Slow-cooked Brunswick stew

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the midst of one of the finest southern seasons and I don’t mean the holidays. I am talking about time for Brunswick stew. We here in the southeast love good barbecue (although I’m sure we could debate which US region makes the best) and we also love its well-known associate, Brunswick stew. Pulled pork sandwiches and hot Brunswick stew go together like Adam & Eve – a mixture of solid and sinful – and we are quite emotional about this. Grown lumberjacks and burly truck drivers have been known to weep for joy and gratitude over the first bowl of the season.

The reason for this outpouring of affection (other than its hot-dang deliciousness) may be due to its short-term supply. Brunswick stew is served only from about the beginning of October until the very start of springtime. Sit down at your favorite barbecue joint and order a cup in March and you’re pressing your luck. Try to get a bowl in April and you’re just stuck. You can’t beg, borrow, or steal it.

But you can make it. In fact, you can make it while you sleep or watch TV or go to work. Warm up your Crock Pots, folks. We’re going to do something so decadent and so simple that Santa’s putting you on his naughty list.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of Brunswick stew, let’s chat for a minute so that you understand what kind of treasure chest we are about to smash open. Brunswick stew is expensive to buy, priced at about $4 for a small cup and $6 for a (still small) bowl. The reason it costs so much is because roasting and barbecuing a whole shoulder takes a lot of time.

~looking left, looking right, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial level~

But you and I aren’t going to be out at the barbecue pit all day using a sauce mop on a spitted pig. Not only that, our cost per serving is minute compared to what you pay at a restaurant.

The origin of Brunswick stew is shrouded in deep dark southern foodie mystery. Some people (especially those who live in Brunswick, Georgia) insist it came from Brunswick, Georgia. Other people (especially those who live in Brunswick, Virginia) claim it came from Brunswick, Virginia. And still others (who don’t live in either place but who love a good historical yarn) like to believe it came from Germany and was the favorite of Queen Victoria. But we don’t care where it came from: we just want to eat it!

This recipe has a lot going for it, especially at the holidays. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make, and people love it which makes it a great gift idea. Buy a few plastic pint jars and some tea towels and you’ve got an adorable present that people will be still be talking about next year. Come on to the workshop – I’ll show you.

Tools you need to make this recipe as written: 6 qt. Crock Pot, meat board, sharp knife, cooking spoon. If you don’t have a slow cooker, stay with me to the very end and I will show you how to make it in regular cooking pots. : )

Brunswick Stew

28 oz. crushed tomatoes *

28 oz. (approx) chicken broth plus more in reserve (a 32 oz. box container is perfect – you might not use all of it)

¼ c. barbecue sauce (plus more to taste)

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. hot sauce (or a sprinkling of cayenne if you prefer) plus more to taste

¼ tsp. pepper

3 lb pork shoulder **

9 oz. bag of frozen lima beans (precook to al dente if using fresh)

9 oz. bag frozen peas (precook to al dente if using fresh)

9 oz. bag frozen corn (does not need precooked if using fresh)

4 medium-sized red potatoes, peeled and diced *** (does not need precooked)

1 Tbsp corn starch (plus 1 Tbsp in reserve, if needed)

* I did not have crushed tomatoes this time. I used a can of whole tomatoes and used my fingers to squish them.. I could have tossed the tomatoes in the food processor until they were indeed crushed but I didn’t feel like dragging out or cleaning the equipment for such a small task. As with many recipes, this recipe is versatile – substitute what you have if you don’t have what the ingredients list calls for!

** Let’s talk about that pork shoulder. IF you are lucky enough to live in a town with a butcher shop, the butcher shop might cut three pounds of pork shoulder for you (if you’re double-lucky). If you do not have a butcher shop in your town, or if your butcher will not cut three pounds off a shoulder (pork shoulders huge things and some butchers are loathe to piece them out), a 3 lb. Boston butt will do.

*** If you don’t have red potatoes you can substitute any non-sweet potato. I use red potatoes because they stay firm. Other potatoes may become mushy after 8 – 10 hours of cooking.

1. Pour crushed tomatoes, approx 28 oz of the chicken broth (measure it by using the tomato can), barbecue sauce, hot sauce or cayenne, salt, and pepper in the crock and stir until evenly mixed.

2. Cut off the large outer layer of fat that will probably outline at least one side of your meat. Once the fat is removed, cut the meat into good fist-sized chunks, removing the larger bits of fat as you cut (you can remove the inner layers of fat easily once the meat is cooked). Put the cuts of meat in the crock and stir them in the tomato mixture.

3. Add the frozen vegetables and stir them into the tomato and meat mixture until they are well-coated. It will seem like there’s not enough sauce for the vegetables to cook, but the frozen vegetables will create some extra juice from thawing. If you can’t stir the frozen vegetables due to frozen clumping, drizzle a little of the reserved chicken broth on top to help break the vegetables apart.

4. Set your Crock Pot to low. Mine has a choice of 8 hours or 10 hours. It does not matter which you choose. Do not choose a high setting – the meat needs time to break down so that you can easily shred it.

5. Once the stew has cooked for 8 – 10 hours, use a slotted spoon to pull out the meat pieces. Put them on your meat board or on a plate and mash the pieces with a spoon or fork. The meat should be very soft and should come apart with no problem. If there is excess fat in the meat that was resistant to removal when the meat was raw, you can pull it out now.

6. Return the meat to the crock. Stir.

7. The liquid in your mixture is probably kind of thin. If you like it like that, great! You’re done! If you prefer a thicker, stew-like liquid, use a small measuring cup pressed down along the side of the crock (to avoid scooping out large scoops of vegetables) and draw off ¼ c. to ½ c. of the hot stew liquid. Add 1 Tbsp. cornstarch and mix until smooth. Add this mixture to the crock and stir the stew until the cornstarch mixture is well-distributed. The color of your stew will change slightly. WARNING: ADDING CORNSTARCH DIRECTLY TO THE CROCK, WITHOUT FIRST MIXING IT SMOOTH IN A SMALL AMOUNT OF LIQUID, WILL RESULT IN DOUGHY LUMPS!

8. Now for the best part: taste it. Is your stew a little too bland? If so, add a little more of the flavoring agents (barbecue sauce, chicken broth, hot sauce).

Yield: 6 quarts

Freezes well

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This recipe makes a darling gift when a pint container is wrapped in a tea towel and secured with a safety pin and ribbon. If you are not in the position to give individual gifts, however, you can serve this at a holiday get-together. A gallon of sweet southern tea and some good heavy cornbread will feed a small army and is very inexpensive per individual serving.

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If your slow cooker holds less than 6 quarts, reduce the recipe (keeping the ratios the same) to make an amount that will fit.

No slow cooker? No problem. Prepare the raw meat as above, then put the meat pieces in a pan, cover the meat with water, add a cube or two of bouillon, and bring to a boil (when the meat is finished cooking you can use the liquid in place of the chicken broth). Reduce heat, cover and simmer for a couple of hours,or until the meat is so tender that it shreds with slight pressure from a fork or spoon. Shred all the meat and combine it with the rest of the ingredients in a large pot. Let the completed mixture simmer, covered, for at least an hour or until the vegetables are soft, stirring regularly. You may have to add liquid so be sure to compensate for flavor by alternately adding broth, barbecue sauce, and (if desired) hot sauce. Cool stew to room temp and refrigerate, letting the flavors mingle overnight. When you warm it up, it will be just as delicious as the slow-cooked stew.

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Winter wonderland: The call of the snowball

‘Tis the season and snow is on my mind today. Snow was part of the winter routine when I was young and living in West Virginia. Even in the cold months my friends and I regularly walked a mile to and from our elementary school (no kidding – I just looked it up on Google Maps), and we took our time despite the cold. After all, the walk was uphill both ways (you saw that coming, right?) and the snow gave us an irresistible fresh canvas. There were boot tracks and mitten prints to make in the virgin white, snowmen to roll, and drifts of snow to whisk off cold iron railings, chrome bumpers, and big blue mailboxes. We must have made a Rockwell-worthy picture as we crunched and squeaked up snow-piled sidewalks, pink-cheeked, laughing, and nibbling handfuls of clean white snowballs. It was a different time and place.

As if reading my mind – or like she was reading over my shoulder as I was writing – my daughter paused from her studies and said “Mom, do you think we’ll have snow this year? When I wake up on Christmas morning I want to look outside and see snow. Inches of snow!”Alas. Living in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina means that most of the snow we see is either “Greensboro snow” (meaning rain) or in news reports from other places. The Triad gets some ice and an occasional and short-lived flaky dusting, but rarely do we get a flat-out snow storm. White Christmas? Not here, not often.

Until this year it didn’t matter to me if I ever saw snow again. Snow up your sleeves and pantlegs, nooo thanks! This season is different. I really really really really want snow, not because I want it in the cuffs of my clothes but because a traditional winter season would be a welcome change of pace. I don’t want to be trapped in the house for months but I’d enjoy a couple of knee-deep snows interspersed with a few smaller ones. I’d like for the grass to be hidden and for the squirrel (and chicken) tracks to be visible. I’d like to be able to build a snowman that still looks like a snowman the next day rather than like an eroding white yard stalagmite. Heck, I’d like to be able to build a decent snowman in the first place. I’d like to rush out after supper and make igloos and snow forts with the kids until well after dark, engaging the neighbors in snowball fights, and make peace offerings of snow cream and hot chocolate. And as I recall, sledding is high entertainment especially at night. How much more tolerable the short days would be!

Back to reality. We probably won’t have a winter like that unless we move North or West so we’ll (ok, ok, I’ll) have to be satisfied with a typical central NC winter. Even though we’ll have to be content with our cold rain and messy ice, I’ll make snowballs. Cookies, that is, my mother’s recipe from my earliest memories. It’s one of my favorite winter treats and there’s nothing like coming into the house while they’re baking. They’re like Danish wedding cookies, except with a KEY additional ingredient. See if you can spot it in the recipe. (Eliminating it will still yield some pretty nice cookies, but including it will give your guests something to talk about.)

Snowball Cookies

1 c. butter, softened

1 tsp. almond extract

2 heaping c. flour (If you are using single cup measuring cups to do your measuring, don’t heap the flour with both scoops – heap only one time, and not a mountainous heap, or you’ll wind up with dry dough that won’t form.)

1 c. chopped nuts

½ c. powdered sugar, plus about ¾ c. for later

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees (these cookies are delicate – be careful not to overheat the oven).

2. Lightly spray a cookie sheet with oil. Set aside.

3. Mix butter, almond, flour, nuts and ½ c. powdered sugar. Blend until the mixture forms small clumps. The dough may seem dry but when you squeeze it, it should form in your hand.

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4. Roll dough into 1-1/2 inch balls and place on a cookie sheet. Make sure the balls are tight enough to not fall apart in your hands. As you are forming the cookies, make sure to mix in any dry ingredients remaining in the bowl so that the cookies you make at the end of the end are as moist as those at the beginning.

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5. Bake the cookies for 30 minutes. While hot, they should have a slight “give” to them when squeezed. They will harden as they cool. Do not overcook.

6. Place cookies on cooling rack for about 5 minutes then, while they are still warm, shake a few at a time in powdered sugar. Return to cooling rack. Let cool 20 – 30 minutes. The cookie will still be very visible through the sugar.

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7. Once the cookies are cooled completely (about a half hour), shake the cookies again in powdered sugar. The sugar will mostly coat the cookie color and will leave you with snowballs that you made in your kitchen! Store them in an airtight container, not that they’ll last long enough to go stale. They will keep well for a few days if you need to make them ahead of time.

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If you need to freeze the cookies for an advance date, freeze the formed uncooked dough balls and then allow them to thaw to room temperature when you’re ready to make them. Once thawed, bake as directed. These cookies are exceedingly rich and are ideal with a cup of coffee.