Soothing the savage beast

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The first word for comfort was probably something to do with fire. There they were, sitting roasting their dinners, chunks of meat on the bone, the outside charred black and the middle still raw. And while they never discussed it (cavemen didn’t talk very much) they just knew it was good – a lot better than sitting shivering in the cold. It was comfort, their only comfort, their only security. Clean clothes, pension plans and all round air bags in the new Subaru came much later. But even today, when luxury (as opposed to plain old comfort) is considered a necessity and a hot dinner (and the expectation of a hot dinner) is still the benchmark of a desirable lifestyle.

It wasn’t easy – no microwaves, no boil in a bag. Mr. Caveman dragged home his piece of the saber-toothed tiger and sat with Mrs. C and the kids while it roasted for two or three hours. No television, no Saturday Night, no Scrabble, no power tools in the basement. Hungry families fight, and the biggest fist wins, but predictable punch-ups get boring after a while. The solution was the stew. Men may have developed their genetic rights to the barbecue, but women must have developed the stew, first as self defense, second as comfort and third as a labour saving device. When the hunters came home, two hours early or two hours late, there it was – smelling nice, ready to soothe the most saveage of beasts. It would keep overnight, it was easy, and more than it anything else, it was comforting.

You can stew anything – fish, meat or vegetables, and you can flavour a stew with herbs or fruit, or wine or beer. Some recipes call for cider, but you can use apple juice, even water if there’s nothing else. I’ve eaten rice stewed with tea in Japan, lamb stewed with coffee in Morocco, and the most sensuous stew in the world, a Provencal ratatouille of eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, fresh pressed olive oil and wild thyme. In Greece they stew pork with celery; Belgium has its carbonnades a la flamande; and in France, the coq au vin. Hungarians go glassy eyed over porkolt, which they even eat for breakfast (the Austrians call the same dish a goulash); and bouillabaisse, called zarzuela in Spain is caldeirada in Portugal. They’re all stews.

The essential is a pot with a lid – a saucepan, a frypan, a casserole dish (it can be made of copper or aluminum or clay) even a tin can works. The first stews were probably made in a goatskin, heated by hot rocks. Slow cookers are fine but they somehow make it more mechanical, less of a caring process, and care is the primary flavour of a good stew. A well made stew says a lot: I like you; I want you to come home; I’ve been waiting and hoping you’ll come home; perhaps you’d like to come home regularly to me; I’m glad we live together, that we are a we, that we’ve got these kids; I’ve lit you candles; I’ve run you a bath; or even – it’s time we really talked about Wittgenstein. I once made a stew out of a garlic sausage, two old carrots, a potato and a lettuce. We flavoured it with Guinness and young fir needles – she still talks about it.

In case I’m not making myself clear: anybody can make a stew, out of almost anything, in almost anything. Here are two of my favourites stews – one fish one meat. Each recipe makes for four but if you’re only two for dinner, just freeze the leftovers.

Beer Stew

Only 30 minutes preparation and 2 › hours cooking for a lovely aromatic Saturday afternoon stew.

2 large onions, sliced thin
2 Tbs