Hard Time In The Maritimes Stew
My father grew up in Pictou County, Nova Scotia during the depression. Umm, is that redundant? Anyway, he liked to say that he could remember when ‘the good old days’ were called These Trying Times.
He joked but I know they must have been tough times because he eventually ran away from home to avoid the coal mine and joined the Royal Canadian Navy. When going to war and rolling around the North Atlantic in winter is a life improvement you know things must have been real bad.
When I started to get in to sailing and asked him to come along he was more circumspect. “Anyone who would go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for a holiday”, he said.
Though times might not have been good, some of the simple foods that stretched the harvest out kind of lingered in his mind I suppose, and in his latter life, though we could afford any kind of food, he liked to cook the meals that nourished him during those trying times.
One of my favourites was his stew. If you look on-line you can find dozens of stew recipes. I normally find whatever I’m looking for on Allrecipes.com, but I’ve never seen anything like his. I’m guessing it was born out of necessity. The ingredients are what might be found in the corner of an almost empty cold cellar at Christmas. And the main difference of this recipe is that it has a half gallon of tasty thin broth, boiled from whatever scrap of beef you could get, that can be put to many uses rather than the thickened paste that most associate with stew today.
Interestingly, the recipe must be a Maritime vernacular because at the end of harvest season I often see “Stew Packs” popping up at the rural farm markets and general stores. They usually contain a couple turnips, a small cabbage, a parsnip and a couple carrots. Appropriately, they are not often the best in the barrel. These were basically the ingredients he used. If there was a potato, onion, or piece of celery around he’d throw that in. The trick is, I think, to cut the vegetables into big chunks so they don’t get too cooked before the beef is tender.
Much of the flavor was enhanced by salt and summer savory. This must also be a bit of a Nova Scotia tradition because I notice that John Lohr and his family – the people who make summer savoury in Nova Scotia down in King’s County have a nice product that mixed the two. You can find their products at Sobeys and other fine groceries.
The key to this cooking right is a big iron pot, the older the better. To me, it’s a kitchen essential. You can get perfectly serviceable 100 year old ones at antique markets and second hand shops. If you’re lucky maybe you’ll get one handed down to you as a real treasure. There’s a real trick to restoring and ‘seasoning’ cast iron. Here it is all explained very well.
If you got to buy new go ahead. Every kitchen needs a pot and this is the one you need. How much should you spend? It does not matter. When you’re buying something that can last three generations and more what difference does it make. Buy the best.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or shortening
1 lb boneless beef chuck, tip or round roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups water (and add a carton of Campbell’s beef broth if you want it to go even further
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large unpeeled potato, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 parsnip, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium stalk celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small onion, chopped (1/4 cup)
2 turnips, chopped to 1 inch pieces
1 small cabbage, chopped to 2 inch pieces
2 cloves of garlic (optional)
1 tablespoon of summer savoury (add to taste)
Lots of fresh hard thick sliced bread, biscuits, or rolls.
In the cast iron pot, heat oil over medium heat 1 to 2 minutes. Add beef; cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until brown on all sides.
Add water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the onion. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low. Cover; simmer 1 hour or until beef is almost tender.
Stir in remaining ingredients. Cover; cook about one hour or until vegetables are tender.
Then, as the name implies, let it stew.
Get a big wooden spoon or ladle. Taste test all along the way. Adjust and add as you like. Don’t worry. It’s hard to go wrong.
Addendum: The typical stew pack comes heavy on the turnip. Amanda doesn’t care for this much turnip and I’m sure she’s not the only one. One or both of the turnips could be replaced by two large potatoes. It gives the stew a less heady flavour and the broth a less rich but just as tasty tone.
This recipe makes a LOT of stew. It’s good the next day and better the day after. We use mason jars to divide it up and freeze. It’s something nice to take along if you’re visiting anyone sick or infirmed. It’s easy to heat it up and have their kitchen smelling awesome in no time. And it makes a nice gift. Part of the culture of those hard times that carried through my grandparents and parents lives was the giving and receiving of small kindnesses and favours.
“No one is so poor that they can’t afford to give encouragement” my grandmother used to say. Stew too I think. Though they had very little, when I was a kid I thought they were fabulously wealthy because of all the goings and doings exchanging everything from stews to coal and all the labour to make it happen.
Sometimes I think the bread is the vehicle for the broth. Dipping bread of any kind fresh or not in stew broth makes it magic. This is what breaking bread is really all about. To try it have lots of bread on hand with the stew. Experiment with different kinds. Today I stopped in to East Coast Bakery on Quinpool Road in Halifax to get a Challa Bread for Christmas. I was too late. I’ll have to go back in the morning. It’s a busy time for them. But so as not to disappoint they gave me a fresh french Baguette – the joy of being a regular customer at a locally owned and run shop – and it goes perfectly with the stew when cut into big one inch or more chunks.
The Sound of Cooking – Hard Times Come Again No More
For us cooking and eating are occasions to listen to wonderful music. Our best sound equipment is actually in our kitchen. Here’s a good tune for the trail. My grandmother played the piano. Boom-Chang music my father called it. She had an old Stephen Foster songbook that was ragged from use. I can hear her still in my mind – nothing sounds as awesome as a certain kind of out-of-tune parlour piano. One of Stephen Foster’s most beautiful songs, written just before the Civil War, is HARD TIMES COME AGAIN NO MORE. Here’s Mavis Staple singing. There’s so many great versions of this song out there. It’s part of the new Americana music canon and I hear it more now than ever. Even our friend Joel Plaskett has done a version. But Ms. Mavis version sticks with me because it’s not sad – it’s openly defiant, it’s a command… Hard Time Come Again No More.
And like the song says, while you’re cooking take pause in life’s pleasures to count its many tears and ‘sup sorrow with the poor’. It reminds us that we are living in times so good our grandparents could not conceive of them.
These are the good old days.
Draw a graph of the rights of women, or income per person, or human lifespan over the past thousand years. Health. Education. Access to clean water. Fresh food. Compare the life of a child today with one fifty years ago. Consider how likely it is, today, that a person living in a developed nation will fall into slavery, be drafted into war, or die in childbirth.
Things are messed up for sure, and progress is not a steady line, but the world is getting better constantly, and faster, and it’s not about to stop anytime soon.
While I’m editing this Amanda Rae is upstairs watching IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. It’s one of her Christmas traditions. The movie is basically the Old Hollywood version of this song. Both works have a lot in common with Dickens Christmas Carol, which new history reveals may have been inspired by an even older story.
If you are reading this recipe on the the internet that connects you personally to all the knowledge of history, all the other people on the planet, the opportunities of the age, and all the ideas and entertainment ever conceived, you live in the most amazing time imaginable.