The Wine Country Online

    Look for new stories from Wine Country authors to be posted quarterly at about the time of the solstices and equinoxes.

    Our inaugural story is by the editor, Jack Burton. Jack currently works as a butler in the service of a prominent Sonoma County family winery.

    A cook and chef since the late 1960's, Jack writes the stories of his well-traveled working tour of this tail-end of the twentieth century. His first published book, Sonoma Picnic, a California Traveling Companion, is available through the Book Shop.

Hobo Stew, Y2K and You:
A Recipe for Disaster

By Chef Jack Burton

        I remember my father and our Uncle Lou reminiscing about their younger days during the Great Depression. In those times, a fellow would pack up and hit the road just on the rumor of a job maybe halfway across the country.

    They had lived to laugh about the disaster of the 1930's, when a series of seemingly unrelated events conspired to derail the economy of the day, and toss many a family by the proverbial wayside.

    Those two guys would carry on about their adventures between the rock and a hard place. Days when a sandwich and a schooner of beer could be had for ten cents, and you would be happy to work an hour or so on the end of a shovel for the opportunity to earn that dime. Listening to them, as a child, instilled in me an (overly romanticized) wanderlust that continues to retard any hope of long-term financial planning that my wife and I might contemplate. . . . "Honey, should we invest this little piece of money from my publisher in a nice secure mutual fund, or head over to the coast for a few days?" Our response to any such windfall is almost always to: commence packing! The prospect of an insolvent Social Security system and impending cataclysmic Y2K disruptions be damned; we tend to follow the Tambourine Man.

    We hedge this bet on the carefree lifestyle by our weekly purchase of Lotto tickets, and the daily work of writing for future publication. Sure, we have regular jobs we grind away at, putting in just enough hours to make that monthly nut. The long weekends and holidays are like money in the bank, we tell ourselves. "Har-har, pass the wine my dear, I've just written another truck payment," I shout over the crackle of dry madrone and pepperwood leaves in the campfire.

    While we feel very positive about our Lotto numbers, and it seems there is a ready market for travel writing, I can't help but have a nagging suspicion that in spite of our rosy outlook and the near-global triumph of one-world-capitalism, the future may well present us with a rather modest rice-and-beans retirement plan.

    I don't dwell morosely on this prospect too much, really. I prefer to let any thought of Y2K-related calamity or hard times transport me to a state of reverie . . . I'm sitting by the fire with my dad and Uncle Lou, cooking up a pot of Hobo Stew.

Hobo Stew for Two

    This one-pot is a classic road meal. The ingredients are available just about anywhere, and are easily transportable. My recipe comes down from a workaday Midwestern past, with a bit of updated West Coast spin. I make no apology for the suggestion of canned or prepared ingredients, as this is classic convenience food meant to be prepared over a small fire of whatever fuel might be available or packed in.

    You will need three rocks to prepare your hearth, and a soup pot or a pan, or scrounge up an empty #10-size vegetable can--it being the true, authentic cooking vessel for this simple braised throwback. If you do choose to be or find yourself in the position of cooking your supper in a #10 can, you might want to prepare it first by placing it directly in the coals to burn off the modern miracle of long chain polyethylene film that is applied to the steel of the can to keep it from contact with the food originally stored therein. Lou and my dad didn't have to worry about plastic poisoning in the 1930's. Steel cans used as cooking pots back then were coated on the inside with tin; hopefully free of lead, but--who knows? Be advised: Cooking your food in steel containers scavenged from the trash has always been risky business, but it's a modern time-honored tradition. As long as we are not driven to indulge this little exoticism on a daily basis, a batch or two of Hobo Stew cooked in a can probably won't kill 'ya.

    Customarily, this dish is prepared on the outskirts of town. Road-weary travelers would find a little hidey-hole in the bushes alongside the railroad tracks. They would procure their meat, vegetables, loaf of bread, bottle of wine, rolling papers and tobacco at a nearby market, and gather wood from old shipping pallets and packing crates for an unobtrusive little fire. Hobo etiquette requires you don't make a big impact on the neighborhood you're passing through, plus you want to avoid having the Yard Dicks catch wind of your little soirée and come through to bust your chops mid-meal.

    These same sensibilities apply today in a campground or at a roadside picnic table with a nice iron Bar-B-Q grill or fire ring. You need to pack your fuel in and pack your trash out. The park ranger will be happy, and you won't nettle the neighbors or burn down the woods with a big roaring campfire. Hobo Stew lends itself to the economic use of resources. Hobo Stew won't break your bank; yes, it's dolphin safe! You can feel good about yourself while preparing and eating your Hobo Stew.

    Hobo Stew with a piece of pork shoulder, the way I like to make it, is admittedly a little rough on the hogs, but the beauty of Hobo Stew is that is can be just as easily completely vegetarian, fat-free and organic, depending on what your shopping options are. While Hobo Stew is usually associated with times of little money and reduced expectations, it tastes just as good, maybe better, when you're flush! I can tell you a three-dollar Hobo Stew and a sixty-dollar Pinot Noir is a fantastic (though somewhat extravagant) combination. I prefer a modestly priced Sonoma County Zinfandel. My current favorite is the estate-bottled from Wild Hog Vineyard. It tastes great under the stars with Hobo Stew and a box of soda crackers--a great combination, kind of like John Prine and Bonnie Raitt singing "Angel From Montgomery" . . . all earth and roots.

1.   Brown a piece of pork or lamb shoulder in your pot, pan or can. Beef stew meat works, too; something with a little fat to it, please.
2.Pour off any excess fat, and sauté:
1Small onion, chopped
2Cloves garlic, minced
1Carrot, in chunks
6Sun-dried tomato halves
3.Add and simmer about an hour:
1Can of chicken stock
And enough water just to keep your meat covered as it cooks, or just water and a splash of wine.
4.Season with salt, pepper and a thumbnail-size piece of bay leaf or pepperwood leaf.
5.Add and simmer about twenty minutes more:
1Big potato, in chunks

    Go ahead, open that second bottle of wine, you're not going anywhere. . . . You did bring two, didn't you?

    We like to pack along a jar of Giardiniera or spicy pickled beans to crunch on. Spring onions or radishes are good accompaniments, as are apples and sharp cheese to finish up. Set a pan of water on the fire for washing up and a cup of tea, as you finish the wine and contemplate how well-prepared you are to enjoy post-Y2K life, whatever it may have in store for us.

Variations on a Theme

    Chicken works, or rabbit, or any combination of small game birds. I must admit, as this Y2K thing nears, I have had my eye on all the fat robins and starlings that stop here where I live in Sonoma County, California. The birds are on their way to winter nesting further south, and they gorge themselves on dry grapes, bugs and windfall apples. Sometimes they get into a load of privet berries that have fermented on the branch, and all that's needed is a basket to collect them up in the wee hours. If the poor things haven't frozen to death, they have such devastating hangovers that a one-way ticket to the stew pot could be considered an act of mercy.

    If you prefer a vegetarian Hobo Stew, omit the critter in step one and substitute mushrooms sautéed in a bit of olive oil or dry white wine, skip the chicken stock, increase the sun-dried tomatoes (or use fresh, in season), and cook your potatoes right in with all the rest of your vegetables.

    You can substitute a can of drained garbanzo beans for the potatoes, season with a pinch of minced fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, lavender or basil leaves) or curry powder, and serve over couscous.

    Another handy twist is to skip the potatoes and pick up a log of pre-made polenta at the grocery. Slice and grill your polenta and serve the stew over it, or cut in cubes and heat right in the stew at the last minute. Season with fresh basil leaves or a bit of rosemary, and dress with pocketknife shavings of a good aged sheep's milk cheese.

    Last, but not least, Hobo Stew is great with fish, clams, mussels and or crab. Forget step one; pick up a fennel bulb to add to your vegetable sauté, omit the chicken stock (or not), and stew your vegetables until just tender in a small amount of water. When the vegetables are near to ready, add your seafood, a splash of wine, cover and cook just until your shells have opened and the fish is cooked through. Serve over couscous or with a good crusty loaf of bread for dipping in the broth, and oh, yes . . . Happy New Year!