I’ve loved to cook as long as I can remember. I know it comes from an insatiable appetite, but part of it is fueled by curiosity. Nosiness about the cooks I’ve met along the way.
Old Jess’ stews are one of my earliest food memories. At 3 or 4, I sampled my first spoonful. I relished being part of the magical grown-up cooking process, witnessing the transformation of raw ingredients into something delectably soupy.
He’d lift me up level with his grizzled gray beard, so that I could peer into the pot, as chunks of meat along with vegetables and a hodgepodge of seasonings simmered into mouth-watering tenderness.
I sorry to say that I never knew his real name; I thought his first name was “Old” and his last name was “Jess.” He’d been homeless for several years when Dad hired him to work at his Hollywood garden-furniture business in the 1940s. He lived in a room that Dad built for him in the back, next to the modest factory where redwood two-by-fours were turned into tables, benches and armchairs. Dad developed the concept of making patio furniture from redwood during the war, when hardwoods were unavailable.
At night, Jess was the company’s night watchman, although I can’t imagine much watching was going on. During the day, he was the staff stew chef.
Noontime brought everyone to the table. Hank the carpenter, who smelled of redwood sawdust and wore an intriguing work belt filled with assorted tools and nails. Mabel the seamstress, who turned rolls of brightly colored canvas into cushions; she had threads and tiny fabric swatches clinging to her apron; occasionally tufts of snowy kapok clung to her hair. Dad and his salesperson escaped the pristine showroom in front, where large display windows faced busy Cahuenga Pass (now Cahuenga Blvd West), adjacent to the spot where Universal Studios theme park would later be erected.
The lunch setting would give a coronary to today’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration official. Old Jess ladled his concoction of the day into mismatched soup bowls from an ancient two-burner stove in one corner of the factory. The dining table was a large, well-worn workbench. Its irregular surface had hammer-carved craters. Our stew bowls sat at cockeyed angles.
Much of the table’s legs were buried in drifts of sawdust. Soda crackers still in their waxed paper wrappers were the centerpiece, along with bottles of hot sauce and vinegar-soaked chilies.
Later, my culinary training would teach me fancy names for stews, but in my heart I treasure the memory of tomato-sauce laced, rust-red slumgullions. They bubbled to the shrill accompaniment of band saws.
I close my eyes and smell that blend of simmered meat and sawdust.
First sear the meat on all sides to a rich brown. One of the tricks to doing this properly is to pat the chunks dry with a paper towel. When browning, leave spaces between the pieces of meat in the pan. Resist the temptation to jam them all in at once. Instead, brown in two or three small batches, adding more vegetable oil if the pan goes dry. Proper browning gives a deep flavor, as well as a pleasing color, to the sauce and meat. Stews are great make-ahead dishes. Make them a day in advance and the flavors develop even more. Refrigeration makes the fats congeal at the top of the container, so it can easily be removed.
Bring out big soup spoons and the crusty bread. I like that fact that this yields a substantial amount; cool leftovers and freeze in airtight “freezer” zipper-style bags, pushing out the air before sealing.
Beef Stew with Potatoes, Carrots and Butternut Squash
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
5 pounds boneless chuck (not too lean) cut into 2-inch pieces
2 teaspoons coarse salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or canola oil, or a mixture of olive oil and canola oil, plus more if needed, divided use
3 medium carrots, each cut crosswise into three pieces
3 stalks celery, each cut crosswise into three pieces (include leaves if you have them)
2 medium onions, quartered
1 head garlic, cut head in half through the “equator” (leave unpeeled)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 (750-ml) bottle dry red wine (about 3 3/4 cups)
1 bay leaf
2 generous-sized sprigs fresh thyme
3 cups sodium-reduced beef broth
3 cups water
2 pounds very small unpeeled white potatoes or Baby Dutch Yellow potatoes, halved if smaller than a Ping-Pong ball, quartered if a little larger
1 pound carrots, peeled, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch lengths
1 cup (peeled, cut into 3/4-inch cubes) butternut squash, see cook’s notes
Optional garnishes: blanched tender-crisp sugar snap peas, microgreens, chopped parsley, blanched peas
Cook’s notes: Many markets sell butternut squash that is peeled and cubed.
1. Adjust oven rack to bottom third. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pat beef dry and season with salt and pepper. In a heavy ovenproof pot, heat 2 tablespoon oil on medium-high heat. When oil begins to shimmer, add 1/3of meat in single layer, leaving space between meat. Set a rimmed baking sheet next to the stove. Using tongs, turn meat once it has browned and brown on opposite side. Place on rimmed baking sheet and add another batch of meat, adding more oil as needed. Keep the pot hot enough so meat browns rather than steams.
2. Reduce heat to medium and add carrots, celery, onions and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, about 10 minutes. Push vegetables to one side of the pan. Add tomato paste to side without vegetables and cook 2 minutes, using a spatula to scrape up browned bits on pot. Add vinegar and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add wine, bay leaf and thyme. Increase heat to high and boil for 4 minutes.
3. Add broth and water, beef and any accumulated juices in rimmed baking sheet. Bring to a simmer; cover and place in oven for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and uncover. Place a colander over a second pot and cautiously pour stew into colander. Allow it to rest 10 minutes. Remove meat from vegetable-herb mixture and set aside. Discard solids left in colander. Using a skimmer or a large spoon, skim fat from surface of broth; return to heat and bring to simmer on medium-high heat. Add potatoes and carrots; simmer 10 minutes. Add beef and butternut squash; simmer until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Ladle into bowls and garnish as desired.
Nutrition information (per serving): 410 calories, 38 percent of calories from fat, 17 g fat, 3.2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 23 g carbohydrates, 40 g protein, 340 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
Old Jess made white beans flavored with Tabasco and ketchup. This rendition is far more hoity-toity, adding some appealing root vegetables and finishing with a garnish of basil pesto. Use dried cannellini beans if you can find them, or use Great Northern white beans that are available at all supermarkets. If soup thickens too much on standing, stir in some water until desired consistency is reached.
White Bean Soup with Pesto
Yield: 6 servings
1 pound (about 2 cups) dried white beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/2 quarts chicken broth or vegetable broth
3/4 teaspoon chopped rosemary, fresh or dried
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
3 carrots, peeled, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 turnip, peeled, chopped
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Garnish: 1/2 cup basil pesto, see cook’s notes
Garnish: 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Cook’s notes: With the food processor running, add 1 large clove of peeled garlic. Add 3/4 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves and 1/2 teaspoon salt; puree. With motor running, add 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in thin steam. When blended, add 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese and 1 teaspoon room temperature butter. Process long enough to finely chop pine nuts.
1. Soak beans overnight in enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Drain.
2. In large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Add drained beans, broth and rosemary. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour. Add salt and continue cooking until beans are tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Add carrots, celery, turnip and pepper; simmer until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.
3. Puree 2 cups of bean mixture with some of the liquid in food processor. Stir puree into soup. Ladle into bowls and top each serving with a swirl of pesto. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Nutrition information (per serving): 350 calories, 25 percent of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 2.3 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 49 g carbohydrates,18 g protein, 851 mg sodium, 5.3 g fiber
Source: Adapted from “Soups and Stews” by Food & Wine Books (American Express, out of print)
The classic dish, Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic, is braised in a conventional oven in a closed pot, turning the garlic into sweet creaminess. This rendition uses the slow cooker; you conveniently load it and set to 8 hours on low. I’ve reduced the number of garlic cloves from 40 to 20 because I think that amount is better suited to slow cooker preparation. This is one of the few recipes for which I buy peeled garlic cloves. It is more expensive that way, but saves a lot of time. I buy the jumbo packs of chicken thighs for this dish that usually contain 10 to 12 bone-in, skin-on thighs; I pull the skin off and discard it.
Slow Cooker Chicken with 20 Cloves of Garlic
Yield: 8 servings
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence, see cook’s notes
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
10 to 12 bone-in, skinless chicken thighs
Nonstick vegetable spray or olive oil spray
20 medium-sized garlic cloves, peeled
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
1 medium-large onion, halved top to bottom, peeled, thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup sodium-reduced chicken broth
Garnish: chopped Italian parsley
Cook’s notes: Herbes de Provence is a mixture of dried herbs frequently used in the South of France. Mixture varies, but most often it contains rosemary, marjoram, thyme and savory. McCormick provides one in their “Gourmet Collection” line that is sold at many supermarkets.
1. In a large bowl, stir together herbs, pepper flakes, salt, pepper, juice and oil. Add chicken and toss to coat chicken with mixture. Lightly spray 5- or 6-quart slow cooker with nonstick spray. Add one layer of chicken. Top with half of garlic, celery and onion. Add remaining chicken and vegetables. Pour in wine and broth around the edges.
2. Cover and cook on low setting for eight hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in shallow bowls topped with generous amount of finely chopped parsley. If you like, you can serve this soupy dish in a bowl over a mound of couscous or brown rice.
Nutrition information (per serving): 350 calories, 48 percent of calories from fat, 18.9g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, X4 g carbohydrates, 41 g protein, 577 mg sodium, 1.3 g fiber