Photo of moose, wonder how he feels about this stew
by Gary Spina
(Copyright 2013 by Gary Spina)
My famous Two-Pound Alaska Stew is born of a recipe from an old prospector buddy of mine who worked his gold claim in the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska. I’ve altered and embellished the original recipe, eliminating the odd elements that could kill a man – so that now my famous Two-Pound Alaska Stew is fit for human consumption and for polite society as well.
There are probably more gold claims in the Talkeetna Mountains than in all the rest of Alaska. Most of the yields have been broken dreams and broken men, yet all of the claims, in the beginning, fed a man’s optimism and gave him a reason to get out of his bedroll every morning. But gold can be poor company on a winter’s night, and you can ask any old prospector about the quest – and about the women they’ve loved and the families they’ve left behind, the careers they’ve abandoned, the towns they’ve had to leave in the middle of the night, the city constables and the country sheriffs and the jail cells they’ve avoided, and the old friendships and old feuds that at the end of it all, in his old age, have robbed a man of all joy and contentment – seekers all – dreamers — entrepreneurs, prospectors, hunters, trappers, fishermen, and sailors.
My famous Two-Pound Alaska Stew gets its name from its ingredients: two pounds of onions, two pounds of carrots, two pounds of celery, and five to six pounds of beef, moose, Dall’s sheep, mountain goat, caribou, venison, or whatever meat a man finds in his larder.
And maybe it’s not really stew ’cause I don’t make it with potatoes in it. Yet, it’s not really soup either because it’s hearty and rich, and calling it soup would be calumny.
It takes a good three or four hours to brew and simmer to perfection, and when my three sons were young boys, I’d gather them around to help at the fireside. That way I’d have three or four hours for a good long “father-son talk” – the candid “straight talk” all boys need to prepare them for trouble ahead with women and families and careers and lawmen and old friendships and old feuds.
I’d have one of the boys clean the celery and cut it into roughly half-inch pieces. Another would peel and slice the carrots into round pieces about the same size as the celery. The third boy peeled and sliced the onions. If you went over the two pounds on any of the ingredients, it “made no never mind” – unless, of course, you went under the two pounds.
As we worked the recipe, the boys had no problem savoring the aroma and tasting the brew — and they relished the final eating of what we cooked up — but they didn’t like the routine of fixing my famous Two-Pound Alaska Stew. Still, they esteemed it less dreadful than when we were fixing my famous Talkeetna Winter Beans. That’s because my famous Talkeetna Winter Beans took a full two days to brew and bake – red beans with all the same two-pound ingredients as my famous Two-Pound Alaska Stew, except that my famous Talkeetna Winter Beans called for five or six pounds of slab bacon or pork belly – and brown sugar and molasses, of course. Of course, you had to pre-soak the beans and then “get the snappers out” – and you didn’t brown the bacon the way you browned whatever meat you used in the stew. Instead, you added the bacon to the bubbling beans – and then you added the rest of the ingredients.
Because it took two days, I’d only take on my famous Talkeekna Winter Beans project for those extended, serious, and most painful “father-son talks” – the ones about the space-time continuum, or the meaning and essence of existential manhood continuum; for the man-death-God-the universe-and-eternal damnation continuum or the secret to understanding women continuum. Any lesser father-son discussions were handled to satisfaction in three to four hours while brewing up my trusty famous Two-Pound Alaska Stew.
“First you chunk the meat and brown it in a few healthy splashes of olive oil,” I told my boys. “G.J. — you can start chunking the meat. As the meat is browning, J.J., you can do the spices. Just add a fistful of garlic powder or fresh garlic – and some oregano. Don’t overdo the oregano… Some salt and ground black peppercorns – a little beef bullion if we have any.
“Browning the meat seals in the wildness, and tames it at the same time. Moose, mountain goat, caribou — any meat but bear meat, on account of bears are scavengers and you gotta treat their meat like you would pork. For domestic cooking, a good marbled chuck roast is a better choice than your run-of-the-mill-garden-variety stew meat.”
G.J. and J.J. were busy, so I had Adam open two cans of tomato paste and put then aside in reserve for later.
“After the meat browns — why do you think the onions go in next — after the meat?”
“So you don’t have to cry over them too long?”
“No – ’cause you need them cooking long so as they melt down to nothing by the time you’re through cooking. Onions are there to keep low in the background — flavoring everything, but not showing their face. You stir the onions into the browned meat and the olive oil –and after a minute or so you add the water.”
“How much water?”
“Enough. Always add enough water. And remember, today we’re all working – each with a chore, getting everything done at the same time…”
“What are you doing, Pop?”
“But when you’re alone in the wilderness, it’s just you alone working alone at the fireside doing everything in steps — one thing at a time – first things first – always in the right order. And don’t rush anything. By the time you get the onions peeled and sliced, the meat should be browned. By the time you get the celery cleaned and chopped, the onions have had enough of a head-start. By the time the carrots are ready to go in, the onions and celery have been bubbling long enough.”
“How do you know when it’s long enough, Pop?”
“The celery goes in just long enough to spread that taste that zings your tongue – bubbling tender, but still holding its texture. A little while after the celery, the carrots are ready to go in — you add the tomato paste and stir it in, timing it all so as the entire stew reaches peak flavor – the onions have disappeared and the carrots are firm but soft enough to cut with a spoon against the side of the pot– all that just as the meat is tender enough to break apart with a fork.”
Here I would pause – that well-timed pause of precisely the proper length to put the boys on notice that what I was about to say was something really important.
“You see the lesson here, boys?” I would say once I saw their little ears twitch forward and I knew I had their attention. Pause again. No answer from the boys. “Think about how each of you boys has a responsibility — separately and together – a responsibility to do all you have to do in life to the very best of your ability?” Pause.
“Like an old sea captain buddy of mine used to say: ‘Take care of the ship. That’s your first responsibility. Take care of the ship, and the ship will take care of you.’ Captain George Yatsko was his name, and he was the best and bravest sea captain I’ve ever known.”
“Why do I always get the job of the onions, Pop?”
“Did I ever tell you how my grandfather – that would be your great-grandfather – survived for three weeks in the wilderness on only bread and onions? That’s all he had – that and his courage – raw courage — and his wits and his trusty instincts – that brought him out alive. That and my famous Spina Wilderness Explorer Knife I designed and forged myself. That’s all he had – and near naked, at that.”
“Was he lost?”
“A man who knows his woodsmanship is never lost.”
“If he wasn’t lost, why did it take him three weeks to get out?”
“He was just mystified – can happen to the best of the mountain men – on account of all that wild beauty all around him. It just took him a while to get un-mystified. And he lived off bread and onions the whole time.”
“Didn’t he know about living off the land?”
“It was a national park. You’re not allowed to live off the land in a national park – except for any wild onions you can find.”
“Where did he get the bread?”
“In them national parks there’s always bread on the ground — everywhere — on account of them pesky tourists always trying to feed the animals.”
“That story doesn’t sound right, Pop.”
“We’re talking ingredients here. Onions, celery, carrots – a little tomato paste just for some coloring and some subtle flavor. You see, all things in life are done according to a tried-and-true recipe, a proper ordering or priorities, an appropriate time and such. You gettin’ this…?”
“And no potatoes. Mostly everybody puts potatoes in stew, but we’re going to use pasta instead!”
“Never! Spaghetti is a farinaceous abomination! No real Italian woodsman I know uses anything but linguine. Linguine holds the sauce better. You break up the raw linguine into small pieces about an inch and a half long. Put the linguine in last — just as everything’s cooked just right and ready to eat. Put in the linguine and stir a lot – gently — don’t bruise the meat. When the linguine is al dente, that’s when my famous Two-Pound Alaska Stew is done – ready to serve and savor. Serve it in the biggest bowls you can find — topped with grated imported pecorino Romano cheese – right from Italy — all steamy and perfect. Now, you’ve got yourself a recipe for a life well lived.”
“Cheese gives me gas.”
“How about we use catsup instead of tomato paste?”
“Who’s Al Dente?”
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