Ask award-winning chef John Currence for a comfort food recipe, and you may hear him tell a story filled with a hefty share of discomfort. In his cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey, he shares a simple, hearty soup that he's taken to calling "my purgatory on Earth — I love to hate it, and I hate to love it." For short, he calls it Punish Stew.
His mixed feelings date back to childhood. When he was 6 years old, Currence couldn't be fooled: He knew what dinner looked like. It was made of meat, vegetables and potatoes, all of which had to be easily identifiable and never mixed up. Above all, soup was not dinner.
"To me, soup was an appetizer," he says. "A meal comes on a plate!"
His mother, however, had other ideas. "One of her go-to recipes that my dad and my brother just loved and loved and loved over was this pot of beef stew." It seemed as if every week, he would find the stew waiting for him, and every week, he became more resolute.
The conflict reached its climax on a chilly February evening. Currence grew up in New Orleans, just off the Mardi Gras parade route, and his family had invited friends to dinner with a plan to head to the festivities afterward. And, of course, the dreaded stew was on the menu. "The little MacArthur that I was saw this as a battle and a place to really make a statement and fight the ultimate battle with my mom."
Hours later, the bowl hadn't budged — and neither had he and his mother. Young John went to bed without dinner, but when he awoke the next morning, the stew was still waiting for him.
Currence says his mother disputes what happened next, but he swears it's the truth: "She made me eat that cold soup for breakfast."
Return Of The Stew
Three decades after his defeat, Currence was on a trip with his girlfriend, the woman he'd one day marry. He says that as they drove to visit her family, "she announces to me that she's had her mother prepare for us for dinner her absolute favorite meal."
As the group gathered at the table, a familiar scent wafted through the room, and he realized what his future mother-in-law had cooked up: "Oh, my God, it's that awful beef stew."
This time, he swallowed every spoonful. "I sat there like a good boy and ate my bowl and sopped it up with bread and immediately asked for seconds," he says. He may not have been thrilled, but he kept quiet — at least for a while.
Months later, when he finally revealed his secret — his mixed feelings for the dish and the story behind it — his girlfriend laughed. "She just was so tickled that she named it Punish Stew."
Today, Currence happily passes along the recipe, which he calls "wonderfully simple," with a lesson.
"Unless something is truly and deeply just awful," he says, "you need to just shut up and eat. Because somebody who loves you has prepared something for you that's giving you life, that's helping you move forward along the timeline. It only took me about 45 years to come to that."
Beef And Vegetable "Punish" Stew
Serves 10 to 12
Here it is, folks: the stuff stories are made of. This is perfect with some torn crusty bread and a drizzle of a good-quality extra virgin olive oil. And it freezes beautifully for up to three months.
1 1/2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 3/4 cups small-dice yellow onions
2 1/2 cups peeled, medium-sliced carrots
2 cups medium-sliced celery
2 cups peeled, small-dice potatoes
1 1/2 cups peeled, small-dice turnips
2 tablespoons minced garlic
4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
8 cups veal stock
3 cups elbow macaroni or other small pasta
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons chopped celery leaves
1. Season the cubed beef with the salt and pepper and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Heat the oil in a large soup pot until almost smoking. Add the beef, stirring until it browns on all sides. Remove the browned meat from the pot and reserve.
3. Add the onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, turnips and garlic to the pot and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Stirring constantly, saute over medium heat until the onions are translucent and wilted. Add the tomatoes, thyme and rosemary and stir to combine well. Saute for 5 minutes more. Add the red wine and Worcestershire, stirring to loosen any caramelized bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pot. Stir in the stock, bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Season the stew to taste with salt and pepper.
4. About 10 minutes before you are ready to serve, stir in the pasta and simmer until tender. Add the parsley and celery leaves, and serve immediately.
From Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey by John Currence/Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC.