A good part of my writing process involves something I refer to as stewing, a name derived from a savory dish and an apt metaphor for the writing process itself. I get a thought or an idea, then I file the thought away and ‘stew’ on it, letting the millions of little synapses in my brain develop the idea into an essay while I get on with day-to-day responsibilities. Sometimes my ideas take years to stew. But, that’s the great thing about stewing – it’s supposed to take a long time, reflecting a process of mounting nuances and intriguingly paired flavor notes.
Stewing differentiates itself from steaming, which I typically do when I’m really pissed off. (See also: fuming, angry hands, and, the pinnacle of dissatisfaction, burning my cheese.)
This essay was the product of my studies in ‘stewing’ over the transformative effects of water. I read somewhere that you should always boil water with the lid covering your pot because the energy required to heat water is significant; once boiling, the water maintains a relatively steady temperature, so you can leave the lid off if you prefer. (I’d like to credit this observation to Harold McGee, but it might also have come from Alton Brown or any of a number of people who I believe to be my culinary educators.)
Thinking thusly of boiling water, I started with pasta, an inveterate comfort food. Bill Buford muses: “Is the secret appeal of pasta, the world’s greatest comfort food, in its evocation of childhood?” I have been known to eat pasta straight out of the box, though I generally prefer its consistency after it spends a few minutes in salty boiling water. But, spend a mite too long in that same transformative water, and one is rewarded with sticky pasta, an unpleasant quality that has driven many pasta enthusiasts to add oil to their water.
Hervé This clarified things for me. In a chapter of Molecular Gastronomy titled “Al Dente,” This explained that cooking pasta in a rich broth, rather than water, helps keep it from becoming sticky. (A palate-changing addition: try cooking your pasta in a broth seasoned with a handful of red pepper flakes. Your taste buds will propose marriage to you.) “Jacques Lefebvre at the INRA station in Nantes has shown that the more proteins the water contains, the less amylose the starch loses during cooking,” writes This. “Moreover,” he continues, “the Montpellier team demonstrated that cooking pasta in mineral water increases the loss of starch content and therefore stickiness as well, whereas pasta cooked in slightly acidified water (through the addition of a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, for example) preserves a satisfactory surface state, even after overcooking.”
It should say something that a National Pasta Association exists, though it’s not much of a surprise that Italy has something even more laudatory: the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari – the Pasta Museum.
Then I started thinking about what water – in the form of a flavorful liquid – does in the braising process. Braising, which requires a protein to be seared at high heat, then cooked in liquid for several hours, has presented to the culinary world many gifts, such as the pot roast, chicken cacciatore, coq au vin, sauerbraten, and my beloved beer-braised pulled pork. “In this method,” writes Bill Buford, “the liquid is the essential ingredient, and it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s wet and plentiful (in an Irish pot roast, it’s water).” The transformative results are remarkable.
But perhaps the most comforting of all water-based transformations are soups and stews. My mother, who taught herself to cook at age 14, revered soups for their economical sensibility: a few vegetables and some inexpensive meat can be stretched for several days by the in-pot carnage of a soup. She loved borscht, split pea soup, vegetable barley soup… I think these reminded her of her youth in the Ukraine. Sometimes she grew frustrated with me when I didn’t ask for seconds, but soups were her soul food, not mine. She never tired of eating the same soup for days at a time, where I can barely abide by a day’s worth of leftovers (it makes no logical sense, but that’s the way I’m made). Beethoven has said: “Only the pure of heart can make a good soup.” Perhaps this is why – being a little muddled of heart myself – at the end of a tiring day, I long for a stew: something hearty and rustic with juices that can be sopped up with hunks of warm bread. Stews are also more difficult to spill in moments of sudden duress, such as when your cat threatens to eat the stew that’s resting in your lap while you’re consumed with the latest episode of Top Chef. The chunky goodness is a bonus for a klutz like me… Maybe that’s really why I’m so fond of stews, the food, and of stewing, the cooking and writing process.
A present to you for caring enough to read my stuff: my recipe for green chile stew.
Use a large soup-size pot for this one-pot wonder.
On medium heat, combine 1 lb. ground/diced pork or chicken (I use thin-sliced diced pork chops), 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 or 2 yellow onions, a little olive oil, and red pepper flakes and cumin to taste. Cook till onions are softened and meat is mostly done.
Add to this: ½ bunch diced cilantro, 1 large can of green enchilada sauce (the hotter, the better), 2 cans black beans (drained and rinsed – my grandfather, who was a physician and who suffered from irritable bowels, swore that rinsing beans well would eliminate most of the commonly attributed gassiness – sorry if that was TMI), 2 small cans yellow hominy (drained), juice of 1 lime, and 1 can of chopped green chiles.
Simmer on low heat for at least one hour (or longer, if you possess Herculean self-discipline), stirring occasionally. Serve with crushed yellow corn tortilla chips and a cooling dollop of sour cream. Don’t blame me if you are overwhelmed with a sudden urge to hop on a plane to Tucson and slather yourself with salsa verde.