Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Comfort Food Day

Last Sunday, it was -4 degrees. And it was windy. So, of course, it felt a whole lot colder than it was.

I didn’t know it was quite that cold when my husband and I left the house in the morning to take care of the horses. I knew my fingers were tingling as we mucked the stalls, and the water buckets were frozen solid, but since the sun was out, at least it didn’t look all that cold.

Now, we stick pretty close to a morning routine, no matter the weather. We get up, check the news, have some coffee. Then we don our barn togs, feed the dog, the cats and the horses. Then we go for a two-mile walk.

And during the walk that day, I planned to myself that as soon as we got back to the house, I was going to start a pot of chili. I wanted the smells of onions and garlic and peppers and tomatoes and cumin to fill the house and be as warming as the fire in the fireplace. And it was just as comforting as I expected.

There’s a big winter storm predicted for this weekend. And although we’re not going to get hit as hard as places more south, it’s a pretty good excuse to concoct another comfort food meal. And if I make something on the gas stove, it won’t be in any danger should we lose electricity.

I decided on a one-pot dish called “Student’s Ragout.” It’s a nostalgic meal, too, since it’s one of the first meals my mother taught me to make without a recipe. There is a recipe, but she’d made it so many times she didn’t need one, and that’s how I learned to eyeball some things without measuring.

As we chopped the vegetables for the stew together, I once asked why it was called student's ragout. I think she made up the answer. She said it was because students who had to live frugally had just a hot plate to cook on and just one pot. They could put the meat and vegetables in their one pot, cover it and let it simmer while they hit the books. Nice story, Mom. Sounded good to a ten-year old, anyhow.

Her recipe came from a cookbook called, “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook.” This particular cookbook was my father’s favorite. He’d often spout off one of the Mystery Chef’s helpful hints--"Put a piece of bread in your mouth while chopping onions and you won’t cry"--while he kibitzed in the kitchen with Mom.

The Mystery Chef was a radio talk show host from the 1930’s named John Macpherson. In his book, he explains that he called himself “The Mystery Chef” out of respect for his mother, who was more than slightly embarrassed that her only son had taken up cooking as a hobby in a time when that was definitely not the norm. When he eventually was broadcasting about cooking, in deference to his mother, he adopted the mystery moniker.

The book is a great read. Macpherson encourages everyday cooks to “Be an artist at the stove.” He doesn’t think of cooking, even the everyday stuff, as boring at all. In fact, we are inspired to “. . . use the creative ability that the Creator of All gave to you. The creative possibilities in the art of cooking seem to me practically unlimited.”

There are only five ingredients in the Student’s Ragout recipe. (Simple enough for the pauper students, right, Mom?) Here it is, in its entirety, from the 1945 edition of “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook.” (His explanation for the name is at the end.)

The Student’s Ragout
Dinner cooked over a single burner. Serve 4 generously.

4 medium sized potatoes
2 medium sized carrots
3 medium sized onions
1 pound round steak, cut thin
½ pound sliced bacon (Canadian style)*
Salt and pepper
1 cup cold water

Prepare this dinner in a baking pan, large saucepan, or skillet with a lid. It is important to have a lid that fits the utensil.

Wash, peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Wash, scrape and slice the carrots. Peel and slice the onions. Cut the round steak across the grain into little strips about 2 inches long and half an inch wide. (First stretch the meat, and you can see which way the grain runs. You then cut across the grain. If the meat is cut with the grain, you have long, stringy pieces and it will be tough, whereas if you cut across the grain, meat will be tender.)

If ordinary bacon is used, halve the slices. Now place all the ingredients in the cooking utensil as follows:

First put the bacon in, spreading it over the bottom of the pan. Then distribute the steak in a layer over the bacon and sprinkle a little black pepper over it. Put in a layer of onions and carrots and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. On top of all put the thinly sliced potatoes and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

Put the pan on the fire and start cooking. After 3 minutes add the cup of water and put on the lid. Cook for 45 minutes over a very slow fire, at which time water will have cooked into the ingredients, and you can serve a very delicious dinner, long a favorite with the students in the famous Latin Quarter of Paris.
*We rarely had Canadian bacon; it was too dear, a delicacy. We used regular ol' bacon.


  1. Luv that cook book. U sound like a busy gal!
    Nyt dining sect wednesday said to saw off legs and thighs of turkey to roast more, and let breasts rest. My t.g. w be easier!

  2. i have here a cookbook from 1935 that is called "be and artist at the gas range successful recipes by the mystery chef'. on page 50 is the recipe called 'the student's ragout - R' with the R indicating it reheats nicely. the text is slightly different from that of the text you have offered above, but it is the same recipe more or less. it lists in the ingredients 4 to 6 medium size potatoes.


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