limited to the human tongue. It’s more than a primary sense — it’s an alchemy in itself. What we taste is a mixture of the stimuli picked up by our taste buds, but it’s also informed by memory and setting, mood and atmosphere. Our taste buds are connected, as it were, to our heartstrings.
And when it comes to winter stews, my heartstrings are connected to my stomach. After an hour of prep and three hours on the stove, I’ve waited half the day to sample my winter wares. I’ll wait no longer.