How often do you get to enjoy a poem while making dinner?
Recently I was at a family wake, saying goodbye to our beloved Uncle Bill. Family and friends gathered and chatted quietly – a somber scene, but also one with lots of hugs and promises to keep in touch in good times as well as sad or difficult moments. As the winter afternoon turned into dusk and the crowd thinned, we said our goodbyes and made plans for dinner.
Cousin Pat mentioned that she was going home to make vegetable stew. Pat is one of my favorite people in the world, not to mention the source of my favorite soda bread recipe, so my ears perked up. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than a steaming bowl of comfort.
I asked her for the vegetable stew recipe and Pat obliged, but warned me that it wasn’t an ordinary listing of ingredients and directions; rather, it’s a poem she wrote. Last week, I printed the poem (off the email she sent me), took a look into my refrigerator, and made my own version. It was indeed a wonderful experience – rather liberating to set aside the measuring cups and scales – and a tasty result. This vegetable stew can be either the main course or a side dish and it’s great reheated as leftovers.
Your ingredients may differ and so may your timing, but that’s the joy of this dish. Enjoy your creation, especially if you share it with folks you love.
How to Make Vegetable Stew
by Pat Brisson
Start with a pot big enough to hold all the ingredients,
many of your expectations, and some of your dreams.
Pour in just a little olive oil – it’s not a health food
despite what proponents of the Mediterranean Diet want you to think.
Let it slowly heat while you find an onion and chop it up.
Go ahead and cry, not just for the onion
but for all the disappointments you never adequately grieved.
Stir it into the heated oil, and let the aroma take you back
to all those soups, sauces, casseroles and meatloaves
made in other kitchens, in other times.
Open two cans of low-sodium diced tomatoes or better yet,
use fresh if they’re in season and you can afford them.
Stir them in and think about how empty our lives would be without tomatoes –
no pizza! no spaghetti! no lasagna!
not that you eat those things any more, but still, the memories are happy ones.
Add two or three cups of water and be grateful
you didn’t have to carry it on your head from a well in the middle of town.
Open a can of black beans, and a can of cannellini beans
and wash off all the sodium before you stir them into the pot.
Wonder why it took you so long to appreciate beans.
Ditto lentils, as you pick through a cup of dried ones
looking for stones, which you’ve only found once
but were glad to locate with your fingers and not your teeth,
after spending all that money at the dentist.
Chop up some kale, chard, or bok choi and congratulate yourself
for your healthy choice of greens as you stir it in.
Check around for anything else you want to add:
celery, cabbage, carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, peppers,
any weird thing you thought you were going to use
in some recipe but didn’t.
Add some spices – a bay leaf or two, savory, thyme,
herbes de Provence, dill or whatever you have
in your spice drawer that’s almost expired, or, let’s be honest,
expired years ago but you never threw away.
Simmer for a long time so you can savor the aroma
and whet your appetite.
Think about how one of the things people living in nursing homes
miss most is the smell of food cooking,
and be grateful for your own kitchen.
Stir it or don’t –
this stew is flexible, forgiving, unpretentious;
it’s accepting of just about any reasonable thing.
If this were a poem,
it would be the perfect metaphor for a Good Life,
but it’s only Vegetable Stew,
A couple of notes:
- For tomatoes, I used fresh Campari, a type which is larger than cherry tomatoes, but smaller than “regular” ones. I peeled them, but didn’t remove the seeds. As I stirred the stew, it was easy to cut the peeled tomatoes with the side of the wooden spoon.
- I had fresh dill and parsley left over from a recipe made earlier in the week. I probably used several tablespoons of each and they were a great addition to the stew.
- Because I had kale and baby bok choy, I used both instead of just one. I sliced off the stems of the kale, piled the leaves and rolled them into a cigar shape, then sliced it very thinly and cut the strips, as pictured above. I prefer small pieces of kale to large hunks and this method allowed me to cut the kale quickly.
- I used more water than Pat does – probably closer to 5 cups than 2-3, but of course, that could be because I used so many vegetables.
- Add salt and pepper toward the end of cooking, so that you can minimize the amount of salt you use without sacrificing taste.