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Burgoo, classic Kentucky stew

Why is it that so many of the world’s tastiest foods are the least photogenic?

I grappled with this when writing about ropa vieja, molha … heck, even those rich-as-the-dickens mini Hot Browns are a tetch hard to make look as appetizing on camera as they are in life. It’s not like I deliberately go out of my way to make my beleaguered, talented photographer husband’s life more difficult. Brown food is good food, I guess.

Case in point: Burgoo. This most quintessentially Kentuckian dish delivers in the delicious department, but boy howdy is it brown.

Burgoo’s Kentucky roots are fairly universally credited to French chef Gus Jaubert of Lexington, KY, who served the stew to General John Hunt Morgan and his Confederate Raiders. Clearly, this is designed to be a dish of great proportions — to be made in quantities literally enough to feed an army. James T. Looney assumed the mantle of “the Burgoo King” and, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia, had this recipe for 1,200 gallons of the stew:

…Lean meat (not game), fat hens, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, tomato puree, carrots, and corn, seasoned with red pepper and salt and his secret sauce…

That’s a fairly tame estimation of the ingredients. In A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections, Jean Anderson found anecdotal information that Jaubert’s original recipe contained blackbirds; more rustic versions allegedly contained mostly squirrel; and perhaps more alarmingly even heard tell of a “mysterious ingredient” that married the flavors together — a black snake that would fall into the stew during the dark of night.

Living as we do in a major modern metropolis, blackbirds and squirrel (not to mention black snake) are surprisingly difficult to source. Not wanting to disappoint, we resorted to the most readily available locally sourced ingredients we could find. There is, after all, no shortage of pigeons and rats on the streets of San Francisco.

Or, we could buy some chicken and pork.

Fact is, modern versions of burgoo are quite tame indeed. The recipe we used as our base, from Anderson’s book, is nothing more than chicken, pork, peas, corn, beans and salt and pepper. That’s it, though it doesn’t suffer from a dash of hot sauce.

And served with a hot biscuit fresh from the oven and a nice arugula-strawberry salad, it transforms from soldier rations to a satisfying brunch entrée.

Kentucky Burgoo

Lightly adapted from A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections, by Jean Anderson

1 whole chicken breast (two halves)
1 chicken thigh
1 chicken liver
1 chicken kidney (optional; we happened to have one on hand)
1-1/2 lb pork shoulder
6 c. chicken stock
1/2 lb small dry beans (we used Rancho Gordo Eye of the Goat)
2 c. cold water
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes
1 bag frozen corn
1 bag frozen peas
salt and pepper to taste
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) butter

Place the pork, and chicken parts in the stock in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Remove the chicken meat and allow to cool; leave the pork to simmer covered for another 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the beans in water in a medium sauce pan and place over high heat. Boil the beans for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.

Remove the skin and bones from the chicken, and cut the meat (including the liver and kidney) into small chunks. Pulse in a blender or food processor until coarsely ground; alternatively, pass through a meat grinder. When the pork is tender, cut into chunks and pulse or grind in the same fashion.

Return the ground meat to the large stockpot, and add the beans and their liquid. Add the onions, tomatoes, corn and peas. Simmer for one hour. Add salt, pepper and butter and simmer uncovered for 3-4 hours, until as thick as chili.

As with most stews, this improves with age. For best results, make at least a day ahead, refrigerate and reheat. As Anderson cites Linda Allison-Lewis in Kentucky’s Best: Fifty Years of Great Recipes
as saying burgoo must “simmer for 24 hours prior to being served.”

  • umm, hot biscuits. The liver and kidney thing might be a problem, however. But if you say it is good, I am willing to give it a try!

  • I don’t go for livers and kidneys on their own, but they do give a nice roundness to the stew. You don’t really know they’re in there.

  • EB

    Not that I’m not a fan of obscure foods (and tasty ones to boot) but what inspired the burgoo makin’? It is fairly random…

  • Why Derby Day, of course. My husband is Kentuckian, after all.

  • hmmm, squirrel and blackbirds… that must have taken a lot of them varmints to make a decent pot of this stew. how on earth does one find the time to simmer for 24 hours? your version sounds delicious anyways.

  • naaaame

    Ah, the internet, allowing the teeming yankee scum to infringe upon the traditions they’ve no business knowing about.
    I don’t recall Burgoo ever being served with strawberry salad. Much less a finely sliced cantaloupe.
    It’s not a goddamn brunch entree either. Burgoo is what you eat when you’re too poor to afford the abomination that is modern luxury, like soy brownies and your ridiculous macrobiotic laboratory experiments. Stop trying to act all fancy and shit.
    You dishonour famiry.
    Also, (real) burgoo is much redder than your pitiful attempt at down-home cooking, because real burgoo almost invariably contains lots of tomato puree. What’s next? You gonna put some tofu in it, you culture-raping she-beast?
    enjoy gourmet hell.

  • Actually, we’re he-beasts.