For those of you who like to get a jumpstart on Christmas shopping panic, as of today, there are 49 days until Christmas.

For those of you who alleviate some of that panic on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year is only 19 days away. So dust off your helmets, shoulder and knee pads, shine up those credit cards and cross off the days on your calendar. It will be here before you know it.

Food: ’fud, noun: material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair and vital processes; and to furnish energy (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary [1983]). The dictionary might be a bit old, but I doubt the definition of food has changed in any substantial way.

How long can a person survive without food? It depends on factors such as the original weight, general health and presence or absence of hydration, of course. Businessinsider.com says that it is about three weeks. Obviously, since the human body is about 60 percent water, survival without water is significantly shorter.

Okay. Now we know the definition of food and its importance to our health and well-being.

But I think food is more than just sustenance — it is a way of connecting with people and expressing emotion. When you sit at a cafeteria counter, it is difficult not to share at least a few pleasantries with the person on either side of you. You might make a lifelong friend by letting someone budge in line at the cream puff stand at State Fair!

We share food to celebrate happy occasions — wedding showers and weddings, baby showers, birthdays, holidays, retirement and anything else that brings us joy. We share food to express sympathy and love in times of tragedy and loss. We share food to create a sense of community, such as family reunions, neighborhood block parties and church potlucks. A classic example of creating a sense of community that also demonstrates the generosity of spirit and love shared through food is the annual Thanksgiving dinner that takes all year to prepare for one whirlwind day, and welcomes everyone, regardless of circumstance.

This pattern of sharing is a large part of what led to the start of the Reader Exchange. One person expressed a need or desire, and oftentimes, many people responded to try to fill that need. And that has been the pattern for nearly 22 years.

But I have come to feel that the Exchange has basically outlived its usefulness, due to what I refer to as “internet obsolescence.” With the plethora of websites and blogs these days, a few keystrokes can provide one with dozens of recipe choices, often accompanied by how-to videos and/or step-by-step instructions, complete with photographs of each step.

So, in the past couple of years there has been a steady decline in the number of both requests and responses. I have continued to forge ahead, plying you with, sometimes, simply whatever was on my mind, some truly outrageous recipe ideas, and lots of information about a variety of subjects, then sought recipes to accompany that information.

I have truly enjoyed sharing my sense of humor with you over the years; and I am thankful for the many times you helped me through both pain and loss. But I think the time has come to bow out gracefully.

I can’t possibly thank the many hundreds of people who have contributed in one way or another, but I do think Karen Vick of La Crosse deserves a special thank you, having been a staunch supporter from the very beginning.

This has been a difficult decision, and I waffle on at least a weekly basis, but right now the plan is for the New Year’s Eve column to be the last.

In the meantime, however, I still have things to share with you. As the weather continues its downward temperature spiral, indicating winter’s rapid advance, soups and stews appear more frequently on the dinner table. Last week I provided you with chowder recipes. This week I have located some great recipes for stew (remember, soup is brothy; stew is thickened into a gravy of sorts).

The Irish stew can be slowly cooked in the oven, or in the slow cooker. Unless your house is a bit chilly and you want to add a little additional warmth, I think I’d opt for the slow cooker method.

What on earth is “burgoo?” My trusty “Food Lover’s Companion [1995]” tells me without further explanation as to why, that it is usually called “Kentucky burgoo,” and is a thick stew rich with almost any meat you’d care to add. In the olden days, the meat was primarily rabbits, squirrels and/or other small game. The meats are accompanied by the usual potatoes, onions, celery and carrots, joined by things like bell peppers, okra, lima beans and corn. Burgoo is a popular dish for large gatherings in the southern states.

Interestingly, and again inexplicably, as far back as 1750, burgoo was the name of an “oatmeal porridge served to English sailors.”

The Peruvian stew would make a nice change any time you decide to go meatless. When ready to eat, it will have absorbed most of the liquid, so it might also be enjoyed as a side dish.

I’m hoping to receive a mu shu pork recipe or two. If not, I have found an Asian restaurant that delivers, but I’d still like to try my hand at a homemade version.

Slow Cooked Irish Beef Stew with Beer

6 slices bacon, diced

1⁄3 cup all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon ground allspice

2½ pounds cubed beef stew meat

4 carrots, peeled and cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces

4 large onions, each cut into eight wedges

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed

1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 bay leaf

1 can or bottle Irish stout beer

Place bacon in a large nonstick skillet; cook over medium heat until crisp and brown. Remove; drain on paper towels, crumble and set aside. leave drippings in skillet. Place flour, salt, pepper, and allspice in a large plastic zipper bag; shake a few times to thoroughly combine. Place stew meat in bag; shake to coat meat with flour mixture. Place meat in skillet with bacon drippings; cook meat until brown on all sides. Transfer browned meat to slow cooker; add carrots, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary, marjoram and bay leaf. Pour beer into skillet; bring to a boil over medium-low heat, scraping browned bits from bottom of skillet; pour beer over meat and vegetables in slow cooker. Cover; cook on medium until meat is very tender, 4 to 5 hours. Remove bay leaf; sprinkle stew with bacon pieces. Can also be slow cooked in 275-degree oven in a 2½- to 3-quart casserole with a cover. Note: The flour coating the beef should thicken the juices to stew consistency, but if you want it a little thicker, whisk a couple of tablespoons of flour with about a cup of the juices until no lumps remain. Return mixture to slow cooker, stirring until broth thickens (or strain the mixture back into the stew to make sure there are no lumps. About 6 servings.

Kentucky Burgoo

1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 pound beef top round, cut into ½-inch cubes

6 cups beef broth

¼ teaspoon ground red pepper

2 (16-ounce) packages frozen vegetable gumbo mix, thawed *

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

In a soup pot, combine chicken, beef, broth, and pepper; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover loosely and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add vegetable gumbo mix and tomato paste. Increase heat to medium-high and return to a boil. Let boil 25 to 30 minutes, or until thick, stirring occasionally. Notes: If you can’t find gumbo mix, substitute with 3 cups frozen okra, 3 cups frozen corn, a small green bell pepper, chopped, and a small onion, chopped.

Peruvian Quinoa and Potato Stew

1 cup finely chopped onion

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Nonstick spray

1½ tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained well in a fine sieve

2¼ cups water

1 medium (8-ounce) Yukon Gold potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch chunks

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small slices

Fresh cilantro for serving

Spray a heavy saucepan and heat over medium heat; cook onion and garlic, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add quinoa and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add 2 cups water and ¾ teaspoon salt; simmer, covered, 5 minutes. Add potatoes and remaining ¼ cup water; continue to simmer, covered, until quinoa is cooked through and fluffy, potato is just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes more (liquid will be nearly but not completely absorbed). Let stand off heat, covered, 5 minutes. Serve hot topped with mozzarella slices and sprinkled with cilantro. 4 servings. (KitchenDaily)

Liven up your Thursday mornings by tuning in to Coulee Region Cooks from 10 to 11 a.m. on WIZM-AM radio, 1410 on the dial. Spend an hour with Mike Hayes and a different guest(s) each week in his studio kitchen, sharing recipes and cooking tips, along with a generous serving of fun.

Send requests, recipes and/or cooking tips and techniques to Alice P. Clark at: Reader Exchange, c/o La Crosse Tribune, 401 N. Third St., La Crosse, Wis. 54601; e-mail: readerexchange@lacrossetribune.com; or send a fax to 608.782.9723, attn: Reader Exchange.

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