East Anglia doesn’t really do the dog days of summer. It’s rare to find us fanning ourselves in the shade, cursing the fact that in two hours time, there’ll be 10 people coming over to eat barbecue and we’re too darn hot to fire the thing up.
Instead, summer entertaining frequently involves a mad dash for the house, newspaper previously intended as a firelighter serving instead as a rain hat as the heavens open. At times like this, a Brunswick Stew can come in handy, simmering away on the back burner requiring a stir every 10 minutes or so and saving the day when the charcoal is swimming in rainwater.
The origins of Brunswick Stew are fiercely debated in the American South. Traditionally cooked over an open fire in cast-iron cauldrons, the denizens of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia all lay claim to its invention and serve it up at harvest suppers, church socials, even political rallies, all year round. You might not have access to a fire-blackened cauldron and large-boned suntanned arms to lift in a six pound smoke-cured ham which is how its done in Carolina when they’re feeding the masses, but this recipe gives results as near as dammit. Scaled down, the stew makes good eating for a smaller party and as long as you cook it low and slow in a heavy-bottomed vessel, what you will end up with is a bowl of food which can be eaten casually with fork or spoon.
If you want to make it as the North Carolinians intend, don’t use a fancy stock or broth in place of the water. This is not a French ragout. Long cooking will cause the meat to melt into the broth so you’ll need a stout chicken, one which has spent a good time with the sun on its back, building up muscle and goodness – try Sutton Hoo chicken for a real treat or ask your butcher. Some say the original Brunswick Stew contained wild squirrel meat. If you want to do this, jointed squirrel is sold at Elmswell Butchers and its silky-soft flesh is enriched by a diet of wild berries and nuts from the surrounding forest.
This is slow food, seasoned with only red chilli, black pepper and a little salt at the start. The ham and chicken keep the seasonings to themselves initially, then gradually give their flavours up to the pot. Your job is to keep the liquid barely simmering until it is time to tip in the vegetables for the stews final push. The summer vegetables keep it light and bright and the chilli flakes, paprika and tomatoes give the broth a pale-orange hue. Some people find the texture of okra to be a little spooky. If you’re one of them you can substitute sliced green beans but you won’t be eating the genuine thing. Don’t be tempted to add extra ingredients: bad advice ruins a stew as Southerners say.
4 slices of streaky bacon, sliced into strips
Vegetable oil for frying
1 medium chicken, quartered
2 medium onions, peeled and fine-sliced
1 medium carrot, chopped small
2 ribs celery, chopped small
3 large tomatoes, chopped, Juices kept
1 medium ham hock, trimmed of fat
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 small red chilli pepper, chopped small, seeds removed
Sweetcorn kernels sliced from one large cob
6 pods okra, sliced and caps trimmed off
125g can of butter beans, rinsed.
Teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
In a large, heavy skillet or hob-proof casserole pot, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil and add the sliced bacon. Fry until it is starting to develop a golden brown colour then drain on paper towels, crumble into pieces and set aside.
Now add the chicken to the same pan and brown the pieces all over before transferring on to a large plate. Now add the sliced onions, celery and carrot and fry over a low heat until they start to soften. This will take about five minutes. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and add the ham hock, tomatoes, chilli, Worcestershire, salt and pepper, paprika, and enough water to entirely cover them then bring to a boil. Now reduce the heat to low so the stew barely simmers, cover, and simmer for around two hours. You will need to check it every 10 to 15 minutes and give it a good stir, removing any froth that comes to the surface. When the chicken and ham are tender remove them with a slotted spoon on to a platter and when cool enough, remove the skin and bones, shred the remaining meat and put this back into the cooking pot. Now add the corn, butter beans, okra and reserved bacon and cook, uncovered for another hour at a gentle simmer. Stir every 15 minutes and check the seasoning. Serve the stew in large soup bowls or in small bowls as a side dish to mashed potato, some fresh green beans, a plate of sliced summer tomatoes and decent bread.
It’s not the most glamorous-looking of meals but it tastes really comforting.