The first time I met chef Paul Prudhomme, he was peering over the stove in his narrow test kitchen, a converted shotgun house just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. Chef was heating oil in a large cast-iron skillet, and when he saw me, he invited me over to watch him fix gumbo.
When the oil was smoking hot, he quickly whisked in flour to form a roux -- “Cajun napalm,” he called it -- the bubbling mass darkening to a deep chocolate brown in minutes. He stirred a trinity of vegetables into the roux to stop the cooking -- onions, celery and bell peppers -- then added the roux to a pot of boiling stock. Chopped andouille sausage and garlic went in as he patiently watched the stew, tasting occasionally, over a slow, quiet hour while it gently simmered away. When the rich aroma was almost too much to bear, Chef added chopped chicken, and soon the gumbo was ready.
I can’t say which I savored more: the depth of flavor from a seemingly simple dish or the unhurried quiet, almost sacred, time spent preparing it.
Unlike a typical weeknight dinner rushed to the table after a long day, stews are patient, as much about the sheer pleasure of cooking as the finished dish itself. It’s the simple alchemy of time and ingredients layered in a pot to form something lush and rich, with a depth of flavor that cannot be duplicated with a shortcut.
I spent a recent rainy weekend fixing Paula Wolfert’s oxtail daube, a provincial French stew. It’s a two-day project, requiring several hours of gentle braising. The weather was cold and wet, a perfect winter weekend for laboring over the dish. A bottle of red wine here, a little prosciutto there, a handful of fresh herbs, the building aroma gently wafting through the house. Sunday evening, I served the finished daube spooned over fresh pasta, the fork-tender meat coated in the most beautiful thick reduction.
While a good stew demands patience, not all of them demand a lot of time. The other night I fixed a spiced butternut squash stew, the cubed squash simmered with browned onions, raisins and roasted peppers. It came together in about an hour, the broth thickened with stale whole-grain bread and cream, the spice rounded out with the sweet notes of maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg.
It made a perfect weeknight meal, though I’ll admit it tasted even better as leftovers, after a quiet night in the fridge.