Once upon a time, I used to think that a ‘stew’ was a utilitarian family dish that was cooked on the top of the stove, and a casserole was a posher dish suitable to serve to guests that was cooked in the oven. The older I get and the more I learn the less I know, it seems, for today I am unable to distinguish between the two – as exemplified in a previous post in which we had a recipe for 'Baked Irish Stew’.
The origin of both words is interesting however. ‘Casserole’ (a word derived from French or Spanish) originally referred to a ‘kind of stew-pan’. During the eighteenth century in England, it came also to refer to the contents (which ultimately necessitated the changing of the name of the container to casserole dish.) Sometimes ‘casserole’ also means ‘the edging or outer portion of certain dressed dishes.’
‘Stew’ is much older old word with many meanings, as we have discussed previously. To recap: in the fourteenth century it meant ‘a pond or tank in which fish are kept until needed for the table’, ‘a stove, heated room’ and ‘a vessel for boiling’; to make matters more amusing, it also meant a bath house, and as these were often used for ‘immoral purposes’, a ‘stew’ also meant ‘a brothel.’ Think on that next time you make a nice stew for the family. The word came into its modern meaning of ‘a preparation of meat slowly boiled in a stew-pan, generally containing vegetables, rice, etc’ round about the same time as the casserole was adapted to English use – somewhere in the eighteenth century.
Here is a nice early recipe for ‘casserole’, which is eminently doable today.
To Dress Rabbets in Casserole
Divide the rabbits into quarters. You may lard them, or let them alone, just as you please, shake some flour over them and fry them with lard or butter, then put them into an earthen pipkin with a quart of good broth, a glass of white wine, a little pepper and salt, if wanted, a bunch of sweet herbs, and a piece of butter as big as a walnut rolled in flour; cover them close and let them stew half an hour, then dish them up and pour the sauce over them. Garnish with Seville orange, cut into thin slices and notched; the peel that is cut out lay prettily between the slices.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747)
And as an example of a ‘casserole’ as an edging for another dish, I give you the following rather tricky recipe from The Practice of Cookery, adapted to the business of everyday life, by Mrs Dalgairns (1830)
Casserole of Rice.
Having cleaned and drained about half a pound of rice, moisten it in a stew-pan, with some fat - that which gathers on the top of liquor in which meat has been boiled; strain some broth or soup, add to it a large quantity of grease, some pieces of fat bacon, and a little salt, and mix it with the rice, to make it swell as much as possible; stir it frequently over a slow fire to keep it from sticking; when it is soft strain it through a cullender, and press it well with a wooden spoon. The mould being selected for the casserole, rinse it with the fat drained from the rice, taking care that every part of the inside of the mould be well greased, then cover it with rice, and place a piece of the crumb of bread in the middle, and cover it with rice also; press it in equally with a spoon, and let it cool. When the rice has become firm, dip the outside of the mould into boiling water; put a covering of paste made with flour and water; flatten it all round with a spoon, and make an opening in the top with a knife, then put it into the oven, which cannot be too hot for a casserole, baste it with the grease, and when it has become of a fine colour, take it out of the oven, remove the crust, and take out the bread carefully, so that the casserole may not be injured ; next remove some of the rice from the inside; taking care to leave enough to resist the weight of whatever may be put inside of it. Fill it with minced meat, ragout, blanquette, fricassee of chickens, macaroni, or scollops of fish, that have been already served at table; return it to the oven, and when nicely browned, serve it.
Quotation for the Day.
This is not that, and that is certainly not this, and at the same time an oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup.
M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992)