Beef and Vegetable Stew with Spätzle
I’m not even quite up on the whole Pete Wells thing. For a while I saw so many cheese sandwich recipes online, but had no clue what was going on. Now that I know a bit more, not Pete Wells, but MFK Fisher gave me the extra incentive to join this blogging event in her book How to Cook a Wolf about cooking on food stamps. Or rather, her grandmother inspired me, who is quoted to have said in response to some fashionable women’s conversation about cooking on war rations during the First World War,
“Your conversation is very entertaining indeed. . . It interests me especially, my dears, because after listening to it this afternoon I see that ever since I was married, well over fifty years ago, I have been living on a war budget without realizing it! I never knew before that using common sense in the kitchen was stylish only in emergencies.”
In other words, use up the food you have instead of buying more simply for economy’s sake. For food lovers this can be a difficult task, and MFK Fisher speaks to them. She gives helpful hints like filling an oven with all kinds of dishes to make use of the heat each time you bake something or how to diversify meals of basically the same ingredients, and that having a “balanced meal” is not necessarily what the body needs to survive. What could be truer?!
Applied to my own culinary lifestyle, cooking and eating alone means I don’t have the pleasure of a stocked fridge. The same fresh ingredient is used for 2 or 3 meals in a row (or slightly broken up over a few days). My cupboards, on the other hand, are bursting with all kinds of non-perishables like beans, spices, vinegars, and sauces. I usually have onions and potatoes on hand, but even recently the potatoes sprouted because I was uninterested in them for a few too many weeks. Such is the single life.
However, such is not the life of my parents, who seem to shop and cook as if there were still five mouths to feed. So when while visiting my parents in Oregon my father told me before running off to work that we should have leftovers tonight, the myriad of Pyrex containers glowing gem-like in the glare of the refrigerator bulb inspired me. I jumped at the chance to integrate all the vegetables on the verge with an undrinkable wine and some stew beef in my brand-new aubergine cocotte.
Having spent the previous days browsing through my parents’ stacks of Sunset magazines (particularly the architecture and food sections of each issue), out of la cocotte came an Ethiopian-inspired Beef Stew, meaning a stew with many of the ingredients of an Ethiopian Beef Stew, but little of the technique. . . we’ll get there someday soon.
Ethiopian-inspired Beef Stew
Heating up my cocotte to a medium temperature, I browned about 1/2 lb of beef chuck bought for a different, never-realized dish in some olive oil. This I extracted with my trusty chopsticks before throwing into the pot a 3/4 unused onion, sliced into half rings with some salt.
Then, into the pot went everything else:
half a North American eggplant (they’re 4 times as big as Japanese… I didn’t know!), cubed
3 moldy tomatoes with the mold cut out and chopped
3 fingerling potatoes, sliced
1/2 cup twice frozen green beans
and 1/2 bottle undrinkable wine (and who needs a few cups water when you have wine!?).
Back into the pot went the beef, and it was about at this time that I began browsing my parents wonderful spice cabinet and discovered some delicious looking C’s (have you ever consciously noticed how many spices start with C?): cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, and ground cloves. These too went into the pot and added real interest and Ethiopian flavors to the dish.
Then I cooked it for three hours, stirring occasionally while doing other things like dozing on the couch, going through boxes of books, taking a walk in a sunny break between showers (this was in Oregon). Once or twice I added some water to keep it sufficiently wet.
The last touch to the stew was added while waiting for Dad, who was late, to get home. A sudden epiphany: the dish needs raisins! Out of the back of the pantry came some dried up raisins in a plastic bag with some pieces of nut mixed in and were quickly thrown into la cocotte to add a balancing sweetness to the spices. These were cooked just long enough to get plump on the stew liquids.
On the side, I served the last of the Spätzle (noodle-like dumplings from southern Germany) my father had made for a troop of Japanese university students who had come to dinner half a week before. These I boiled to make them plump and soft again and then tossed with unsalted butter and nutmeg.
My parents were ecstatic to have half their refrigerator and part of their counter space cleared with this dish and have a strange yet delicious meal as the result. Success!