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Category: slow cooking

sacramental supper

sacrament supper

it came over me as if i’d been out on a splintering raft in the middle of the swallowing seas, as if for days and days i’d not seen dry shore. nor steady mooring to cling to. but there, not too far out of my reach, was the sea-battered timber planted in the sandy bottom. the end post of a barnacle-crusted dock i couldn’t quite make out, and it came out of nowhere.

looked like hope to me.

so i reached for it. reached into the meat bin at the bottom of the fridge. hauled out the pack of cubes of cow (so sorry, cow). then i hauled out the cook pot, the one so hefty it could break a toe. a pack of toes. i glopped in a spill of oil, olive oil slick across the now-sizzling surface. and in plopped the cubes of beef. i browned and hummed. that’s what cooking on a thursday morning does.

i was burrowing into the holiness, the sacrament of middle-of-the-week, because-they-need-it, because-we-all-need-it supper. it would be ladled at long day’s end, when, for a moment, hands would be clasped, prayers raised, then forks. and a certain emptiness, filled.

that’s the mystery and alchemy of all-day puttering at the cookstove. it’s the only thing some days, some weeks, that beelines to the crannies in our heart where words can’t go. that seeps into hollows hungry for so very much.

since this was sacramental, after all, i set the altar while beef cubes sizzled: old chipped blue willow plates, ratty napkins that could use a spin through the sewing machine. cobalt glasses, ones that all day long catch the light, spill streams of blue across the old maple planks of the handed-down kitchen table, the one that still wears the imprint of third-grade homework from back in 1965 (or so i calculate, judging by the particular child’s scrawl and the certain words pressed into the wood).

sacramentum, the latin dictionary tells us, means “sign of the sacred.” is it sacrilegious, then, to call a plain old supper, one that simmered on the back burner all day long, one thought through, from splattered sheaf of follow-along instructions, clear through to pop-from-a-tube biscuits, is it sacrilegious to call a lump of root vegetables and beef, ones swimming all day long in thyme and bay leaf, crushed tomatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar, is it sacrilegious to call it sacramental?

i think not.

to serve up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and irish butter, “i love you dearly, and i’m so sorry i’ve been distracted. so sorry i’ve been heating up old soup, chicken pot pie from a box.” to say, with store-bought pumpkin pie, under a swirl of canned whipped cream (i splurged on the one that shouted, “extra creamy!”), “forgive me for making it seem like something else might have been more top-of-the-to-do-list than carving out the holy half hour (let’s not be greedy here) when we all sit down and savor pay-attention cooking. and each other.”

because, really, i think we can taste the difference. oh, umami is umami. and sweet is sweet. but don’t the hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through — not whipping it off in the last 10 minutes before the hunger sirens screech — doesn’t it all find its way deep down into the deliciousness that doesn’t come through short cut piled atop short cut?

yesterday, the day was afghan autumnal, all gray and woolly, the sort of day when you hunker inside, when the cookstove yodels to you. when the burners itch to be cranked. and the bins of rutabaga and turnip and parsnip — all those underground offerings that soak up what the earth’s deep dark soil has to share — they beg for vegetable peeler, and chopping block, and long hours surrendering to flame.

it was the sort of day-after-hubbub when quiet invited me in for a long slow visit. nothing rushed about the day. a day to breathe deep, breathe slow. to fill my lungs with quiet prayers, the prayers of lavishing love on the ones so dear to me, the ones who deserve nothing less than the very best dinner i could chop and stir and taste-test along the way. and while i’m at it, why not take it up a zany notch? just because there’s never enough oomph in an ordinary day. and what day, really, deserves to be plain old ordinary?

by supper time, when the tableau beyond the panes of glass went inky black, when the glow of the kitchen lamp spilled gold across the table, the vapors that rose from the big red smash-your-toes cook pot, the hot breaths that trespassed out of the oven, they crept up the stairs to where homework was being done.

before i’d said a word, the stovetop’s incense was deep at work. the house was filled with something surely holy, for what else can you call it when you claim a whole long day to aim for higher?

to say in smell and taste and temperature and touch what words alone just might not say: “you are worth it to me to spend a whole day cooking, just for you. i’ve not lost sight of my holiest calling, to carve out a hallowed space here in this place of walls and windows and creaky floors and solid roof, to be the one reliable source of all that’s good, that’s edifying. to fill you with warm spoonfuls — as much as you want, there’s plenty here. and i’ve made it beautiful because you are, because beauty speaks to the deep-down whole of us. and you so richly deserve each and every morsel i can muster.”

the day was chilly brisk. i did what i could to make the kitchen glow, the holy light of heaven here on earth. and to fill those who came to the chairs at long day’s end.

far as i can tell, that’s a sacrament, a sign of the sacred. with a fat splat of butter drooling off the plate.

beef stew

like all the best recipes, i start with something on paper, and then i riff. i zig when instructions say zag. add a dollop instead of a dab. the beef stew recipe i’ve decided is the one worthy of a long day’s cooking is one from that gloriously down-to-earth pioneer woman, ree drummond, and it’s one she calls “sunday night stew.” even on a thursday.

your thoughts on the sacrament called slow-cooked supper? or how do you best dollop extra helpings of plain pure love? 

beef stew matters

beef stew

a confession: all week i’ve been considering the fine points of stew. i’ve pondered the layering of flavorful notes. ruminated over anchovies. weighed root vegetables. detailed the pluses of rutabaga, countered with low points of turnip. i’ve dwelled on umami, that quixotic elixir we’re all after.

i’ve settled at last on a roadmap. any hour now, i’ll be cranking the flame, putting grass-fed beef chunks to the iron-hot scald of my three-thousand-pound cook pot. it’s what you do when you want a fine stew.

now this stew won’t be spooned to anyone’s mouth — not unless you count the teaspoons i’ll taste as i stir and i fiddle — till saturday’s eve. and that’s the whole point. i want the whole universe contained in my pot to cross-pollinate, to send ambassadorial missions from, say, the rings of the leek to the eye of anchovy (do those little squirmers have eyes? i’ll soon know the answer, once i peel back the lid and give them a look-see). i want a marriage — not a divorce — of fine flavor. i want the chunk of the beef to waltz with the dice of the carrot.

why, you might wonder, am i plopping my self into such a pressure-packed cooker? why in the world does this simple potage so very much matter?

take your pick:

a.) a wintry stew, served to a hungry tableau, is the raison d’être of this season of ice and blustery winds and bone-chilling temps that makes us ponder the wisdom of bears who pack it all up and go under cover from, say, the thanksgiving feast till the rising of easter.

b.) i quake in fear of that hushed moment when forks put to mouths lead to the audible verdict. i’ve sat there before when only after a pause does some polite — and half-hearted voice — pipe up with a “oh, this is good.” or, worse: not a word.

truth be told — and we’re truth-tellers here — it’s b more than anything that has me engaged. cooking for me is not just a dalliance, not a way to whittle away a few friday afternoon hours. no, cooking for me is self-taught survival.

i am still, after all these decades, battling away demons you’d maybe not notice. did you know, for instance, how much pride i felt when i typed out the sentence about tasting spoonfuls? i’ve promised myself — as i’ve made so many promises before — that i will taste as i stir. that doesn’t sound one bit scary to you, i imagine. but it does to me. and it’s why that moment of fork-to-mouth, that very first taste at a table of people i love or especially a table of folks i don’t know too well, has at times left me feeling as if the chair’s been pulled out from under me. all these years i’ve cooked by feel, cooked without tasting — a veritable braille at the cookstove — and i don’t know till everyone else does if i’ve over-walloped the salt, or short-changed the wine.

but that was then, and this is now. i am nudging myself into a new chapter. i am filling my table with people i love, and a few who i only scantily know. i am a living-breathing believer in the power of putting ideas to the world, and the best place that i know for birthing fine thought, for bridging frames of reference, is the dinner table.

it’s curious, perhaps, that i invest so much faith in the gathering of great good souls to my table. but the way i see it, the dinner table is merely the classroom, the seminar chamber, set with knives, forks and a battalion of glassware.

so, if you want to bring together great stews of ideas, of stories, of wisdom, of light, you need to stoke the flame with the richest, most sublime assemblage of feast and drink and, yes, a darn lovely haul from the old plate collection.

it’s why i’ve been turning to my panel of master teachers, all lined up on the shelves of my kitchen — and a few who walk and talk and dispense real-life secrets. it’s why i am hurling martha stewart across the room, but sidling up to david tanis, a generous-hearted cook (formerly of chez panisse and a regular in the new york times, for heaven’s sake) endowed with a down-to-earth soul who finds perfection in a simple soft-boiled egg and who writes that the peeling of carrots and onions for a simple stew “can be meditative.”

it’s not about wow-ing. it’s about allowing the feast to speak for the part of my heart and my soul that breathes beyond words.

the equation i’m after, the blueprint i seek, is one that’s infused with humility, yet banks on the notion that dolloping grace and deliciousness — both in measures sublime — onto my table is bound to spiral the talk a notch or two, and kindle the room with a shared sense of the sacred: this table matters, what unfolds here is sacramental; and as the one who’s done the gathering, i’ve infused it with the very best i could muster.

i’m finding my way. even at this late date in the game. and, any moment now, i’ll be feeling my way — and tasting my way — to a beef stew that matters. perhaps, more than it should. but not really, not when you know all that’s infused in its making.

here’s the roadmap i’m more or less following, a revamping from two solid sources: food52, that amazing online kitchen of amanda hesser and friends, and the pioneer woman, who has proven herself to stand on two solid legs when it comes to the cookstove.

My Secret Ingredient Pioneer Woman Saturday Night Beef Stew

Provenance: Food52 + Pioneer Woman. annotations by bam (and remember, this is a work in progress).

Ingredients

STEW:

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

3 pounds Beef Stew Meat (chuck Roast Cut Into Chunks)

Salt And Pepper

1 whole Medium Onion, Diced

2 Leeks, sliced

7 cloves Garlic, Minced

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 package (8 oz.) Baby Bella Mushrooms

6 ounces, weight Tomato Paste

2 Anchovies

Dried Porcini Mushrooms (1/2 ounce; Melissa’s packet)

4 cups Low Sodium Beef Stock Or Broth, More If Needed For Thinning

1/2 cup Red Wine Vinegar

1 cup canned whole Tomatoes with Juice (or 1 can)

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

2 Bay leaves

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

2 whole Carrots, Peeled And Diced

1 whole Turnips, Peeled And Diced

1/2 Rutabaga

1 Parsnip

Pearl Onions, frozen; about a cup.

1/3 cup to 2 Tablespoons Minced Fresh Parsley

MASHED POTATOES:

5 pounds Russet Potatoes (peeled)

1 package (8 Ounce) Cream Cheese, Softened

1 stick Butter, Softened

1/2 cup Half-and-Half

Salt And Pepper, to taste

Preparation Instructions:

Pat dry, then salt and pepper stew meat. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Brown 1/3 the stew meat until the outside gets nice and brown, about 2 minutes. (Turn it as it browns.) Remove the meat from the pot with a slotted spoon and put it on a plate. Add the rest of the meat, in thirds, to the pot and brown it, too. Remove it to the same plate. Set the meat aside.

Add the leeks, onion and garlic to the pot, stirring it to coat it in all the brown bits in the bottom of the pot. Cook for two minutes, then add the carrots and mushrooms and again, cook for a few minutes. Add tomato paste AND ANCHOVIES to the pot. Stir it into the alliums and vegetables and let it cook for two more minutes.

Meanwhile soak dried Porcini mushrooms in 1 cup warm water.

Add wine vinegar, tomatoes with juice.

Pour in the beef stock, stirring constantly. Add salt, bay leaf and thyme, bring to boil. Stir in porcini mushrooms; then add beef back to the pot, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours.

After 1 1/2 to 2 hours, add the diced turnips and carrots AND RUTABAGA AND PARSNIP to the pot. Stir to combine, put the lid back on the pot, and let it simmer for another 45 minutes to 1 hour. The sauce should be very thick, but if it seems overly so, splash in some beef broth until it thins it up enough. Feel free to add beef broth as needed!

When the ROOT VEGETABLES are tender, stir in minced parsley. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate.

When cool, skim off much of the fat from the top. Reheat over low heat, letting the stew simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour before serving.

Serve piping hot in a bowl with mashed potatoes, letting the juice run all over everything. Mix in half of the parsley and garnish with the rest. Sprinkle with extra minced parsley at the end.

MASHED POTATOES:

Cut the potatoes into quarters and cover with water in a large pot. Boil until potatoes are fork tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then put them back into the same pot. With the heat on low, mash the potatoes for 2 to 3 minutes to release as much steam as possible.

Turn off heat, then add cream cheese, butter, cream, seasoned salt, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve potatoes immediately or spread them into a buttered baking dish to be reheated later. To reheat, put them in a 375 degree oven, covered in foil, until hot.

happy tasting, sweet friends.

it’s a scary thing to write as open-heartedly and honestly as i just did. but sometimes when i’m sitting here at the old maple table, i consider the connection we’ve all forged over the years, and i reach for the bottle of truth serum and swallow a spoonful. i feel like i owe it to the chairs, to not just write some mamby-pamby distraction about how i’ve whiled away a week, but rather, if you’re going to take the time to put eyes to these words, you deserve a dose of courage. it’s especially scary to tiptoe into this realm when i know my mothers — my own mama and my mother-in-law whom i adore (along with my father-in-law) — are among the readers. but when you write from the heart, you’ve made a commitment to not pussyfoot around. you straight shoot even when it makes you tremble. if you believe in authenticity — and i do — there’s only one path up the mountain. and it sometimes gives me the shakes. but in the long run, i just might find my way. and look out from that long-awaited vista. 

a multiple choice of questions (take your pick): a.) what makes you quake? or b.) what’s your go-to winter recipe? 

meatballs en masse

first you multiply. then you forage. then you start rolling.

it’s meatballs en masse, the roadmap:

ten pounds of steer. quarter acre tomatoes, chopped, pureed. bag of onions. eggs by the half dozen. breadcrumbs, a handful or two. dried crinkled leaves, ones wearing the nametag sweet basil. garlic, don’t forget the garlic. we decidedly did not.

the garlic, the onions, bathing in oil of olives, that was the point. we didn’t want just to feed our friends at the shelter with a mere plate of food. we wanted to feed them all afternoon with the sounds and the smells of somebody cooking. somebody cooking for them.

we wanted them in on each act of the production, as they stood in the alley, huddled on the stairs, waiting for the man with the key to please let them in from the cold. very cold.

we made meatballs for forty. started hours ahead. we wanted to slow cook. with two hours to go we had a flotilla of balls, all adrift in an ocean of thick, red, tomatoey sauce.

there is an alchemy to cooking on slow that does not happen when you wham-bam the dinner. an alchemy especially rare at a soup kitchen.

but we carved out a whole afternoon for this slow dance, me and my 13-year-old. we chopped, and we poured. we stirred and we seasoned. we wanted a feast for our friends.

and they are our friends. t-bird and papi. robert and eddy. the elegant man in the soup kitchen line with his navy blue blazer and shiny brass buttons. the lady who religiously wraps her plate in cellophane before she puts on the food.

they are, some of them, full of hope. papi, for instance, has a dream that he and his sweet potato pies will some day shove mrs. smith and her apples off the grocery store shelf. and just last night t-bird mentioned how he wanted my friend sherry’s chicken wings-and-sausage-and-meatball recipe, cuz it was going to be the first thing he cooked when he got his apartment. some times they tell you month after month, sometimes for more than a year, that their apartment is coming, any day now.

so every third sunday of the month, we feed them. feed the hungry. feed their tummies, yes. but even more, feed their soul. slow cook for them. put tulips on each table. offer brown bags and a basket brimming with brownies and oranges, strawberries in the deep core of winter. take leftovers and turn it into lunch for the next day.

as my friend elizabeth mentioned last night, it had been a very long day squatting at a sandwich shop from 7 in the morning, an hour after they’re kicked out of the shelter, ‘til 7 at night, when they are allowed back in. “i thought i would lose my mind. i had nowhere to go,” she told me, piling her plate with spaghetti, forgoing all but one of the meatballs. she came back for brownies and pound cake and raspberries three times.

for a very long time i have cared about feeding the hungry. i once criss-crossed america, trying to find out why so many, in so many places, were so hungry. from potato farmers in maine, to salmon fishermen tucked into pacific coast towns in northern california, to old wizened folk in chinatown in the city by the bay. from iowa farmers to out-of-work steelworkers in the sooty hills of west pennsylvania. from the rio grande valley to the high plains of the navajo reservation. from the bare-bottomed children of cottonwood, mississippi, to the big-eyed ones right here in chicago. children going to bed at night with a pain in their bellies. mamas and papas going to the same bed, with the same pain, worried sick. not knowing where in the world they’d find food for tomorrow.

and so, one measly sunday a month, me and my boys we slow cook. the little one, now old enough to scoop, always begs to dish out dessert. then he fills a plate, wanders into the dining room, takes a seat, strikes up a conversation.
there is nothing like watching your children learn what it means to slow cook, to deep feed the hungry.

feed vt. 1. to give food to 2. to provide something necessary for the growth, operation, etc. of 3. to gratify.

some of us spend much of our lives feeding. to consider the act of feeding, the gestalt of it, not merely the chopping and stirring and spooning of x, y and z onto a plate, is to have something to ponder. please, pull up a chair. pour out your thoughts on the transitive verb, to feed, in all of its unspoken definitions…