After 30-plus years in the Southeast, I’ve come to appreciate many of the traditions, especially the ones related to food. There’s a particularly tasty tradition that occurs here in the fall, when churches, civic groups and Boy Scout troops set up giant, outdoor cast-iron kettles for their Brunswick stew fundraisers. They sign up volunteers, who take turns stirring the simplest of ingredients into a delicious aromatic stew, and folks arrive in droves to enjoy it by the bowl, and to take home quarts for freezing. It’s tradition and it’s delicious.
If you look into some of the old-time church cookbooks, you’d likely find Brunswick stew recipes that begin with fresh-caught rabbits or even squirrels, but (thankfully) my introduction to this homey, comforting soup was a chicken version, and that’s what I’m sharing today.
Brunswick stew is one of those comfort foods that tastes rich and hearty, but checks in on the low end of the fat-and-calories scale. Feel free to swap in other vegetables that suit your fancy—it’s what folks do in different parts of the South and depending on where you are, you might find potatoes, green beans or carrots in the bowl.
You can roast your own chicken if you’d like (overnight in the slow cooker makes amazing broth at the same time), but to keep it quick and simple, I’m using a rotisserie chicken this time, plus packaged broth, a few simple fresh and frozen vegetables, and a can of tomatoes. Whip up some corn muffins while it simmers, and dinner is served.
First, the essentials. This is a Southern classic comfort food, so the “holy trinity” of peppers, onions and celery is the foundation of the recipe. Any color bell pepper is fine for Brunswick stew, but I personally find the red and orange bells to be a bit on the sweet side, so I’m using a green bell.
Okra came to the Americas from Africa in the 1600s, and it remains a staple of Southern cooking. You’ll find it in many Cajun and Creole recipes in Louisiana, and it’s not unusual to see it breaded and fried, or even pickled, which I love in a Southern-style potato salad or on deviled eggs. The pectin in okra gives it some thickening power when it’s cooked in liquid, but some people are turned off by the slightly slimy texture. Two things can minimize this: don’t overcook it (for this recipe, it’s added at the end), and cook it in combination with tomatoes, which is what’s happening in this Brunswick stew.
If you make this stew in the late summer or fall, of course you would want to use fresh corn, lima beans and okra.
1 deli roasted chicken, dark and white meat shredded* (see notes)
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
15 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
2 cups frozen corn
2 cups frozen lima beans
2 cups frozen sliced okra
1/4 cup BBQ sauce
2 to 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
A few shakes hot sauce (optional, Frank’s RedHot or Texas Pete recommended)
Salt and pepper, of course
If you prefer to roast your own chicken, more power to you! If you have time to work ahead, you might also want to make your own stock. Or you could make your own stock from the frame of the rotisserie chicken. After de-boning and shredding the meat, toss the bones and skin into a pot with cut-up onions, celery, carrots and just enough water to cover it all. Simmer a few hours then strain out the solids, and you’d have a great alternative to the packaged broth (or, at least, some of it).
If the pictures here seem to defy the ingredient amounts listed, there’s good reason for it—on this particular day, I only had half a rotisserie chicken, so I halved the entire recipe. The ratios are the same, and this stew is so satisfying and delicious, I’m already regretting that I didn’t run to the store for another chicken!
- Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil. Sauté onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic until vegetables are soft and onions are translucent. Season with salt and pepper.
- Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, shredded chicken and broth. Add bay leaf, reduce heat and simmer up to an hour.
- Add frozen corn and lima beans, but reserve frozen okra until about 20 minutes before serving, to prevent the okra from breaking down too much. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper to your preference.
- Stir in BBQ sauce (and hot sauce, if using), and add the okra to the pot. When the bright green color of the okra begins to fade a bit, it’s ready to serve!