Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Australian Stew.

I have another Aussie story/recipe for you today, the eve of Anzac Day. It is from The West Australian, November 21, 1879, and speaks to a number of issues not strictly related to food, but I feel sure you will enjoy it, and will feel more confident about ordering your next stew pot to be made.

The Editor asks me to write something for his Ladies' Column, and I eagerly seize the opportunity to disburden my mind upon a subject which I have much at heart; I want to teach my West Australian country-women how to stew. There are of course exceptions to every rule; but, as a rule, we know no-thing at all about it, or if we do, we certainly don't practice what we know.
Housewives living in town, have no idea what a part that stew-pot plays in our bush economy. In town you can always get a joint of some sort or another, which requires comparatively speaking but little art in its preparation for the table; but, in the bush, when you are probably supplied with mutton from your own flocks, where the meat is often very poor, very frequently reduced to culls, and you have to make use of all parts of the carcase, a decent joint is often a rarity and the stew-pot comes into constant requisition. Now unless you know how to use that stew-pot properly, how to dress your poor mutton up and convert it into succulent and palateable dishes, you have often fare both monotonous and meagre, with the added pleasure of seeing sulky male faces scowling round your board.
I have had a wide experience in this colony, of many cooks, and many houses, and I have no hesitation in saying that as a rule, good pot cookery is a lost art, or rather perhaps an art which has never been acquired. I will just describe the way in which a West Australian stew is generally made: the meat is cut up, roughly, and thrown untrimmed into a pot; pepper and salt is dusted over it, an abundance of water is poured on, and then the pot is set upon the fire. Probably no further notice is taken of it until a noisy hissing proclaims the fact that the water has boiled over. Our housewife runs quickly to the rescue, and pulls it to one side, where it will boil more slowly. This occurs probably, at the outside, two hours before dishing up. The stew boils on, at sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, according to the accidental state of the fire beneath it, till, a quarter of an hour before dinner time, it occurs to the cook that the thickening might as well go in. The flour dredge is then put into active requisition, the mess stirred up perhaps a dish of sance is added, another boil is given, and then the stew is served. This method – the method almost universally adopted - makes a washy unpalateable compound, which only accentuates the badness of your lean mutton or tough beef.
I was in darkness myself not long ago, and I will tell my readers how I learnt to use the stew-pot properly. Great had been my trouble about this stew-pot. Where we lived was very cold wet country in winter time. Often for six months in the year, and more, the sheep were very poor, and we could not get a decent joint once in a month. So I made stews, and small curries, and tried the cooking pot in every imaginable way, but all to no purpose. My husband was, like most men, dreadfully unreasonable about his food, always grumbling, and thinking that everything was better done, in other people's houses than in his. He was particularly fond of telling me that I should take a lesson in pot-cooking from old Bill, our shepherd at the swamp. This annoyed me verymuch. I used to look dignified, and make believe I did not hear; but in secret I often cried about lit, and sat up studying Mrs. Beeton till my eyes were dim and sore.
One day it struck me that without letting anybody know, or lowering my dignity at all, I might learn something from 'old Bill,' and profit by it. So I waited for a chance. A good one came ere long; a cow had calved out on the run, and the men being all engaged, I volunteered to fetch it, and once out of sight of home I galloped off in a straight line for 'old Bill's swamp. In front of his hut door, was a great line of ashes, with a pot handle sticking out of it. Nobody was there, so I scraped the ashes carefully away, till I made bare the lid, and could take it off with a forked stick. Then I saw at once what Harry meant! Gently, very gently simmering was a most delicious stew; velvety, smooth, shining, and rich brown in colour.  The meat was soft, but not in rags, browned but not burnt; as different as possible in colour, in consistency, and in appearance, from anything I ever made. I tasted it, and tasted it again, and felt quite sorry for poor Harry, and sat down and waited till ‘old Bill' brought in his sheep, to learn the secret of this mystery.
It was soon told. He put his meat into the pot, with a little bit of dripping, and no water. This was placed at dawn upon the ashes, not the fire, and by the time his sheep were ready to draw off, the moisture had run out of the meat, and formed almost sufficient gravy to steam the stew. To this he added a little sauce or curry, and about a wine glass full of water or of broth. Then a big hole was made in his large heap of well-warmed cinders, some cool ashes were spread upon the bottom of this hole, and the pot put upon them, more cool ashes were built round it, and then the hot ones all banked up. The cover of his pot was made dutch-oven fashion, and the ashes were heaped upon it too, until nothing was seen but the black handle, sticking out of this great white cinder heap. Bedded in these ashes, which were not too hot, but kept up the heat that was in them nearly all day long, 'old Bill's pot simmered slowly till the night, and when he opened it, the richest and most succulent of stews was his reward.
I soon learnt, to work upon old Bill's method under the altered conditions of a kitchen range, and I will give the result of my experience. In the first place you should have your stew-pots made with dutch-oven covers. Having such a one, this is how you should proceed. Put your pot on the fire, with a little butter or dripping in it, and while this is melting, cut up your meat and trim it properly, free it from skin and gristle, and everything that is not nice; then dust it with a pinch of salt, put it in the pot and cover up. Place your pot in a very moderately warm position on the fire bars, and put a few hot ashes on the top. In half an hour, look to see if it wants moistening at all, and if it does, use a little drop of stock. (It is very easy to keep a small supply of stock on hand, with any sort of management.) If you wish to use sauce, curry powder, lemon, wine, cayenne, parsley, or anything else to flavour your stew, now is the time to put it in. Cover it up again and put it on with fresh warm ashes on the lid, and let it simmer slowly, very slowly for several hours, three or four at least, adding a little stock when wanted; Never let it approach a boil; it is done for if you do. And you must keep hot ashes on the top if you wish to be successful; the meat must braise, as well as simmer from the heat below. Half an hour before you want to dish if the rich, velvety, dark-brown gravy, which this method of pot-cooking should produce, is not as thick as you would like it, mix a little cornflour or arrowroot with a little stock and add; stir gently, so as not to break up the meat, and simmer on again till ready.
If housewives would give these directions for pot-cooking a fair trial, varying of course the combinations according to their ingenuity and taste, I feel sure their bush dinners would be more frequently successful, and their husbands less frequently provoking!


The InTolerant Chef ™ said...

What wonderful advice that can still be put to use today. Not that I have hot ash on my stove top, but such lovely slow cooking without boiling and other advice really is the secret to a lovely, tasty stew.

SometimesKate said...

Wow, that made me hungry. Though I'm not entirely sure how to adapt that for those of us not fortunate enough to have a pit full of cinders.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Chef and HI Kate
I dont have an open fire and ash situation either. A slow cooker would work though, wouldnt it? with less liquid.