Though deep-frying and grilling seem to have bigger star power these days, homely stewing offers cooks a wondrously succulent return. When whole or cut foods simmer in a covered vessel with a small amount of added liquid and slow, steady heat, they’re braising. Add more liquid and it’s a stew.
Many cultures stew foods. Granny’s Irish stew or a French coq au vin might come to mind. Stewing may seem old-fashioned, but it lays claim to elegant, timeless dishes like Italian osso buco, Cajun gumbo, veal blanquette, beef bourguignon, Provençal daube, lamb navarin and rabbit or chicken fricassee. These may be pragmatically divided into a white or a brown stew.
White stew is when ingredients are not browned and white stock and white wine are used. A brown braise or stew is when ingredients are browned and a dark stock and red wine are used. The changes between them further show up in the thickenings and types of meat or vegetables.
Stews may be vegetarian or plant-based; meat isn’t necessary for a hearty stew. Meat stews, however, need the right meat to yield the perfect stew. Choose tougher cuts of meat, like chuck roast, brisket, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder or leg of lamb. Tough cuts contain collagen-rich connective tissue, which melts into gelatin as it cooks. This tenderizes the meat and enriches and thickens the gravy. Start with boneless roasts or steaks and cube the meat yourself. Bone-in chicken parts taste better and stay moist over long cooking times. Cut meat into bite-sized pieces after cooking.
Stew thickeners can be cooked root vegetables, flour, roux (cooked flour and butter), beurre manie (equal parts kneaded four and butter whisked into stew at the end and cooked to removed raw flour flavor), cornstarch or arrowroot slurry (cold water or broth mixed with equal parts cornstarch or arrowroot), tomato, tomato paste, breadcrumbs or potato starch. Spanish cooks might use “picada,” a combination of pounded nuts, bread, garlic and olive oil.
Long, slow, moist heat (1-1/2 to 4 hours) is best for tough, less expensive cuts of meat because it breaks down collagen and muscle fibers, and renders meat or tough root vegetables into tender spoon-food. The stovetop is the better choice for short stewing; a 300 to 325 degree F oven is helpful for long-cooked stews. Vegetable and delicate fish or shellfish stews, because they don’t require tenderizing, need only short cooking (1 hour or less) to achieve a flavor-enhancing exchange.
The Instant Pot can be a gamechanger for stews. After prep and searing the ingredients, the Instantpot cuts the cooking time of a stew from 1-1/2 to 2 hours down to 40 to 45 minutes.
Start by browning meat in fat with sauté function in two batches. Transfer meat to a bowl. Stir in aromatic seasoning vegetables like shallots, garlic, onions, celery or ginger root and cook until tender or browned. Combine meat, aromatics, stock and seasonings. Place lid on and cook stew on high for 20 minutes. Quick release and stir in other vegetables like diced potatoes, rutabaga, parsnips, carrots or turnips, cook 5 minutes. Open pot and stir in green vegetables like peas or green beans and cook until tender. Garnish with fresh herbs. Taste and season. (If you pre-steam any of the vegetables just stir in, heat through and garnish.)
Whatever your choices may be, flexible stews will deliver a satisfying meal warming all who partake. Happy winter stewing to you.
Winter Beef Stew
This recipe is a good blueprint for any meat-based stew. Add a handful of halved green olives and a diced preserved lemon for a different flavor.
Yields 6 to 8 servings
2 lb. trimmed stewing beef, rump, shank or flank
6 T. olive oil, more as needed
2 C. diced onions
2 C. diced celery
1-1/2 C. diced carrot
1-1/2 C. diced rutabaga or parsnip
6 oz. bacon, diced ½-inch
2 T. flour mixed with salt and pepper
2 C. good beef or chicken stock
Bouquet garni: fresh thyme on stems, parsley stems, 2 bay leaves, 5 black peppercorns
2-1/2 C. mushrooms, like shiitake
Garnish: 4 T. chopped Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For serving: steamed potatoes and green salad
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Dice meat into 1-inch cubes. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a casserole or stew pot over medium heat. Stir in onions and brown lightly. Stir in celery, carrot and rutabaga or parsnip; cook until tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
In a deep skillet, fry the bacon over medium heat until crisp. Transfer bacon (leave the fat) to the vegetables in stew pot. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet. Heat over medium heat. Toss meat in the flour mixture. Pour meat into the skillet and brown meat on all sides. Transfer meat to stew pot. Pour stock into skillet and scrape up caramelized juices. Scrape them into the stew pot; tuck in bouquet garni. (Don’t clean skillet.)
Bring stew pot to a boil. Cover pot and transfer it to oven for 1-1/2 hours. Pour 2 tablespoons oil into skillet and stir in mushrooms. Sauté over medium heat until tender. Transfer them to the stew pot and place it back in oven another 30 minutes.
Remove bouquet garni. Taste stew and season with salt and pepper. Fold in chopped parsley. Serve hot with potatoes and a salad on the side.
Navarín Printanier de Pré-Salé
Navarin is one of the top ten favorite dishes in France. It is especially good made with the salt-marsh lamb (pré-salé) of Normandy. Young, tender fresh vegetables are the gold standard for this dish but it’s delicious with fall vegetables too. To reduce fat, steam potatoes, carrots and turnips until just tender instead of sautéing and fold into stew before serving. For eye appeal, choose fresh vegetables for contrasting color like green beans, yellow bell peppers and carrots.
Yields 9 to 10 cups, 4 to 6 servings
3 to 4 T. olive or vegetable oil, divided
Flour, as needed
2 lb. trimmed, boneless lamb shoulder or leg, diced into 1- to 1-1/2-inch cubes
1 C. dry (hard) cider or white wine
1-1/2 C. chicken stock
14-1/2 oz. can plum tomatoes, 1 cup drained and diced
1-1/2 t. peeled and minced garlic
1 T. minced fresh thyme
1 T. minced fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 large bay leaf
1 T. olive or vegetable oil
2 T. diced unsalted butter, 1 ounce
1 C. peeled shallots with roots trimmed but not cut off
1-1/2 C. scrubbed and halved small new potatoes, 12 ounces
1-1/2 C. small carrots sliced diagonally, 6 to 8 ounces
1-1/4 C. scrubbed and halved small turnips, 6 ounces
2 C. shelled or frozen peas, 9 ounces
2 T. chopped Italian parsley, more as desired
For serving: crusty bagette or hot, cooked egg noodles
Heat a heavy 6-quart pot (about 11-inch diameter) over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons oil. Pour flour into a mixing bowl. Season lamb cubes with a little salt and dredge half in flour. Shake off excess flour; place lamb cubes in hot oil. Lamb should fit in one layer with space in between for good browning. Sauté meat until evenly browned. Turn with tongs. remove to a bowl; repeat browning with remaining oil, flour and lamb.
Return all meat to pan. Stir in cider to deglaze and scrape bottom of pan. Boil 1 minute. Stir in stock, tomato, garlic and herbs. Bring stew to a boil, lower heat and simmer, partially covered, until meat is tender, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Skim away excess fat.
- Optional: For a finer result, transfer lamb to clean bowl. Push sauce through strainer into clean 6-quart pot. Skim away fat. Stir lamb cubes back into sauce and reheat.
Heat oil and butter in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in shallots, potatoes, carrots and turnips. Season with a little salt. Sauté vegetables until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer vegetables with slotted spoon (drain excess fat) to the lamb stew. Bring stew to a low boil, reduce heat and simmer partially covered until vegetables are tender, 15 minutes. If using, stir in fresh shell peas and simmer 4 minutes. If using frozen peas, stir in and bring stew to a simmer. Taste stew; season with salt and pepper.
To Serve: Stir in parsley and serve stew immediately with crusty baguette or over noodles.
Read More: The Global Chef: Stew in warming elegance