(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 15, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Once when I was sick, the doctor told my mom I should rest up and suggested she make me chicken soup. On the way home from the clinic, we stopped at the grocery store, where Mom rushed in and bought a rutabaga. That was all the progress she made toward homemade soup that week, but once she had the rutabaga in the house she could rest easy, knowing soup was now possible.
I think I may be incapable of making "soup." Once I get underway and start chopping things and adding them to the pot, I invariably fill the pot so full of vegetables and meat and barley that there's not enough broth for the result to qualify as soup. It's definitely "stew." If you like your stew to be especially thick, you can fortify the broth by starting with a roux (several tablespoons each of butter and flour, combined to make a paste that's lightly cooked for several minutes before adding liquid). Or you can add barley, minute tapioca, or even a big handful of instant potato flakes.
One of the best things about winter stews is the variety of root vegetables available after the fall harvest. Many of these veggies are at their peak only after a couple of hard frosts, so this is not a dish you can make year-round. Peppery parsnips, crunchy carrots, tasty turnips, remarkable rutabagas...and, of course, you'll find potatoes in many sizes and colors!
Most of us can peel a carrot or cut up a potato, but some of these other veggies can be a bit intimidating as you examine them at the grocery store.
Especially later in winter, you'll usually see a thick, waxy coating on rutabagas and sometimes turnips that may make you eye them skeptically. The wax has a purpose, preventing these vegetables from drying out and becoming limp. As these veggies are typically peeled for use anyway, the coating is no problem. Simply attack the rutabaga with a carrot peeler and carve away both the wax layer and the leathery skin before dicing the crisp interior.
There's no need to peel potatoes for soup or stew. Some of the best flavor--and a lot of the nutrients--would be lost if you did. We're going for "rustic," and that also means "easy." A quick scrub at the sink, a rub to remove any little sprouting eyes, and a little knife action if there are any damaged or soft areas, and your potato is ready for the chopping block. You can use any sort of potato in stew, both "baking" and "boiling" types. You might consider a combination of white or russet potatoes with a red-skinned variety, for added color. If you're really bold, you could experiment with blue hued or buttery yellow fleshed potatoes.
The big tip for cooking with a combination of root vegetables is to know that some of them cook faster than others. You don't need to be a master of timing to synchronize your stew, though. The answer is simple: the hardest veggies get cut into the smallest pieces. I cut potatoes into large but still bite-sized chunks, maybe an inch across. Carrots and turnips are cut into pieces about half that size, and parsnips are cut smaller still. Rutabagas fall somewhere in the middle, smaller than carrots but bigger than parsnips.
For a rustic winter stew, please don't dice your root vegetables into symmetrical cubes. The pieces of a given type need to be roughly the same size, but some variability in size and shape will give your meal a lot of visual appeal. For example, with a potato, I start by cutting it in half lenthwise. Then I cut each half into 3 to 5 wedges, depending on the size of the potato, just as if I were cutting up an orange for the table. If I hold the wedges from half a potato together, I can cut chunks from them simultaneously. For more interesting angles, and to keep the end pieces from being tiny, I angle my knife outward for the first and last cut. It sounds complicated in words, but try it with a potato in front of you, and you'll realize it's just as easy as chopping it into uninspired cubes.
I use an assortment of root vegetables in many winter soups or stews, and beef stew is one of our warm-you-up standbys. My basic recipe follows, but I don't think I ever really make it the same way twice. Sometimes it has lima beans, other times green beans, or no beans at all. The backbone proportions are usually pretty much the same, however: one part beef (or other meat), one part potatoes, one part "other" root vegetables, and as many onions as I'm in the mood for.
Next time you're in the mood for a "meat and potatoes" sort of stew, I hope you'll experiment a little and include one or more of the "other" root vegetables that make winter stew such a wonderfully hearty meal.
Peel and roughly dice the onions, and add them to the bottom of the pot with the tomatoes and the beef stock or broth. Start the pot simmering over medium-low heat. (A crock pot works great for stew.) Cut the root vegetables as described in the article. Pieces of each root vegetable should be somewhat similar in size but will be more interesting if you cut chunks rather than cubes. Harder vegetables should be cut into smaller pieces.
I pretty much chop and add vegetables until I think there's just enough room left in the pot for the beef. Cut the beef roast into bite sized pieces and add to the pot. If you have the time, browning the meat first in a hot pan with a little oil will add color and flavor. If you're using leftover cooked roast, add it toward the end of the cooking time.
Pour in about half a bottle of robust red wine. While not strictly necessary, wine will give a lot of depth of flavor to your stew. While you don't need to cook with fine vintages, don't cook with a wine you wouldn't enjoy drinking by the glass.
Simmer until the vegetables can be easily pierced with a fork and the meat is tender. During the last hour of cooking, you may wish to add additional vegetables, barley, minute tapioca, or a handful of instant potato flakes. Season to taste. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.
For more tips on growing root crops in your own garden, go to DG's Vegetable Growing forum (subscribers only).
You'll also find some great information in these DG articles:
Parsnips: Carrot's Lesser Known Cousin by Elizabeth MacInerney
The Rutabaga: Its History, Uses, and Culture by Melody Rose
Celery - History, Uses, Benefits and Growing Tips by Dutchlady1
And for something really different, an article on Jerusalem Artichokes by Darius van d'Rhys
Photos by Jill Nicolaus.
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