19 Mar 2012

Planetary Stew

serves 4 © Judy Wearing

Usually, the main ingredients in a casserole are cut the same approximate size. Not so in this dish – each of the round ingredients in this rich, continental-style stew represents one of the planets, and the planets differ tremendously in size. Just how different will become obvious when you sit down with space on your plate.


1 tbsp peppercorns

1 tbsp mustard seed

1 tsp paprika

1 cup sweet baby peas

8 potatoes, as round as possible with a 3 inch diameter

4 onions, round as possible with a 2 ½ inch diameter

1 tbsp vegetable oil

For the Meatballs:

1 lb lean hamburger meat

1 cup breadcrumbs

1 egg

For the dumplings:

1 ½ cups flour

½ tsp baking powder

2 egg yolks

½ cup milk

Salt to taste

For the sauce:

3 tbsp butter

3 tbsp flour

1 tbsp tomato paste

2 1/2 cups beef bouillon

1 cup sour cream

What to do:

Begin by preparing the largest of the planets, Jupiter. Peel the potatoes and shape them into round balls. Peel the onions of Saturn, the next largest planet. Lay the potatoes and onions on a baking tray, brush with oil to coat, and roast in a 450 ° F oven, turning occasionally, until they are golden brown. This will take 45 minutes to an hour.

While Jupiter and Saturn are coming into being, mix together the hamburger meat, breadcrumbs and egg in a large bowl. Form the mixture into proto-Uranus balls slightly larger than 1 inch in diameter. This will allow for shrinking in cooking; cooked, the 1-inch meatballs will be the perfect Uranus proportions. Brown the meatballs in a nonstick pan and set them aside until the rest of the solar system is complete.

In another bowl, mix together the dumpling ingredients – flour, egg yolks, milk, and salt and pepper to form a stiff, Neptune dough. Add more milk if necessary. Form 1 inch diameter balls, and set them aside too, covered with a tea towel, ready to put into the solar system sauce.

To make the sauce, melt the butter over medium heat in a large, thick bottomed saucepan or high-sided frying pan. Add the flour and stir, letting it cook for a minute or two. Gradually add the bouillon a little at a time, stirring constantly. Add the tomato paste, peppercorns, Mars, and mustard seeds of Mercury. When the full two cups of bouillon are added, and the sauce is simmering, gently drop Neptune dumplings in, one-by-one, with a spoon. When the dumplings float to the top, they are done. Add the green peas, the larger ones representing green Earth and the smaller ones, cloudy Venus. Add Jupiter potatoes, Saturn onions, and Uranus meatballs, and gently stir in the sour cream.

Serve the stew with two potatoes and an onion per person. To finish, sprinkle each plate with paprika – each tiny speck is the relative size of Pluto – clearly a solar system garnish rather than a main ingredient.

The Science

Space is vast. This is something we understand when we gaze at the layer upon layer of stars in the night sky. Just how tiny we are compared to the rest of the universe can be brought home – literally – by using a scaled model, such as this stew. In this case, the ingredients representing the planets are scaled down by a factor of 46 397, with the largest planet Jupiter represented by a potato. According to this scale, the Sun is the width of a typical family dinner table.

Size in the Solar System

The diameter, in km, of the:


















6 788



We can think of these celestial bodies as fitting into four different categories. First, there’s the Sun – a star like countless others; a big ball of fire which comprises 99.86% of all the mass in the entire solar system. Then there are several smallish, dense planets. These are Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars - five times more dense than the outer planets. The big gaseous entities we call Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune come next. Pluto and its fellow dwarf planets is small in comparison, and icy, perhaps not even particularly round. The Sun is so far away it appears as a pinpoint, like all the other stars.

There are nine different objects floating in this stew, and there used to be nine planets in our solar system. The discovery in 2003 of another object circling our Sun which is bigger than Pluto threw into question the definition of the word planet. Traditionally, a planet is a large object that orbits a star. The problem with this definition is that there are many large objects orbiting our Sun in the space beyond Pluto – by some estimates, tens of thousands more. Some think the title of planet ought to be limited to only very large objects, say bigger than 3000 km in diameter. That would discount Pluto, but it would mean that our own Moon should be classified as a planet too. Others argue that tradition should rule in cases such as this – and we should stick with nine planets for cultural reasons, and not make Holst’s symphony obsolete. Whether Pluto is a main ingredient or a garnish makes little difference to our planetary stew. It is delicious regardless.

A planet stew gives us no idea of the distances between them. You could try going for an walk with your bowl, and eat your way through the solar system. With your dining table as the Sun, a Mercury peppercorn should be consumed 32 metres away, followed by a Venus mustard seed at 59 metres, peas for Earth and Mars at 82 and 125 metres, and a Jupiter potato at 426 metres. If you live in the city you will likely be a block away from your house by now. Saturn’s onion is at 780 metres, a Uranus dumpling at 1, 571 metres, and a Neptune meatball at 2 464 metres - about an hour and a half’s walk. To place Pluto’s paprika fleck you might as well get in the car and drive to the 3 237 metre mark or you’ll be up very late.

On second thought, it might be a lot easier to stay home for dinner tonight, and have space on your plate instead.

No comments: