Hearty stew can be made with venison

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 16, 2016

By Tinsley Anderson

For assiduous readers of this column, you may know me as the Cook and Gardner’s daughter who occasionally guest writes about food from recent travels or cooks Asian food for them. But due to a break in routine, and the gardener’s hip, I’m helping out for the next few weeks. Dear readers who don’t know me, this is a funny story with a recipe at the end.

The beginning of a new year is often about plans- to quit bad habits, to start new good ones. The 366 days (it’s a leap year), are blank pages on which to write a new chapter. While we make our plans, one thing is certain. Expect the unexpected. If this axiom is not evident in our daily lives, it is made abundantly clear when traveling.

A few years ago, I took a solo vacation to the Balkans because, well, I’d never been there. You might remember some Balkan countries from the senseless wars and communist bloc break ups of the 1990s- Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, etc. I came up with a plan to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia; Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik in Croatia; Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzgovina; and the coast of Montenegro. My plans fell through after I did. After my 20 hours of travel and three plane flights, the last of which was from Paris to Ljubljana, I woke up on landing to lots of chatter in French and Slovenian to find that I was actually in Trieste, Italy. We landed in a different country because it was too snowy to land in Ljubljana. Ten hours later, a bus from Air France took us to our destination.

Ljubljana (pronounced Lube-iana) was a delight. It is an old medieval town with 18th century bones. A beautiful castle tops the main hill, surrounded by a small village of old buildings and a few modern stores along the banks of the Ljubljanica river. My first day out, after my long journey, I stumbled into one of the restaurants nearest my accommodations. With a lightly falling snow and just below freezing temps, not to mention not having eaten in maybe a day, I was ready for something hearty. The venison goulash beamed out from the restaurant menu like a salvo. Thick chunks of fork tender deer, ruminating in a rich red sauce was thickened by three slices of polenta and set off by the pungent redolent rosemary. To say it hit the spot is an understatement.

I savored Ljubljana for 2 1/2 days before taking a train to Zagreb, the capitol of Croatia. It was rainy and cold throughout my stay so I mostly stuck to limited sightseeing, drinking cafe lattes and reading. After a dinner of Adriatic fish, I walked back to my hotel only to slip in the rain on the wet stone steps leading to my hotel. I had pain in my lower right leg and ankle severe enough that I couldn’t stand up without help, which came several hours later. Despite being a doctor, I optimistically thought that some rest and elevation might make things better. A fellow guest helped me hop up to my 4th floor room. I woke up to an ankle about three times the normal size and reluctantly decided to go to the hospital.

I was supposed to leave that day, so I crawled on my floor to pack my bag and threw it down the stairs so I would have my hands free to scoot down the stairs. I hopped into the street, got a taxi and asked to go to the hospital. Luckily the driver spoke some English; he proclaimed he would take me to the best hospital in Croatia. He helped me hop in and left me at reception. They did not speak English. Have I told you I don’t speak Croatian? Eventually, they found an orderly who spoke English and helped with the registration process. They told me, very up front, “you have no (Croatian) insurance. You must pay cash.” I told them that wasn’t a problem (hoping it wouldn’t be). They said it would be 150 Croatian Kuna (about $20). After metaphorically, wiping my brow with relief, I paid to be treated. After several hours in an exam room, an English speaking, likely trainee doctor like myself, came to see me. He did a cursory exam and sent me to X-ray.

An hour or so after that, a hurried and gruff looking female doctor came in and said. “Your leg broken. Fibula, ankle. Cannot walk. If you home, we not fix here. No surgery needed now.” They casted my right leg to the knee.

My discharge paperwork with instructions written in broken English said the same- no weight bearing on the right leg, if the fracture heals, you won’t need surgery. I asked about crutches. They said “you have no insurance.Your country does not have agreement with Croatia. We cannot give you crutches.”

Given the $20 bill so far, I was bold, and assumed I could afford crutches.

I reiterated that I could pay and they again said I couldn’t have them. I asked them what I was supposed to do if I wasn’t allowed to walk. Thy recommended I go to a pharmacy. It was Easter Sunday. By some stroke of luck in the universe, my seemingly distrusting cab driver lent me his brother’s crutches until the following Tuesday when the stores would be opened and pharmacies restocked.

I got my own crutches, then worked on getting home. With the choice of paying $4,000 to fly home early or spend a week in Croatia with a broken leg, I stayed. I managed to fly to Dubrovnik where my return flight was leaving. With some help and breaking the doctor’s orders not to walk, I spent four days (slowly hobbling) enjoying the sunshine in the beautiful cream stonewalled Adriatic city.

I had some wonderful meals in Dubrovnik- the garlicky steamed mussels, fresh fried calamari, simple Italian pastas, quenching gelato, and a warming Bosnian meal.

Now, almost three years later, all I remember is the venison stew in Ljubljana.

It was the center of one of those meals where the dish fits your mood and environment- cold, lonely hungry traveler on snowy foreign streets finds hot, soul-fulfilling dish. I’m not sure it can be recreated but the following recipe is an attempt.

Trying new things like visiting a place you’ve never been or embracing better habits and eschewing bad ones is part of the way we learn and recreate ourselves, afresh, year by year. These attempts may fail or break bones but we hope, eternally, that they end up breaking patterns. The point is that we get up and try again.


Prekmurski Bograc: Slovenian Stew

If you want a thicker, heartier, goulash type dish, you can decrease the liquids in this recipe by limiting the red wine and beef stock or using tomato paste instead of canned tomatoes. This is my take on Prekmurski Bograc, or “Slavic Stew.” Presmurje is a region in Slovenia and there are many versions of this homey recipe. If you have some venison left over from hunting season, this would be a great place to use it. As I only have access to beef and pork, that is what I use here. This dish is slow roasted so cheap cuts of meat are ok. You can use your slow cooker instead of oven for the roasting time. You can also choose to omit vegetables – other than potato, this stew does typically not include peppers, carrots or mushrooms but I think they add body and texture.

The extra vegetables are also an excuse to use a whole bottle of red wine which makes this dish truly rich as it boils down and the alcohol evaporates.

The no-knead bread from this column two weeks ago which can be found at http://thecookandgardener.blogspot.com/ on my parents’ blog (and where all of this column’s articles are archived) would be a fabulous accompaniment to this thick hearty stew.

Servings: 6-8

Prep and active cook time: 30 minutes

Total Cooking time: 2.5-3 hours


¾ lb beef stew meat (something with some fat), cubed

¾ lb pork, any cut, cubed (may substitute venison for all or part of the meat)

3 strips of bacon, chopped into ¼ inch strips

2 medium yellow onions

4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

Olive oil (or your choice of mildly flavored oil/fat/lard)

1lb potatoes (red works well but Yukon is ok too), cut into 1 inch pieces

1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes

Optional vegetables: 1 red bell pepper seeded and diced, 1 cup chopped carrots, 1 cup chopped white mushrooms

1 bay leaf

1 tbsp Hungarian (sweet) paprika

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tbsp/palmful of dried rosemary, lightly crushed with your fingers

1 750 mL red wine (table/cheap wine ok)

1 cup beef stock if needed (to make more liquid/stewy)

Salt and pepper to taste (use throughout cooking)


In a large stew pot or ceramic baking dish, begin to heat 2 tbsp of oil. Add chopped bacon and allow to begin to brown – 4 minutes on medium heat. Chop onions and add, Cook 5-8 minutes until beginning to become translucent. Add garlic and stir. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Add meat. Cook until meat is lightly browned on the outside. Add more oil if meat sticks to pot. If desired, add optional vegetables here. Add diced tomatoes and potatoes. Stir. Add spices (bay leaf, paprika, thyme, rosemary, a pinch of salt and pepper) then pour wine on top. If the wine does not cover potatoes or liquid looks paltry, add beef stock.

You may also substitute beef stock for red wine but it’s not as good! Preheat oven to 350 (or prepare slow cooker to manufacturer’s recommendations). When the stew comes to a boil, cover and place in oven for two hours.

Stir every 30 minutes or so to check that liquid content is to your satisfaction (add beef broth/wine for a soupier/stewier consistency).

In the last 10 minutes of cooking, this would be a good time to warm the pot for the no-knead bread that you began to prepare yesterday. Serve with thick bread or if you went for the thicker goulash type dish, over egg noodles or rice.