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I love this story, and I especially loved the research! It takes place in Deadwood, just an hour's drive north of my house, in the middle of the Gold Rush (1877). The Deadwood of that time was notorious. People like Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and others were common sights around town...
Okay, maybe not Wild Bill. He was killed in the summer of 1876.
But you get the idea. Deadwood's history is filled with cowboys, gunslingers and all sorts of romantic western themes.
As part of my research, I picked up this fun cookbook at February's Stock Show.
It has plenty of good recipes from all over the plains states, but I really bought it for one chapter: "The Cowboy Table on the Trail."
And when I saw a recipe called Squirrel Can Stew, I knew I had to try it.
A "squirrel can" was an empty can, usually a lard can, next to the Chuck Wagon where the cowboys would scrape their plates before washing them. Cowboys often joked that the food tasted like Cookie had dipped out of the squirrel can to make it.
All joking aside though, Cookie was well respected by the cowboy. After all, if Cookie wasn't happy, nobody was happy!
Here's the recipe for Squirrel Can stew as it was written down around 1870:
Take the bones and trimmings from a sirloin steak put over a fire after breakfast in three quarts of water, boil steadily until about an hour before dinner, then add two onions, one carrot, three potatoes, all sliced, some parsley cut fine, a red pepper, and salt to taste. This makes a delicious stew. All stews are more palatable seasoned with onions and red pepper using the seeds of the later [sic] with care, as they are very strong.
Like most recipes from this era, this one took some interpretation to modernize it. Here's my version.
Squirrel Can Stew
1 1/2 pounds sirloin steak (or other beef), cubed
1 pound of soup bones (optional)
1 Tablespoon oil (I used coconut oil)
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 quarts water
1 quart beef broth
1 carrot, sliced
3 potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt to taste
Brown the beef in the oil in a large pot (I used my 8 quart stock pot). Add the onions and continue cooking until the onions are soft.
Add the water and broth, then bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and let the soup simmer for about three hours.
Thirty to sixty minutes before serving, peel and slice the carrot and potatoes.
Remove the optional soup bone if you used it, and add the vegetables and seasonings.
You can cook it for 20 - 30 minutes more for a beef vegetable soup with a rich broth, or continue cooking for another hour or more, until the broth turns to a thick gravy.
This stew may look plain and simple, but it sure is tasty!
And don't forget Cookie's rules of the trail -
No one eats until Cookie calls.
When Cookie calls, everyone comes to eat.
Hungry cowboys wait for no man.
Cowboys always eat first and talk later; filling the belly is just as important as herding the cattle.
If you're refilling the coffee cup and someone yells "Man at the pot" you must serve others who wish another cup of coffee.
Don't take the last serving unless you know that you are the last man.
The running and saddling of horses near the wagon is not allowed.
When you ride off, do so down wind from the wagon.
Strangers are always welcomed at the wagon; who knows when the kindness of strangers may help you in a time of need.
So ground-tie your pony, slap the dust off your chaps, and gather round the fire for a cup of Cookie's coffee and some Squirrel Can Stew.