One of the surest signs of my peasant ancestry is my absolute love of stews. Call it what you will – cassoulet, ragout, chunky soups, potroasts; chuck it all in one pan and slow cook it till all the flavours have melded, the juice is viscous and the individual ingredients are on the verge of total disintegration, and I’m a happy girl.
My nephew calls it cowboy food but his version is a little different to mine. He just throws everything he can find in the fridge or store cupboard in a pot and cooks it up. I like to think I put a little more thought into mine. Essentially though, they are almost the same. Any odds and ends of veggies and herbs can go in and often do, root veggies being a favourite as they really lend themselves to slow cooking.
Another thing that lends itself to slow cooking is an old African favourite, the ‘straw cooker’ more recently re-invented as the Hot Box. It’s a simple principle really, start your meal off in a pot, brown and flavour your ingredients, add a little liquid, close the lid tightly, then insulate the pot in a hot box, and leave it to slow cook overnight or through the day.
You can buy hotboxes all over Cape Town, and as well as being great for old-fashioned slow cooking , they are real energy savers. I know people who are evangelical about them and think they are the answer to global warming.
More immediately relevant though, they are an ideal answer to the power shortages the Cape experiences every winter. You can start your oats off the night before, leave them in the hotbox overnight, and wake up to hot porridge in the morning. An extra 15 minutes to prep some onions, veg and some lamb neck, or stewing steak in the morning, and your children can come home to a hot, nutritous meal after school.
The value of this becomes clear when you think that a vast majority of Cape women are sole bread winners for their families. These women travel long distances to their jobs, extending their working day to over 12 hours in some cases, so the children have to sort themselves out when they come home from school. A hot meal filled with all the vitamins and minerals retained by the slow cooker method is a real godsend. And of course there is the added advantage of reducing the risk of fire, as no heat source is required after the initial 20 minutes or so. No going out and leaving your slow cooker plugged in. No leaving pots simmering on the stove. Actually, I think I am waxing evangelical about them myself. A hotbox is definitely on my list of things to bring back from Africa. Who needs an AGA?
But back to the food. It’s difficult to get a picture of soup or stew that truly does justice to the dish. Pictures are so visual, and lets face it , a whole bunch of things cooked together for several hours is almost always going to turn out in various shades of brown. But close your eyes and remember for a moment curling cold hands around a deep bowl of warm winter food ; the heavenly smell wafting up, the depth of flavour always inherent in slow cooked food…Are you salivating yet? I am.
The dish pictured above is my version of Cassoulet. Being French only by dint of long-distant nomadic ancestors, anything from my repertoire with a French flavour has been corrupted by the influences of the countries and cultures encountered in their (and my) journeys. A Frenchman might immediately notice the lack of pork belly, so feel free to add some if you wish, and this version has no crusty bread crumb blanket, so go ahead and include that too if you’re feeling traditional. Some might argue about the necessity for tomatoes, but that, I think , is a regional thing in France so I am still within the bounds of a cassoulet there. Others may note the lack of goose in this recipe, once again my defence is that this recipe is as French as I am, which is to say partly, mixed in with Dutch, English, Irish, Scottish, Polish, Jewish and Malay…
Basically I just browned some onions and homemade sausages (which I will post about at a later date), threw in a load of veggies from the garden, topped it up with tinned tomatoes and beans, and left it to slow-cook its way to perfection. If you require a more precise recipe, I’ve posted one straight to the Vanielje Kitchen Cook Book (VKCB) in the sidebar.
I’m was going to enter this dish into My Legume Love Affair (MLLA), started by Susan, The Well Seasoned Cook. I’ve never joined this popular event before. I don’t know why, I love legumes! This 12th edition is hosted by Annarasa, who has a beautiful blog, and unfortunately (for me) she is restricting the event to vegetarian recipes. So I guess I will have to join another round, but this event always draws a good crowd so mark her blog down and check out her roundup at the end of the month. It should be well worth it.