If you read enough 19th century novels, youre likely to run into the description of the ever-bubbling stew pot. Its the caldron at the ready to feed a famished family, a parade of visitors, the hungry vicar on his afternoon stroll or whatever other literary stereotype comes to call.
When the pot runs low, its refilled with bits of meat and vegetables that simmer to create something hot, nourishing and potentially tasty.
As much as I admire the hospitality that this pot symbolizes, its the fuss-free cooking style that really gets me thinking. Throwing everything into a pot, adding water and letting it stew is one of the most basic ways to cook, and I dont do it often enough.
Instead, when I make soups and stews, I tend to layer the flavors. I brown the meat, saute the onions and bloom the spices. I add homemade stock and let it reduce. Not difficult, but it does chain you to the stove. At the end, youre rewarded with a complex and rich-tasting dinner. After all, youd better be.
But that fictional caldron is a reminder that there is another, simpler way.
The only rules are to use good, fresh ingredients because youre not doing much to them, to stir in enough salt (I like to salt the meat ahead if theres time) and to keep the heat low and constant. You want a mellow simmer, not a rollicking boil.
One of the best recipes of this hands-off ilk is Scotch broth, a dense mix of meat (usually lamb, sometimes beef), barley and root vegetables. Because the technique is so basic, the variations are vast. Use whatever vegetables you like, adding the leafy ones (kale, cabbage, spinach, chard) at the end of cooking and the sturdy ones (potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, parsnip, carrots) and grains (barley, wheat berries, farro) at the beginning with the meat.
I chose bone-in lamb stew meat here, but Ive also made this with boneless meat (use half the weight). It just depends on whether you and yours like to gnaw on the bones. Either way, it is the kind of humble winter meal that wont stop conversation when you serve it giving you plenty of time to talk about a good book.
SCOTCH BROTH WITH KALE
Time: 3 hours; yield: 4 servings
2 pounds bone-in lamb stew meat
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt, more for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, more for seasoning
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
2 medium turnips, peeled and diced
1 large leek, white and light green part only, cleaned and sliced
1/3 cup pearl barley
1 celery stalk, diced
4 thyme branches, tied into a bouquet garni with kitchen twine
1 bay leaf
8 ounces kale, stems removed, leaves coarsely chopped (2 1/2 packed cups)
Chopped parsley, for serving
Cider or malt vinegar, or fresh lemon juice, for serving
1. Season meat generously with salt and pepper and let rest for at least 20 minutes.
2. In a medium pot, combine meat, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, potato, carrots, turnips, leek, barley and celery. Drop in thyme and bay leaf. Add 2 1/2 quarts water and bring to a boil.
3. Reduce heat and simmer gently, turning lamb pieces occasionally and skimming any foam that rises to the surface, until meat is tender and beginning to fall apart, about 2 hours. (If the water level threatens to fall below the meat during simmering, partially cover the pot, or add a little more water.) Stir in kale and continue to cook for another 15 minutes, until lamb is truly spoon tender and kale is soft. Discard thyme bouquet and bay leaf. Taste and add more salt if needed. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with parsley and a drizzle of vinegar or lemon juice.