Hearty stews are typically wintertime fare, but here across from the creek in the mountains of Virginia, we have nippy summer evenings that call for extra covers and big steaming bowls of thick stew. Historically, heavy stews were meant to feed farmhands after a long, hard day of manual labor. I sit at my desk, working at my computer, most days. So I know I have to worry about a caloric imbalance here. Meat and potatoes swimming in a thick brown gravy doesn't exactly sound healthy, does it? Especially not for me.
But there is more than one way to skin a cat, my friends. (And no, this is not cat stew!)
However, it is venison (deer meat), the leanest meat on the planet. Don't stop reading. It's the other stew ingredients that are super-healthy improvements on traditional stew. You can replace venison with a lean cut of grass-fed beef, if you like, but I'm telling you, if you tasted my venison stew, you would think I'd put beef tenderloin in a stew.
The scrumptious lean venison meat is low-fat and incredibly nutritious, but the sauce is key. How do you thicken your stews--do you make a roux or add white flour to your meat as it fries, or maybe you add canned cream of mushroom soup, or maybe you use something else equally processed and unhealthy. If you don't--if you have discovered a healthy way to thicken stews--please share it with us. Because it took me forever to come up with a way to make a thick beef/deer stew without adding something unhealthy.
I mean, there are thickeners out there. You can use cornstarch, but most cornstarches are made from GMO corn and corn to begin with is probably something we really don't need to indulge in. And dammit, if I'm going to ingest those corn carbs, it's going to be real corn I'm dredging up with my spoon, not cornstarch. There are other things like arrowroot or tapioca or potato flakes, but the bottom line is, they all have problems and they all are starches (translate empty carbs/calories). And we didn't work on the farm today, did we?
So what's a stew-loving girl like me supposed to do?
Well, fortunately I was raised Cajun, and I learned early on that (the dreaded word) OKRA is a natural thickener. Don't howl with dismay. Okra is your friend. It is a superfood of the highest order. I'm not going to give you all the advantages of this nutritional powerhouse (google it yourself), but I am going to give you a painless way to ingest this superfood on the regular. You would never know my stew has okra in it, but it adds a certain rich complexity to my sauce.
You can puree okra and use it to thicken any dark savory dish you make, including a hearty stew like this one. But it takes a bit of time to cook down okra until you can't tell it's there. I love okra, so I don't mind it, but maybe your kids will say Ewwww and won't eat it if they see a trace of something that looks like it might once have been okra.
Have no fear, there are other options for thickening hearty stews. Simply take the concept of using a vegetable for thickening and expand upon that idea. My stew doesn't only contain okra. I pureed onions and celery into an almost clear liquid and added it to my stew when I first put it on the stove to boil. I also had chopped onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic. But those chopped bits just got soft and wilted. The pureed onion and celery boiled down into the thick stew you see before you in the photograph. Okay, so far we've got pureed okra, onions and celery as our thickening agents. We all have a hard time getting our veggies into a meal, don't we? See how niftily I slipped three invisible vegetables into that stew. Your three-year-old will wolf it down, I promise.
Did I mention I like my stews really, really hearty? Tonight I had a thought that never occurred to me before. I've been reading about the value of blackeyed peas (especially for Type Os in the Eat Right for Your Blood Type school of thought), and I haven't eaten them in forever. So I pureed a can of blackeyed peas and added that into my stew too. I was worried it would give it a beany taste, and beans don't go in beef stew EVER, but it didn't taste beany at all. I got away with it. It added that final bit of heartiness I was looking for, and you would never know there was a bean in there. WAIT. You're Paleo and you read the word bean and you're out of here, right? Hang on, hang on. I'm kinda Paleo too. But I've done lots of research and I think we need to hold onto beans and just learn to prepare them in traditional methods so the anti-nutrients are destroyed. That involves soaking and sprouting, yes, or buying sprouted beans (I've got a great resource for you in my next post which is about beans and lentils). But there are so many people who don't think canned beans are a problem. Smart people. Scientists even. So occasionally, I don't think it hurts to eat peas or beans from a can. Though I don't really like canned foods either (but that's another post). When you need to thicken a stew in a hurry, pureed blackeyed peas from a can is a better alternative than most we turn to. We'll talk more about this later. Back to my beautiful dark brown, hearty, chunky stew simmering on the stove.
I achieved that beautiful shade of brown not with a dark roux, of course, but by browning my venison in a bit of butter in my ceramic skillet. One of the advantages of cooking venison is how beautifully it browns. Effortlessly almost. One minute it's turning brown, you throw in cold water, and you've suddenly got this scrumptious dark brown gravy, which you then pour (with the meat) into the stewpot where you are boiling down your pureed okra, onions and celery, and your cut up onions, celery and bell pepper.
Also, I had a small container of turkey broth leftover from a holiday that had been boiled for two days with all kinds of veggies, so I threw that in there for even more nutrition. I let it boil til the meat was tender enough to cut with a fork, then added chunks of carrot, mushroom and potato. Oh, did I lose you at potato. I know, white potatoes have more sugar in them than donuts practically, and I know diabetics aren't supposed to have them. I tried replacing them with turnips--yech! I'm sorry but I can't eat a stew without a couple bites of potato, and the amount of potato in my bowl is nothing like the mountains of mashed potatoes and real gravy I used to chow down on. Sometimes you have to make small allowances to keep yourself from going off the track altogether.
Other than the white potatoes and maybe the blackeyed peas, my stew is practically perfect in every way, as Mary Poppins would say. And you can take the potatoes and blackeyed pea puree out if you must. Try this: replace the blackeyed peas with pureed sauteed shiitake or portabella mushrooms. This stew is a perfect meal. We've got fat-free meat, a sauce made of veggies, water and peas (or pureed mushrooms), and chunks of carrot and mushrooms (and maybe potatoes). When the stew was done, I turned off the heat and stirred in strips of dried sage, shook in lots of dried thyme (never-enough-thyme, you've heard it said), and threw in a few bay leaves and a splash of red wine vinegar. I let the stew sit to absorb the flavors and cool down then skimmed out the bay leaves (choking hazard) and sage that hadn't dissolved.
Now, you're probably thinking: okay maybe I'll try it with beef. That's perfectly fine. But if you've got friends who hunt, or are eligible to visit Hunters for the Hungry, you are really missing out if you don't learn how to cook venison. It's one of the most nutritious meats out there with none of the disadvantages of commercial meats (fed GMO grains, hormones and antibiotics) and none of the expense of grass-fed organic meats.
My venison does not taste wild or "like deer" because I prepare it uniquely. I cut it up in pieces and soak it overnight in a marinade of apple cider vinegar, water and papaya peelings.
Yes, papaya peelings. Papain comes from papayas and most of the papain is in the peelings or seeds, which most people throw away. I get unripe papayas from the grocery store (I hate to promote Walmart, but if you can't find papayas anywhere else, Walmart has them). I buy them as green as possible, peel them and freeze the peelings, dehydrate the seeds and put them in a jar and take them like enzymes when I need help with digestion (especially of meats). The flesh I keep in the fridge and eat pieces of it as a snack. Papaya peelings and apple cider vinegar will turn a tough deer roast into tenderloin overnight. Works way better and faster than meat tenderizer and without the chemicals in most meat tenderizers. Be sure to rinse the venison well after marinating and cut off all the fat and "filmy looking skin" off your deer before you put it in the pan to brown with butter. Deer fat and that filmy white skin looking stuff doesn't taste good. The fat especially is yucky. If you have to leave a little of the white filmy skin, it'll cook down in a stew and you won't notice it.
That's it. That's all there is to the healthiest little deer stew in Virginia. My second bowl of stew has grown chill as I sat here writing. It's so good, though, it's even good cold. That is one problem with a dish like this. It's almost too good, and there is the danger you will eat too much. Fortunately, there's nothing in there that's bad for you (save those dastardly potatoes). Still, too much meat and too much blackeyed peas can be calorically dense.
What I've learned is that you can make something delicious like roasted summer squash every night if you wan--and you can eat the hell out of it. but hearty stew should only be made once in awhile--because you are probably going to overdo it. Sometimes I think I'm fat because I'm such a good cook.
The hardest thing about this scrumptious stew is not sopping sourdough French bread in it. I still haven't figured out what to do about my sourdough bread cravings. But that's another post for another day. (I did hear about a street vendor in New York City that sells sourdough bread he fermented so long, it doesn't bother people like me with gluten intolerance...road trip, anyone?)
*One other optional tip: anytime I make a soup or stew, I usually stir a tsp of miso and a tablespoon of nutritional yeast into my bowl, once the soup has cooled a bit and is no longer boiling, You don't want to cook miso or nutritional yeast. Like turmeric, high heat destroys its nutritional value. Depending on the flavor of my soup or stew, I might even stir in turmeric too (it wouldn't go well with this venison or beef stew, so don't do it here). But miso and nutritional yeast probably would be okay. They also thicken your bowl of stew. Try your stew without, then try a bowl with a half-tsp of each and see if you like it. Don't worry about it if you don't, but I find sneaking miso and nutritional yeast into whatever warm dish I can find is a great way to get these superfoods into my diet. Remember, miso was key in how the survivors of Hiroshima fared after WWII and nutritonal yeast is a great source of B-12 and other B vitamins. Of course, with this particular dish, after one taste-testing slurp of the thick broth, it was so perfect I couldn't add anything to it for fear of ruining it. Like I said, this dish is just too perfect for words.