When it is cold outside, you want to feel warm inside. And few things warm your insides as deliciously as a nice, big, comforting bowl of stew.
Can't you just picture it now? A wisp of steam rising from the bowl. The unmistakable aroma of long-simmering meats and vegetables. That deeply satisfying flavor that makes you feel safe and secure and brings to mind thoughts of home.
When the wind is howling and the snow is drifting, there is nothing better.
Two distinct principles are involved in making stew so good. The first is that tough cuts of meat, which are preferred for stews, generally have connective tissue that breaks down when subjected to low, moist heat. Not only does this reaction lead to the meat becoming mouth-wateringly tender, it also adds the tissue's natural gelatin to the sauce.
The other principle is a result of the meat or other main ingredient being covered by a liquid and other ingredients. The meat releases its flavor, which is absorbed by the sauce and vegetables. The sauce and vegetables release their flavors, which are absorbed by the meat. Eventually, these flavors meld and blend together, so that each ingredient tastes both of itself and of everything else in the pot.
But that's just science. What really makes stew so good for the soul is that it is cooked slowly, which means it is made with love.
A few simple steps are all that are needed to make an endless variety of stews.
The pieces of meat you use should be fairly small, no more than a couple of bites, and they should be cut into relatively uniform size. In most cases, the meat is browned first and then removed while aromatic vegetables (such as onions, celery, carrots, or garlic) or other flavorings (such as tomato paste or spices) are briefly cooked.
The meat should then be returned to the pot and covered with a liquid or sauce of your choice, and it should all be brought to a simmer. You can either cover the pot and cook it in an oven with low to medium heat, or gently simmer it uncovered on top of the stove.
If you want to have vegetables that aren't mushy, add them later, giving them enough time to cook so that they are ready just when the meat is done and tender enough to be cut with a fork. And if the sauce is too thin, all you need to do is remove the solid ingredients and either reduce the sauce or thicken it with pureed vegetables, a starch slurry or a roux.
And don't forget to add the love.
Of course, stews do not necessarily need to be made with meat. Shellfish works, too, such as the longtime Southern favorite, oyster stew. Like all seafood stews, oyster stew is an exception to the rule that stews should be cooked for a long time. Seafood generally should cook quickly or it turns into hard, rubbery balls.
Chicken can easily be stewed, too, though it does not taste the same as it once did. Not that many years ago, hens were allowed to keep laying eggs until they ran out of eggs to lay. They were too old and tough to grill, fry, or roast, but they were perfect for stewing. But stewing hens are hard to find these days -- most chickens are sold as soon as they reach adult weight -- so recipes have to be adjusted for younger birds. They are still delicious, if less flavorful than the stewing hens of old, but they should be cooked for a shorter time.
On a particularly frigid night last week, we decided to make a simple, basic beef stew; something hearty to ward off the chill. This is what you think of when you think of stew -- meaty chunks simmered slowly in a robust broth, with onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes. It's a good, honest stew; nothing fancy. And then we made it just a little bit fancy, using some tomato juice we had on hand, and adding frozen peas at the end for both color and flavor.
Next up was what is possibly our favorite way to make stew, veal stew in mustard sauce. It is an extraordinarily flavorful dish, mixing the relatively soft notes of veal with an assertive mustard, but tempered with a gentle sweet and sour sauce that is something of a revelation. The sweetness comes from carrots and dried currants (they turn nice and plump when cooked), the sour taste is from just a splash of vinegar. Although it is actually quite low in calories, this dish is worthy of serving to guests of the most exacting taste.
For a bit of the exotic, we made mar i muntanya, a ragout of chicken and shrimp from Barcelona in Spain. Traditionally, this dish is made with just a little bit of Pernod, a licorice-flavored liqueur. We did not have any Pernod on hand, so we substituted a sprinkling of fennel seed, and we also made our own version of the traditional Catalan picada to thicken the stew. Picada is a paste made from garlic, nuts, saffron, parsley, and bread, and there are as many ways to make it as there are cooks in Barcelona.
And finally, as a way to feel the warmth of the South in this cold northern climate, we whipped up a quick oyster stew. Oysters are fresh this time of year, and the dish is a lovely way to keep warm in the winter. Think of it as a comfortable blanket to keep you snug. It is an all-American dish, but with oysters so notoriously hard to find in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan -- except on supermarket and fish market shelves -- it can be seem as foreign here as mar i muntanya.
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Basic Beef Stew
2 1/2-3 pounds slow-cooking beef (such as chuck roast) OR pre-cut stewing beef
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large carrots, cut in 2-inch slices
2 stalks celery, cut in 2-inch slices
1 cup red wine
1 cup tomato juice
About 2 cups beef broth
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme OR 1 pinch dried thyme
3 sprigs parsley
1 large potato, cut into 2-inch wedges
1/2 cup peas (frozen is fine)
Cut the meat into 2-inch cubes, and season well with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat, and thoroughly brown the meat on all sides. Do this in at least two batches, to avoid overcrowding the meat in the pan. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the carrots and celery and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 minutes.
Pour in the red wine and deglaze the pan by scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom. Boil the wine until it reduces by half. Stir in the tomato juice, return the meat to the pan, and stir in the beef broth. There should be enough broth to cover the meat -- if not, add more broth, more tomato juice, or plain water.
Wrap the bay leaf, thyme, parsley, and peppercorns in a piece of cheesecloth, and tie it together with a piece of butchers' twine (if you don't have cheesecloth, you can just add the ingredients to the pot, but don't forget to remove them before serving). Tuck this sachet into the stew, and bring the pot to a simmer.
Skimming the scum that floats to the surface while the stew cooks is not absolutely necessary, but it makes a more appealing presentation and also reduces the amount of fat and grease in the stew.
Cook for 1 hour, and then add the potato. Simmer for 1 hour more, or until the potatoes are done and the meat can be cut with a fork. Stir in the peas, remove the sachet of spices, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Mar i Muntanya
1 small chicken
1 pound shrimp, shells on (see cook's note)
2 tablespoons PLUS 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1 medium onion
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes (I used fire-roasted)
1/2 cup dry white wine
⅛ teaspoon (2 pinches) fennel seeds
2 cups chicken stock
1 clove garlic, minced
5 roasted almonds
A few strands saffron, if available
1/2 slice stale or toasted bread
Cook's note: Traditionally, this dish calls for the shrimp to be served with the shells on. Actually, the shrimp are traditionally served with the heads on, too, but we don't have to go that far. The shells will add considerable flavor to the stew but they can be a hassle to peel before eating, so consider them optional if you choose.
Cut the chicken into 10 pieces: two legs, two thighs, two wings, and cut each breast in half. Season well with salt and pepper. Devein the shrimp (if keeping the shells on, cut through the middle of the back with a knife or scissors).
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil -- you'll only need 1 tablespoon if using nonstick cookware -- in a large pot or large skillet with a lid over medium high heat. Thoroughly brown the chicken on both sides, and use a slotted spoon or tongs to remove to a platter. In the same pan, cook the shrimp until they are bright orange and cooked through, about 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove to a bowl.
Pour out any excess fat from the pan, leaving in 1-2 tablespoons. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Lower the temperature to medium, stir in the tomatoes, and cook until much of the tomato juice has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Raise the heat again, add the wine, and cook until the wine has reduced by half.
Sprinkle in the fennel seeds, return the chicken to the pan, and add the chicken stock. Cover and simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, 20-30 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until they are heated through, about 2 minutes.
While the chicken cooks, make the picada by placing a few grains of kosher salt in a mortar and mashing the garlic into it with a pestle (you can also use a small spice grinder to make the picada). Pound in five roasted almonds, until they are incorporated into the paste. Add the saffron, if using, and stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil. Crumble or tear the bread into crumbs or tiny pieces and stir into the paste.
When the chicken and shrimp are through cooking, stir in the picada to flavor and lightly thicken the sauce.
Yield: 6 servings
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1 medium sweet or yellow onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pint (16 ounces) fresh raw oysters, juices reserved
1 quart (4 cups) whole milk
Salt and pepper
In a medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Saute the onion and garlic, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add the salt and pepper. Add the oysters and their juices and cook just until the oysters look opaque and the edges begin to curl.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the milk. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into two pieces and add to the pan. Stir until the butter is melted (do not boil); remove the pan from the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve with fresh saltine crackers.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Source: Mary Mac's Tea Room, by John Ferrell
Veal Stew In Mustard Sauce
1 1/2 pounds boneless lean veal, such as round, trimmed of all fat and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup dried currants
2 cups veal stock, chicken stock or combination of chicken and beef stock, preferably unsalted
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar
Wash the veal cubes and pat dry. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the veal on all sides, removing the cubes with a slotted spoon when browned. This will have to be done in a few batches.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the onion and garlic, and saute, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Return the veal to the pan and add the carrots, currants, stock, mustard, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so the stew is just simmering, and braise the stew, covered, for 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is fork-tender.
Stir the cornstarch mixture into the stew. Allow it to simmer for 2 minutes to thicken. Stir in the vinegar.
Yield: 6 servings.
Source: The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook, by Ellen Brown