I got interested in stews for similar reasons as my medieval peasant characters: the need for an economical way to feed ourselves.
In 2007, I had an eight-month non-vacation, the result of moving across the state of Indiana because of my husband’s job. As I searched for my own employment, I tried stretch the food budget, but what the heck do you with low-cost cuts of meat?
Answer: stew. I first turned to The Joy of Cooking and then did my own experimentation. I found chuck roast to be the best cut for the job, rather than cubes labeled “stew meat” and rump roast.
Medieval peasants would have made a variation of this dish with whatever they had on hand, but a beef stew would have been a treat for them because they could not afford to eat meat every day. I wanted to create a recipe using ingredients similar to what was available in eighth century Francia and Saxony, the settings for my novels, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar—and still be delicious to a modern palate.
Ingredients would also be determined by time of year, what was in season or in storage. For this recipe, I settled on this time of year, shortly after the livestock slaughter. Even in a good year, there was not enough fodder to feed all the animals through the winter. Meat could be preserved through salting, pickling, and smoking, and the temperatures tended to be cold already.
The reason I call this recipe medieval-style is that I cannot truly re-create what the folk would have eaten. Livestock has changed over the centuries, and the conditions they lived in were different from today’s cattle. Another compromise I’ve made is in the mushrooms. Peasants could have found mushrooms in the woods and perhaps dried them for future use, but I am sticking with the plain white button mushrooms I find in the grocery store. If you are at all tempted to use wild mushrooms, pretty please with sugar on top, get them only from a competent, experienced mushroom hunter, someone with lots of gray hair and wrinkles. If you eat the wrong mushroom, you could get seriously ill, as in needing a new liver.
The medieval-style recipe worked at my house. Although some of the barley stuck to the bottom, my husband and I enjoyed the stew. I typically use little salt when cooking but add more at the table, which I did for this stew.
2-pound chuck roast
1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried herbs such as parsley, basil, and thyme
1 large onion
4 medium carrots
2 bottles of beer or ale (Something you would drink—I used Kolsch style ale. And yes, history police, I know medieval people didn’t keep their beer in bottles.)
2-3 stalks of celery with leaves (Medieval folk would have had celeriac in the stores, but celery is easier to get today.)
1 clove garlic
1 8-ounce package of mushrooms
1/4 cup dried split peas (OK, these are split by a machine, but it’s the closest I can get in my small Indiana town to what medieval folk might have had in late fall.)
1/2 cup pearled barely (Stews made by medieval peasants had grain such as rye or barley, and pearled barley is as close as I can get.)
6 radishes (They become mild with cooking.)
4 small turnips (It wouldn’t surprise me if medieval peasants grew these as large as they could, but smaller tastes better.)
If this recipe were truly written for the way I cook, it would include steps like “unload and reload dishwasher so you have space to work” and “if you want to take another step in this kitchen, feed the cats—now.” You definitely want to plan ahead for this. The meat cooks low and slow in moist heat. I typically use a Dutch oven, but some of this could be done in a crock pot.
- Open the bottles of beer/ale.
- Put a Dutch oven on the stove and let it heat on low
- Chop the onion and celery and slice 2 of the carrots. Quarter the mushrooms. Set aside.
- Rinse and sort the split peas and the barley. Set those aside, too.
- Use the flat side of a chef knife to help peel the garlic, the mince and crush it. Set that aside. Yes, there is a purpose for all this.
- Turn up the heat on the Dutch oven to medium low or medium.
- On a separate cutting board, starting cutting the fat out of the chuck roast and throw it into the Dutch oven. You want to render a little fat, just enough to brown the meat. (You can also render bacon to get fat.)
- While the fat is rendering, chop the meat into 2-inch cubes.
- Sprinkle the dried herbs over the meat. For this recipe, I used basil and thyme. Sprinkle a little salt on it. Stir.
- Remove the solid chunks of fat and brown the meat in batches, not letting the pieces touch. If the pot starts smoking, cheat and add a little vegetable oil. Don’t worry about the brown bits on the bottom. Those will flavor the stew.
- Set meat aside and add the onion, celery, carrot, and mushroom mix. Sprinkle with a little salt and stir, letting the mix deglaze the pot. Cook the mix covered about five minutes, but stir frequently. You want the vegetables to soften and for the onions to start to become translucent.
- Add the garlic, stir, let cook for 20 seconds. (If you’re using a crock pot, transfer the ingredients to it.)
- Add the split peas and barley. Stir.
- Add the meat, nestling it in if you can. And add the juices that accumulated.
- Add the beer/ale to almost cover the mix.
- Cover the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. This is where you wait until the meat is fork tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours in a Dutch oven, much longer in a crock pot.
- While you’re waiting, halve the radishes, cut the remaining carrots into 1-inch pieces, and peel and dice the turnips. For now, set aside. (After I had cooked this recipe, someone suggested parsnips, which also were around in medieval Europe. If you like parsnips, you can cut 1 or 2 into 1-inch pieces and add them to the mix.)
- When the meat is tender, add those veggies you chopped in Step 17. Then you wait a little bit longer, 30-40 minutes or until they are tender.
- It’s done! Enjoy.