The Stews of Autumn

I remember my mother's quick stews, thrown together after she came home from work and usually consisting of leftover meat and vegetables with Campbell's Golden Mushroom Soup. And I remember the stew she made for me on my 12th birthday when we were camping in Alaska. A hunter gave us some moose, which she diced, floured, browned and simmered with onion, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and wine.

Then there was the spicy duck stew I made after a hunting expedition to the Mississippi; I served it to 10 people, some of whom quietly laid down their forks after the first bite; nobody had warned me that fish-eating ducks would taste, well, fishy. Stews are on my mind these days.

Every year around this time, as the fall tease begins--a day here and a day there of chilly mornings, scoured blue skies, a bracing clarity in the air that makes people want to chop wood, unpack the woolens or buy some good sturdy school shoes--I, a congenital cook, want to make stews.

Living in California, I try to stifle this urge until deeper into the year, when the temperature has cooled down for good. But I don't stop thinking about stews.

The most instructive stew I ever made was years ago, when I was at the University of Iowa. The first heartening whiffs of autumn hit just before school started one year and sent my boyfriend and me out squirrel hunting.

Squirrel hunting is a largely pleasant experience. You find a nice spot in the forest. You sit down against a tree, maybe in a shaft of filtered sunlight. You wait for the squirrels to get curious enough to poke their heads out of their holes to look at you. Soon enough, you know where they are. Then you wait some more, this time for the squirrels' curiosity to pull them all the way out of their holes so that you can shoot them without knocking them back down inside a tree trunk.

Of course, the act of shooting squirrels is not particularly pleasant, and after an initial success, I have never been able to hit one again.

That day, however, we came home with three plump corn-fed specimens, which we dressed and put to soak in milk overnight in the refrigerator. We would have Brunswick stew, I decided: the best thing Americans--or anybody else--have figured out to do with squirrel meat.

I found my recipe for Brunswick stew in James Beard's "American Cookery." It is a rich, delicious stew, enriched with bacon and fresh limas and corn cut off the ear. Squirrel meat is dark and, when cooked this way, is moist and pleasantly stringy, like dark meat on a turkey.

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With the squirrels marinating in milk, I called up half a dozen friends who were just back in town and invited them to dinner the next night. Everyone was, pardon the expression, game.

It was also suggested and decided that we should invite the well-known woman writer who had come to Iowa to teach for the semester. Why not? What could be lost by asking? The worst she could say was no.

But, Yes! The Famous Personage said Yes! We arranged transportation for her. I was thrilled to imagine such a distinguished person in my modest student home.

The Famous Personage arrived in a carload of my friends. She stood at my front door, a short, broad woman with heavy bangs who clutched a Baggie in her hands. In the Baggie was a small foil disc. Her first words were, "I don't eat squirrel," as she handed the Baggie to me. "So I brought my own hamburger. It needs to be cooked."

We drank beer and talked and caught up on each other's summers, and soon enough, people were helping themselves to bowls of Brunswick stew and murmuring with pleasure.

"Squirrel's not so bad," someone said. "It's good, like a cross between pork and chicken."

The Famous Personage decided to have a taste. Shortly, she was shoveling down Brunswick stew with the rest of us. To her surprise, she did eat squirrel. In fact, she ate quite a bit of squirrel--several bowls of it. We couldn't help but notice.

She also drank quite a bit. And then she picked out the shyest, most reserved person in the room and interrogated him loudly and rudely on sensitive issues. We were all barely in our 20s then--young enough to be shocked, appalled and sorely disillusioned when a Famous Personage misbehaved. The evening ended in hushed goodbys, whispers that we'd all talk tomorrow.

As I cleaned up the kitchen, I came across the foil-wrapped burger in its Baggie and tossed it into the freezer.

A couple of weeks later, I was walking down the hall at school, and who was coming toward me but the very same Famous Personage?

"Say," she said, stopping me in my tracks. "Can you tell me what people do for fun around here? I've been here a month now and the only thing anybody's asked me to do is go out to some girl's house for rabbit stew."

I pulled myself up tall. "That was my house," I declared. "And it was squirrel stew."

For months, every time I rummaged in the freezer for a package of corn or chops and came across that rumpled foil disc, I was reminded that people are never who you think they are; no, never.

The other day, I braked for a squirrel with a large acorn in its mouth and recalled Brunswick stew fondly. But even if you could get decent, plump corn-fed squirrel in these parts, I wouldn't be tempted to cook it, not until the mercury drops. February, maybe.

The problem is, cool as these mornings are, Indian summer days in California can be blistering, and by supper time, we humans can feel far more like stew than like eating it.

I have learned the hard way--by heating up my kitchen until even the silverware in the drawers was hot to the touch--not to attempt any long-simmering fricassee at this time of year. But that's OK: For the ardent stewer, there are plenty of other options.

Too often, the thought of stew evokes the likes of lamb stew, Irish stew, beef stew with carrots and potatoes, boeuf bourguignon, daube. But a stew can be darn near any heterogeneous mixture cooked at length with enough moisture to distinguish it from a braise and not enough moisture to tip it over into soup.

Stews include gumbos, curries, ratatouilles, etoufees, cassoulets, goulashes, Mulligan stew, salmis (leftover game stew), not to mention all the fish stews--cioppino, bouillabaisse, solianka (a Russian stew of salmon and potatoes), some chowders and matelote (a French stew of freshwater fish).

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Alice Waters includes risotto in her conception of stews, and if she's right, well, shouldn't jambalaya and paella be stews too? And what about chili? And what of "smothered" dishes, those layers of vegetables and herbs and sometimes meat cooked in a hot, sloshy environment until a mutual perfuming occurs?

The trick, then, on days of chilly mornings and brutal afternoons, is not to deny the impulse to stew, but to choose a recipe that won't make eating the finished stew at the kitchen table equivalent to swimming in the stew pot.

FALL FRUIT STEW

Here is a fruit stew--a compote by any other name. You can vary the fruit in it, depending on what is available. The sauce is a little tart, and the fruit is a little sweet; this stew is perfect over ice cream or with a dollop of vanilla yogurt. Ginger snaps or molasses crinkles are the perfect accompaniment.

2 cups unsweetened apple juice

1 cup water

2 cinnamon sticks

1 (1-inch) piece ginger root, cut in half

Zest of 1 orange

Zest of 1 lemon

2 apples, peeled, cored, cut in eighths

2 firm pears, peeled, cored, cut in eighths

4 plums, pitted, cut in halves

2 fuyu persimmons, peeled, seeded, cut in eighths

1/3 cup golden raisins

1/3 cup dark raisins

1/2 cup pitted prunes

1/2 cup dried apricots

1/3 cup fresh raspberries

1/4 cup almonds, chopped

Pomegranate seeds

Bring apple juice, water, cinnamon sticks, ginger and zests to boil in large saucepan. Add apples, cover, and cook until just tender, about 15 minutes. Add pears, cover, and cook 5 minutes. Add plums, persimmons, raisins, prunes and apricots and cook for another 5 minutes. If you must stir, be careful not to break fruit apart. Turn off heat. Gently stir in raspberries.

Toast almonds in 400-degree oven until golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Remove ginger root and carefully spoon stew into individual bowls, being careful not to break up fruit. Serve stew sprinkled with toasted almonds and pomegranate seeds.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

277 calories; 7 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 65 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.88 grams fiber.

BRUNSWICK STEW

Here is my version of Brunswick Stew, which is adapted from James Beard's in "American Cookery." If you don't have your own private supply of squirrels, you can substitute chicken or rabbit. Farm-raised rabbits are increasingly available in supermarket meat sections.

5 slices thick-cut bacon

2 to 3 onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

Flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped

1 sprig fresh thyme

2 to 3 squirrels or 2 farm-raised rabbits or 1 large chicken, cut into pieces

2 cups chicken or veal stock

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup Madeira

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes

1 cup freshly shelled lima beans or frozen limas

1 cup whole-kernel corn

1 cup okra

Chopped parsley

Cook bacon in heavy skillet. Drain bacon on paper towels, crumble and set aside. Discard all but 1/4 cup fat.

Add onions and garlic to remaining fat and cook until soft but not browned. Transfer mixture to braising pan.

Combine flour, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme in plastic food bag. Add squirrel, chicken or rabbit pieces and shake bag to coat meat.

Brown meat in skillet with film of remaining bacon fat. When nicely colored, transfer to braising pan.

Add stock, bay leaf, Madeira and Worcestershire sauce to skillet. Cook briefly over high heat, scraping bottom of pan to remove any browned pieces. Add to braising pan. Cover and cook over low heat 35 minutes. Remove cover, add tomatoes, lima beans, corn and okra and simmer until meat is tender and vegetables are cooked. Correct seasoning, adding more Madeira if necessary. Ladle into bowls and garnish with reserved bacon and chopped parsley.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

635 calories; 1,259 mg sodium; 107 mg cholesterol; 42 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 1.43 grams fiber.

PERSIAN LAMB STEW (GORME SABZI)

This Middle Eastern lamb stew made with dried limes and a variety of fresh greens is one of the world's great flavor combinations. Although the lamb cooks for an hour, the fire is low and there's no browning beforehand. Using a pressure cooker reduces the one long stretch of cooking time further--and saves more of the nutrients. Making this stew reminds me that cooking without modern conveniences took take a very long time: Traditionally, the greens were not pureed but chopped extremely fine. And although this chopping takes no special skill, it does take stamina and time, a long time--far longer than most contemporary cooks are accustomed to chopping things. The greens in this recipe could, conceivably, take 20 or even 30 minutes to chop to the desired texture. I once made the stew, stinting on the chopping time and ended up with cups of the most annoying-sized flecks. I finally fished out the lamb and beans and pureed it after all.

1 pound lean lamb stew meat, cut in 1-inch chunks

3 dried limes

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1 quart water

1 bunch cilantro, stems removed

1 bunch parsley, stems removed

1 bunch mint, stems removed

1 bunch spinach, stems removed

1 bunch mustard greens, stems removed

1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Simmer lamb, dried limes, garlic and water in small stew pot until meat is tender, about 1 hour. Skim off froth. Or bring lamb, limes, garlic and water to boil in a pressure cooker and cook under pressure for 20 minutes, then reduce pressure.

After lamb is tender, strain stock and skim off any fat. Bring stock to boil in stew pot. Add cilantro, parsley, mint, spinach and mustard greens and simmer until well wilted. Cool and puree in blender or food processor.

Return puree to stew pot. Add cooked lamb and limes, kidney beans, cinnamon and nutmeg and bring to boil. Simmer to allow flavors to blend and sauce to thicken, about 10 to 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with pita bread and rice, if desired. Garnish with creamy, fresh yogurt.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

547 mg sodium; 55 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 25 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 2.41 grams fiber.

INDIAN SUMMER SHRIMP STEW

This is the perfect Indian Summer Stew in that it takes less than 20 minutes on a hot stove and makes use of all the last garden (or farmers market) harvest. It's a fine way to bid farewell to fresh ripe tomatoes, corn on the cob, green beans. Although this recipe calls for large shrimp, if you don't mind all the peeling and deveining, medium shrimp are less flashy to look at but just as tasty. (Be sure to shorten cooking time to 2 to 3 minutes if you use smaller shrimp.) I find beautiful sweet shrimp at bargain prices at the meat counters in local Thai markets.

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

6 small red potatoes, cut into 1/3-inch cubes

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon lime zest, chopped

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 sprig fresh thyme

1/2 jalapeno chile, seeded and minced.

1/2 pound fresh green beans, cut into 1/2-inch lengths

Kernels from 2 ears corn

6 Roma tomatoes, seeded, cut in 1-inch chunks

Salt

Cayenne pepper

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/4 cup chopped parsley

Heat olive oil in 4-quart saucepan. Add garlic and potatoes and stir over medium-high heat until potatoes are well-coated with oil. Continue cooking about 3 minutes. Before garlic turns color, add stock, lime zest and juice, thyme and jalapeno. Cover and simmer until potatoes are somewhat cooked but still crisp, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add green beans and simmer, covered, about 3 more minutes. Add corn and tomatoes and simmer, covered, another 3 minutes. Check broth for flavor. Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Add shrimp and simmer until cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately, dividing evenly among 4 bowls. Sprinkle with chopped parley.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

266 calories; 424 mg sodium; 140 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 1.66 grams fiber.

SMOKY RATATOUILLE

OK, this is supposed to be an Indian Summer stew and I'm telling you to heat your oven up to 450 degrees? Yes. But make this dish the night or the morning before you intend to serve it. That way, the flavors really seep into each other and by dinner time, the house has cooled off. Roasting an eggplant on the top of the stove, directly in a gas flame gives this ratatouille its addictive smokiness. The success of this dish depends on the best ingredients you can find--ideally those freshly harvested from your own garden.

1 (1-pound) eggplant

1 large yellow onion, chopped

3 carrots, in 1/4-inch slices

1 head garlic, separated, each clove peeled but left whole

Olive oil

Red wine vinegar

Salt

2 zucchini, cut in 1/2-inch slices

2 crookneck squash, cut in 1/2-inch slices

1 large red bell pepper, cut in 1-inch squares

8 Roma tomatoes, seeded, cut into 1-inch chunks

2 tablespoons capers, drained

2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

3 tablespoons parsley, chopped

If using gas stove, line burner with foil and roast whole eggplant directly on flame, turning with tongs until skin blackens and crackles, about 20 minutes. Remove to plate and let cool. Peel off blackened skin and chop pulp coarsely. Place in stew pot.

An alternative method: Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and place cut side down in a roasting pan. Add scant 1/2 cup water. Cover tightly with foil and roast at 450 degrees until soft, about 20 minutes. Cool. Scoop out pulp and chop coarsely. Place in stew pot.

Combine onion, carrots and garlic cloves in roasting pan. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss to make sure all pieces are covered. Roast at 450 degrees until onion is browned and cooked through, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, add dash of red wine vinegar and add to stew pot on top of eggplant.

Combine squashes and pepper in roasting pan. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and toss. Roast at 450 degrees until browned and cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven, add dash red wine vinegar and add to stew pot on top of other vegetables.

Place tomatoes in roasting pan. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt, toss. Roast at 450 degrees until tomatoes soften and begin to collapse, about 12 minutes. Place in stewpot on top of other vegetables. Stir vegetables very gently and bring to boil. Simmer to allow flavors to blend, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove to large bowl and cool.

When vegetables are at room temperature, add capers, basil, parsley. Stew can be stored in refrigerator but should be brought to room temperature before serving. Serve with pita bread or freshly grilled slices of crusty sourdough.

Makes 4 to 6 main-course servings.

Each serving contains about:

144 calories; 131 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 3.40 grams fiber.

FAST PORK AND TOMATILLO STEW

Here is the fastest, easiest stew I know; it's a recipe devised from eating former Times food editor and restaurant critic Ruth Reichl's quick black bean chili. Although it takes about three minutes to make your own tomatillo salsa, if you don't want to wash a blender, use a commercial salsa from the cold case in your supermarket. If you use really lean pork, this stew can be extremely low in fat.

1 pound lean pork, cut in 1-inch chunks

2 tablespoons olive oil

Water

1/2 pound tomatillos

1 jalapeno chile, seeded and minced

1/2 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons lime juice

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

Salt

1 (15-ounce) can black beans.

Cilantro sprigs

Tortillas

Cook pork, olive oil and 1/4-cup water over medium heat until tender, about 30 minutes.

While pork is cooking, remove papery skins from tomatillos. Cut in quarters, place in saucepan, add enough water to cover and bring to boil. Cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Drain and cool.

Combine cooked tomatillos, jalapeno, onion, garlic and lime juice in food processor or blender and pulse on and off until combined. Add cilantro. Pulse again just until mixed. Season to taste with salt.

When pork is cooked through and tender, add tomatillos and bring to boil. Add black beans and simmer until flavors blend, about 3 minutes. Garnish with sprigs of cilantro. Serve with tortillas or over rice.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

456 calories; 134 mg sodium; 55 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 34 grams protein; 4.04 grams fiber.

* Tableware from Malibu Colony Company

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