It has been a beautiful autumn with lots of warm sunny days and crisp air full of wood smoke. Such days are hungry-making and kitchens should be stew scented to slake that need. Stew. We use the same word to mean so many different things. Stew is a perfect example. To be stewed is to cook some things together slowly in liquid or it is to be intoxicated. A stew, in addition to being a dish of mixed foods cooked as above, is also a brothel or a district of brothels. While stewing is not only a method of cooking, likewise it is a suppressed state of agitation, worry or resentment. Go figure.
Nor is stew a new idea. The Greek historian, Herodotus, credits the Scythians with the invention of stew, but he is a Johnny-come-lately in this. Archaeologists have found evidence of meats simmered long and slow dating to about 8,000 years ago. Stews have been simmered in everything from animal stomachs to giant mollusk shells. Only 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians were sufficiently fond of their stews to inscribe at least 3 recipes in stone: one for lamb stew with root vegetables, one for lamb stew with milk and grain and one for a vegetable stew. These stone tablets are part of the Yale Babylonian Collection and there are well known chefs working to interpret and reproduce these recipes with modernly available ingredients.
There are hundreds of stew types, at least one for every culture that ever existed and left its mark on the planet. The names alone would keep a team of linguists at work for decades including: gumbo, tagine, goulash, hot pot, slumgullion, feijoada, Stroganoff, puchero, burgoo, bouillabaisse, fricassee, Bourguingon, Waterzooi, cassoulet, kokkinisto and birra. A non exhaustive investigation holds France responsible for a minimum of 13 divergent forms. All of which only proves that, in some cases, you cannot take a good thing too far.
There are dozens of stew recipes on our website, including: Frogmore Stew With Shrimp And Sausage, Pumpkin Pork Stew, Cannellini Stew With Pancetta and Swiss Chard and Filipino Pork Stew all of which are rich and satisfying. For today we are offering a Creamy Lamb and Leek Stew. Like most stews it keeps well and is worth more than one meal.
For any student of history, elections, their processes and outcomes have been in dispute for as long as there have been elections. In fact, the colony of Connecticut was initiated by one such dispute. Early settlers of Massachusetts were entitled to vote only if they were vetted members of the Anglican Church and its law as imposed by Britain. One churchman, Thomas Hooker, objected to this restriction. Hooker took his followers to the area of Hartford and established the Connecticut Colony and its Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which some historians hold to be the basis of the U.S. Constitution. It provided an outline for self-government in which the well-being of the community came before the individual. Free adult men were entitled to elect a governor and a legislative assembly to make laws.
Whatever else they were, which would include courageous, bold, intrepid and resourceful, both Massachusetts and Connecticut pilgrims appear to have been a rather dour lot. Celebrations such as Christmas were banned as Romish frivolities. As happens with such repressions, the human need for merriment and festivity simply sidestepped the religious holidays and adopted those secular ones that could be bent to the purpose. Election Day, which in earlier times was held on the first Thursday in May and happily coincided with spring’s arrival, was a perfect candidate for partying. The tradition of the great rum or brandy-soaked and spiced English cakes served with eggnogs and punches were resurrected as a voter turnout treat.
We have talked in these pages previously of Ameila Simmons and the first American Cookery book published in Hartford in 1796 using local ingredients and facilities. It was the first cookbook to ever pair turkey with cranberries, provide recipes for johnnycakes and Indian puddings. In her book she included a recipe for Hartford Election Cake a boozy spiced cake large enough to feed the entire community. This recipe called for 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter; 14 pounds of sugar, 12 pounds of raisins 36 eggs, 4 ounces of cinnamon, 4 ounces of coriander seed, 3 ounces of allspice, 1 quart of yeast and “enough” milk. It would certainly be interesting to know what fireplace or oven was able to accommodate a pan large enough to hold all such ingredients and to evenly cook the whole of it.
The cakes where more half bread than the type of lighter cakes we know today. Frequently slices were toasted and slathered with butter. By the mid 18th C Election Cakes and alcoholic beverages were freely served in Hartford to celebrate election returns with “all those who voted the straight ticket”. (One might wonder how the cake-giver knew who the cake-eater voted for, but we mustn’t be too nosey.) At some point, an aromatic rum icing was added and drizzled over each slice. The baking of these cakes was touted as a way for American women to participate in the electoral process. Never mind, that was then.
Though you will find a Chocolate Whiskey Cake on the website, this Election Day Cake recipe stands alone. Fortunately, the alcohol adds to its shelf life and it is terrific toasted and buttered. Let’s all hope that we find a way to de-polarize our nation after November 3rd. Maybe sharing a slice of cake with a neighbor will aid the process.
Peter isn’t the only pumpkin-eater around, but he must have eaten at least one very large one in order to keep his wife in the shell. Why she would put up with such a home, I cannot answer. Nonetheless, Peters worldwide are in luck. Antarctica is the only continent that cannot grow pumpkins. This member of the Cucurbitaceae is believed to have originated in Mexico where they left evidential seeds dating to about 7,000 BC. Various colonizers brought it back to Europe, but the name is derived from the Greek pepon for large melon. The French picked it up as pomou and passed it to the British who heard it as pumpion. That name traveled with colonists back to the Western Hemisphere where it outflanked all linguistic odds to become pumpkin.
While pumpkin lore abounds, I am sorry to tell you that the elegant white pumpkin coach of Cinderella fame is not included in the earlier French and German versions of the tale and appear to be straight out of Disney World. Another pumpkin tale must be told of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In this story all that remained of Ichabod Crane after being chase by a headless horseman was Crane’s horse, his hat and a shattered pumpkin. That shattered pumpkin has spawned many a secondary tall tale on its own.
Though they are most commonly known in the orange form, pumpkins actually come in dark green, pale green, white, red and grey. The most traditional American pumpkin is the Connecticut Field variety. Heirloom to field to table to lantern, there is an extraordinary and cheerful range of size, shape and color. There is a gnarly entry that looks like the outside of a peanut shell, appropriately dubbed a peanut pumpkin. Venture into the farmers’ market and choose what delights you most. Pumpkins opens the holiday season with the coming of Halloween and stay for the remainder of the year to put smiles on our faces and something delicious in our mouths.
Maybe it’s the pumpkin’s rotund and jolly appearance that is responsible for the fun, festivals and contests they inspire. Pumpkins are the stuff of children’s imagination, fairy-tale coaches, bizarre homes and great goblin faces. Lucky us. There are annual Pumpkin Queens distributed across the U.S.. In 2006, Boston set the record for having the most jack o’ lanterns with 30,128 on display. There is a pumpkin festival that has been held in Circleville, Ohio every year since 1903 with a single three-year wartime exception. The world record holder for the largest pumpkin was set in 2016 by Mathais Willemijns of Belgium for his 2,624.6 pound entry. It has yet to be topped.
As for its culinary properties, the first colonists lopped off the top of the pumpkin; scooped out the stringy insides and seeds; then filled it with milk, honey and spices. They set the filled pumpkin in the coals of their fireplace to bake. That must be the great, great grandmother of all pumpkin pies. The Japanese use pumpkin to make tempura; the Italians stuff ravioli with it; the Thai make individual servings of pumpkin custard in very small pumpkins; and in Mexico and the southwestern U.S., pumpkin flowers are battered and fried. There are many pumpkin recipes on our website, not least of which are: Stuffed Pumpkin, Pumpkin Bundt Cake, Pork and Pumpkin Stew, Pumpkin Whoopie Pies, Pumpkin Sage Risotto and naturally several pies. Today we offering a Creamy Pumpkin and Leek Soup. It can be made the day before and gently warmed before serving.