January can be a dreary month in South Mississippi. North winds prevail, gray clouds can keep the warm sun away and it is often drizzling with a cold rain.
So what's a poor soul to do to keep the blues away? Build a fire in the fireplace, put on your heaviest sweater and turn on all the lights so at least your cozy house is bright and warm. Somehow something is still missing. What could it be?
Perhaps what you need is nourishment for the body and soul, and nothing fits that bill like a hearty stew.
It is a ritual in which mankind has indulged since the first clay pot was made.
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Build a crackling fire, place the pot right in the middle of it, add water and whatever else you can forage from the fields and the hunters can bring home from the deep woods: some roots or tubers, a turtle, an unlucky squirrel.
That first stew probably would not be considered tasty by today's standards, but surely it was nourishing and life-sustaining.
You may not be excited about building a fire in the back yard and going totally native, but you can get that big, heavy bottom pot down and place it over a hot burner, add a little oil, and then raid the refrigerator and freezer. Who knows what you might come up with to delight your family?
If you hesitate to live such a free-spirited life, here are a few recipes that you might want to try instead. They are not the conventional stews that you might be used to. Some might say they are on the cusp of the stew category, but they are delicious and sustaining.
CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE STEW AND CORNBREAD
2-3 best quality chicken thighs
1 cup chopped smoked sausage
1 small chopped red onion
1 rounded tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rice
4-5 cups homemade chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sauté the sausage until well-browned, then remove and set aside. Season the chicken and cook in the same pan until browned but not cooked through. Remove, cut into large dice and set aside. Now sauté the onion, again in the same pan to make use of all that flavor that has been building up there. Add the flour and an equal amount of oil and slowly cook until you have a brown roux. Add the chicken and sausage, cover with the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Season aggressively. Add the rice and continue cooking until the rice is done, about 20 minutes. Taste and re-season as needed. Serve piping hot and don't forget the cornbread.
CORNBREAD FOR THE CHICKEN AND SAUSAGE STEW
Smoking-hot bacon grease may not be the healthiest option, but little else will give you that wonderful crust on your cornbread.
6 tablespoons butter
1 cup corn meal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1- 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1- 1/2 cups buttermilk
Bacon grease, optional
Preheat the oven to 425 f. In a large mixing bowl combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt, give it a good mix. Melt the butter, then, in a separate mixing bowl, combine it with the eggs and buttermilk. Make sure the eggs are completely incorporated. Now combine the two, mixing well, you do not want any dry spots. Oil a black cast iron skillet, or if you are using the bacon grease, heat it to smoking, then pour in the cornbread mixture. Bake until done, 20 to 25 minutes.
BLACK BEAN STEW
Lyle Bonge once told me the key to a great black bean stew is "more garlic than you think possible, and more ham than you think possible." It is sage advice, and Lyle's black beans were of great merit, as were all of his kitchen adventures. But we are going to take a few other steps to ensure we have the depth that a great black bean stew can have. Hang on!
1 pound dried black beans
6-7 cups homemade chicken or ham stock
1-2 ham hocks
1 chopped onion
1 chopped bell pepper
1 cup chopped ham, or more
8-10 cloves chopped garlic
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, red chili flakes
1 cup rice
Soak the beans overnight in water, then drain. In a large stock pot sauté the ham until it starts to brown, remove half and set aside. Add the onion and bell pepper and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Add 6-8 cloves of chopped garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add the ham hocks and the stock, season aggressively and simmer until the beans are tender. Use an immersion blended to thicken the beans, but be careful to leave at least 3/4 of the beans whole. Taste and season as necessary.
To make the rice, add 3-4 tablespoons oil to a sauté pan, add the remaining chopped garlic and sauté for 1 minute, add the uncooked rice and stir to coat the grains of rice in the oil and garlic. Now steam as you normally would using the remaining stock, not water. Plate the beans, add1/4 cup rice and serve at once.
RED SAUCE STEW
Many grocery stores now carry shredded pork in the deli department, which can save time. You can substitute ham, cut it into thick cubes and brown first. You also can add a glass of red wine, if the mood strikes you. If you have a heel of Parmesan, the piece that is almost all rind, you can throw that into the pot as well. It is a great seasoning element and should not be thrown away.
1 large can imported Italian whole tomatoes
1-2 cups chicken or ham stock
1-2 cups shredded pork
1 chopped onion
2-3 thick sliced yellow squash
2-3 cups fresh spinach
Salt, black pepper, small pinch dried oregano
Sauté the onion in oil for 5 minutes, add the can of tomatoes, pork, and stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and season. Add the squash and simmer for 15 minutes, then add the spinach and simmer just until tender. Taste and re-season as necessary. Serve at once.
Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes Coast Cooking in Wednesday's Sun Herald and has a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with columns in magazines.