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Campfire Stew

Okay, I’ve got a halfway decent idea of what you’re thinking: ‘Campfire?! But it’s December! Up here in the north of the northern hemisphere, it’s cold!’

Oh, don’t I know it. Believe me.

But I was thinking, as I do from time to time, that over this past year I’ve done desserts, breakfast, and drinks, but no hearty ‘dinner’ type dishes. Which is a crying shame, because I’ve written several throughout the Falconsbane manuscripts (some good, some decidedly not). And, since this is the final Phennish recipe of the year, I thought it was about time to get into it!

Now, the two main focuses of Phennish cuisine is ‘use fresh, use what you have’. Because, while we in post modern America might be able to hop over to the grocery store and pick up all the ingredients for a particular recipe, folks in pre-medieval Phen make do with what’s in the larder, the back 40, and whatever’s available at the weekly market – if they can make it to one. This poses a challenge both fun and frustrating. But mostly fun – cooking in such a fashion really stretches your creativity in the kitchen. We’ve been cooking like this more or less my entire life, it never ceases to amaze what you can pull off with what’s in the cupboard!

Anyhoo, I digress.

The story behind this particular stew is a fairly simple one, coupled together of several different ideas. 1) I’ve wanted to make a beef barley soup for my (currently imaginary) Phennish cookbook for a while. 2) I’m writing military fiction in which parties travel a lot with dry goods and hunt and forage. And 3) There’s a scene in book two that fits this stew in its quintessential form.

So imagine, you and your companions have been on the road since sunup, hiking hills, skirting glens, and going the long way around in order to find a ford across the river. You’re tired, hungry, saddle sore. Then finally it comes time to camp for the night under the shade of a scrappy hedgerow. You’re in charge of collecting firewood while someone else sets up the fire pit and the other two set out find what they can forage nearby to help offset the use of your dwindling stores. Chances are you won’t reach a settlement large enough to have a supply depot for another few days.

After a time your party’s resident cook comes back with a handful of mushrooms and wild greens. The other returns with a cony he barely managed to bag. He dresses it out while your cook sets his pot over the coals and prepares a few more ingredients from the stores. A wrinkled turnip a week past its prime. An onion. Some garlic. A few dirty carrots from the sack at the bottom of the bag. The pouch of shevtah he bought at the depot in last town. A staple, he insisted. An all-in-one spice blend of salt, sumac, and other dried herbs and spices capable of turning bland boiled game into something worth eating.

As far as he’s concerned, at least. Then again, that was why you chose him to be company cook.

He tosses the meat, seasoning, and chopped vegetables in the hot pot before adding water from the stream nearby, and while it simmers away you take care of the horses and pace, getting more and more hungry as the rich, savory aromas rise from the steaming kettle.

When the cook takes off the lid, you think it’s time, but alas! He splashes in some of your wine (much to the company leader’s grumbling, but he’ll grumble about anything) and a few handfuls of what barley is left in the sack along with the greens. An agonizing twenty minutes later, it’s done. Finally done!

The cook pulls off the heavy lid, releasing a billowing cloud of white steam and the full aromatic punch of spices and herbs. He ladles out for you a heaping portion of the thick, hearty stew he’s created and tops it with a dash of raisins. Soft vegetables, tender meat, chewy barley, all glossed throughout by a rich, slightly spicy gravy and that gentle sweetness from the raisins. Avyn’El have mercy.

If there are any leftovers of this – small chance of that happening – you’ll finish it off in the morning, maybe with the last of the pickled eggs chopped on top . . .

Y’all, I’m getting peckish just thinking about this, remembering how it tasted the other night? Granted, I didn’t have any fresh cony, so I used stew beef (using what’s available?) but next time I want to try it with venison. I could not be more pleased with how the seasoning blend turned out, thrown together with climate appropriate spices and herbs (sumac really is fascinating!). This is one bookish recipe that will find its way to the table again and again, for sure.

Have you tried any bookish recipes? Or one that you weren’t quite sure of? How did it turn out? Which book did it come from? I MIGHT have to add it to my collection!

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