This is the time of year to use meat as a condiment to vegetables. Produce is abundant, but as cooler weather sets in, hearty soups and stews begin to to return to our menu. So, for my most recent “cooking with kid” meal, I decided to use one of Eric’s favorite tricks: add meat to a beloved vegetarian recipe. (By the way, check out our new “Cooking with Kid” index page to learn more about this Joanna-cooks-a-goat project.)
Adding meat to a vegetarian recipe is a great way to end up with a delicious meal. Recipes that emphasize carnivory often rely on the meat to do much of the work to make the dish taste good. Vegetarian recipes don’t rely on that crutch and are good at featuring fresh ingredients and interesting spices to come up with tasty results. But add just a little bit of meat into those already tasty vegetarian concoctions, and, well, yum.
So I pulled the two front hocks (lower part of the leg) out of the freezer and let them thaw for a couple of days. In the meantime, I decided that groundnut stew would be a good choice, mainly because pretty much all of the vegetable ingredients were in season for the version that I’ve made many times from one of our favorite cookbooks, Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. There’s a narrow window of time when the following are available: okra & tomatoes (warm season, frost-sensitive crops), sweet potatoes (a warm-season, frost-sensitive crop that is best cured for a couple weeks post-harvest before eating so they’ll sweeten up), cabbage (a cool season crop that we time to size up as the weather cools), and cilantro (an herb that is fussy about too much heat). I’ve made this plenty of times when I didn’t have such a perfect match on the ingredient list; no problem, just omit or substitute. The text in the cookbook even emphasizes that this is a recipe with infinite variations. Every once in a while it’s nice to mostly follow a recipe for a change.
Except this time, I would figure out how to add something extra: meat. In my mind I started to think about how I would proceed. Should I brown it? How long will it need to cook to be tender? When/how will I get it off the bone?
Certainly multiple different approaches could work, but I decided to make use of techniques I’d practiced before: Start by browning the meat to add flavor, then use a moist cooking method (in this time, boiling) for a long duration during a quiet afternoon so the meat could tenderize and fall off the bone. Then the broth could provide the liquid for the stew, and the other ingredients could go in as normal.
I chopped up a few small onions and cooked those in oil, then moved them to the side while I browned the hocks. These were difficult to brown evenly because of their lumpy, uneven shape, but some browning is better than none and should add flavor the finished product. I added the onions and meat to a pot of water that was coming to a boil (below). I would have done all of the sauteing and browning in that pot in the first place, but my camera tripod isn’t tall enough to get a view into the pot, so I went with the more photograph-able cast iron arrangement. This being the case, I decided I would also give some garlic and habanero a brief saute in the warm pan before adding those to the pot, as well. I figured half a head of Georgian Fire garlic and one habanero (which Eric kindly de-seeded for me) ought to spice things up.
Once the meat/broth came to a boil, I turned it down to simmer, added a starter amount of salt (~1 tsp), and left it there for a good, long while–a couple of hours or so–during which time I did other stuff around the house.
I eventually pulled out one of the hocks to see if it was tender, which it was. I took a photo indoors under some new under-counter LED lights, pulled the meat off of the bone, then took a photo outdoors in natural light. From this, I learned that my photography hasn’t caught up to the challenge of LED lighting yet; yikes. I cut up the meat pieces a bit and added them back to the broth, which I tasted. It was slightly spicy and gently salty.
Now for the veggies. First step: sweet potatoes. These were the first sweet potatoes we ate this season; I always love reintroducing a food that has been off the menu for a while. I used about 2 lbs of Beauregard seconds (broken or fork-damaged potatoes that might not store well and should be eaten first). The Moosewood version of the recipe calls for sauteing the sweet potatoes and cabbage for a while before adding the liquid. But since my soup pot already had liquid in it, I just chucked them in.
Also, I rearranged the order in which I added ingredients relative to the Moosewood recipe. I put tomatoes in next, figuring that the tender cabbage I’d be using didn’t need to be overcooked. So I collected about a pound of assorted & decent-looking late season tomatoes, chopped them up, and added them to the pot.
Next, cabbage. We only grow Bilko cabbage in the fall, as they’re reliable, sweet, tasty, and often very big. This cute little one went in the pot, just a few minutes after I had harvested it and chopped it up. I set aside the somewhat caterpillar-damaged outer leaves as a treat for the goats to eat while being milked the next morning.
These photos shows the two remaining fresh ingredients: okra and cilantro. Interestingly, the Moosewood recipe calls for putting the okra in only about 5 minutes before serving, and that’s when I added the ~3/4 pounds of okra that I chopped up. I’ve always followed that advice with good results, even though most of the other stews that Eric & I make involve a much longer cooking time for okra. Guess it doesn’t matter much.
In contrast, I held onto the cilantro to use as a garnish at the very end, as I’ve heard that cilantro loses its flavor with too much heat and cooking. This is a departure from the cookbook directions.
I also omitted a couple of ingredients (apple/apricot juice and ginger) on account of not having them on hand and wanting to keep the soup to mostly ingredients we grew. I did, however, add purchased peanut butter, for which groundnut stew is named. The stew tasted pretty darn good without it, but I really like the thickness and flavor that the peanut butter contributes, so in it went, a bit over a 1/2 cup. (If we had grown peanuts, this is the time of year that we’d be harvesting them. We have grown them in the past, with varying degrees of success, but the torrential early summer rains kept us from even having a chance to plant them this year.)
After one final tasting and salting, it was ready to serve.
The meal included a hearty helping of soup topped with cilantro, roasted delicata squash, and fresh-cooked, whole-wheat, sourdough injera with homemade chevre.
We both enjoyed the results. I thought the stew was a bit more savory and less sweet than some versions that I’ve made in the past. Eric commented that the “liquid is really rich; it’s nice.” The habanero ended up not coming through very strongly, with just a hint of heat. In my opinion, it is better to err on the side of too little than too much when it comes to hot peppers, but if I think if I were to repeat with similar quantities I’d use two next time.
All in all, this was another success in the realm of adding meat to a vegetarian recipe. As Eric commented in regard to the stew, “Little hunks of meat do wonders for food.”