Often when I discuss cooking I try to emphasize how simple it is and that it may sometimes seem overly complicated when in fact it is not. Of course there are certain culinary techniques to follow—rules, if you like—but for the most part good wholesome cooking is pretty easy. And one of the simplest ways to cook—especially heartier foods during the cold months—is a stew. This can be as simple as putting diced food in a pot and simmering it, or as complicated as Julia Child's three-page recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon (which is a delicious classic and also not as difficult as the recipe may seem at first). What it boils down to (yes, I am aware of the pun) is diced pieces of food in just enough liquid to cover it and simmered until tender and flavorful. The website FoodReference.com, states this even more directly: Basically any combination of two or more foods simmered in a liquid is a stew.
Technically, stewing is categorized as a moist heat cooking method, and the long exposure to simmering liquid breaks down tough fibers and connective tissues in any foods. And because of the high ratio of ingredients-to-liquid, the flavor of the ingredients dissipate into and merges with the liquid, creating a filling and full-flavored meal.
Stews are some of the oldest recipes known to humans. Once we figured out how to cook things in a vessel—rather than directly over a live fire—meals became more palatable, flavorful, and controllable. Even the toughest cuts of meat become tender if cooked in liquid for a period of time. Anyone who has used a crock-pot knows this (my sisters are masters of the crock-pot), and our ancestors figured this out early on...when you simmer foods together not only does everything become tender and flavorful but even the ensuing broth tastes delicious and is full of nutrients. And it's as easy as putting stuff in a pot over a fire.
The word, stew, is as archaic as the recipes themselves and has many meanings, and I find it's etymology somewhat fascinating. While as a verb it can mean everything from a state of worry to excitement, as a noun it comes from the Middle English word stewe, referring to a steam bath or heated room; at one time it also meant brothel. It—the word stew or stewe—is also said to be derived from the old Latin-French word, estuve, also meaning steam bath. This is where we get the modern English word stove (French, étuve). But even more interesting, I think, is that this is also the root of the word étouffee, that delicious Southern Louisiana crustacean recipe (but French as it sounds it is really an American recipe). Literally translated it means to smother or stifle, but in culinary terms it translates as a delicious seafood stew.
I've mentioned a few times how easy it is to cook and that stewing is one of the easiest ways to cook, so then, how do you do it? Here's a few rather generic steps on making almost any meat-based stew. Firstly, caramelize the meat in hot fat; more simply said, brown the meat in oil or butter. What this does is add flavor and color to the meat and its broth or gravy. Remove the meat from the pan and add any vegetables you like; sturdy vegetables work best here: carrots, celery, turnips, but also onions and garlic. After these begin to cook add any herbs or spices you like. And if you want the finished broth thickened, stir in a bit of flour and cook that as well. Add the meat back to the pan and stir in just enough liquid to cover it. Cover the pan (creating it's steam bath), bring it to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. Cook the stew until you like how it tastes and feels. If the meat is a lesser or inexpensive cut—which are truly the best cuts of meat for stews as they yield the most flavor—it may take an hour or so for it to become tender.
Stewing, of course, is not limited to meat-based recipes; it is equally suited for vegetable and vegan recipes as well. One of my favorite stews, in fact, is curried vegetables. I make a large batch of this a few times of year and freeze it in increments. One of the main differences in a vegetable stew—besides its lack of meat—is cooking time. Whereas a meat based stew requires long periods to soften the meat, this can be done in 20 minutes with vegetables.
Stews are so easy to make that—in this cook's opinion—it would be more difficult to make one that did not taste good than to make a truly delicious one. So do yourself a favor and give your food a good long steam bath.
My Favorite Vegetable Stew
This is more of a guide than a specific recipe because you really can use whatever vegetables and flavorings you like. And while this is a vegetable stew I often add chicken broth because I like it's flavor, but it can easily be made with vegetable broth. Also add more or less curry as you like; or none at all for that matter. Anyhow, this is how I typically make this recipe or a variation of it.
Peel and dice whatever vegetables you like; I'll often use some or all of the following: Onion, celery, carrots, rutabaga and cabbage. I also add leafy vegetables such as kale or spinach, but those I just cut into large pieces and add to the stew last. Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a heavy pot. When the oil is hot add the onions, carrots, and garlic. When they begin to brown add other hard vegetables. Lower the heat to medium and put a lid on the pot, allowing the vegetables to sweat; stir it a couple of times. Remove the lid and add a tablespoon or two of curry or any other combination of spices. Cook the spices for a couple minutes, then add any soft or leafy vegetables. Cook these for another minute then stir in enough broth just to cover the vegetables. Season it with kosher or sea salt and bring it to a boil then lower it to a simmer. Cook the vegetables until they are as tender as you like them and stir in a few tablespoons of lemon just before removing from the heat.
Simple Beef, Lamb, or Pork Stew
This is another simple recipe that is more of a guide or suggestion. Though not included in the ingredients you can season this in any number of ways, including curry, chili powder, fresh herbs, etc. As a general rule, use red wine in the recipe with lamb or beef and white with pork; or it can be excluded from the recipe entirely.
2 pounds stew meat
1/4 cup flour
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 cups broth
1 cup wine
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 ribs celery, diced
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
Dust the meat with flour. Heat the oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the meat and brown it, then add the onion and garlic and saute another minute (if you are adding spices this is where you do so). Stir in the broth, wine, salt, and pepper, scraping anything from the bottom of the pot that may have stuck. Bring the pot to a boil then lower it to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook the meat slowly for about 1 hour, stirring it from time-to-time to avoid sticking; if too much liquid evaporates add a bit more broth or wine. Add the carrots, celery, and potato. Simmer for about 30 minutes longer, or until the meat and vegetables are very tender.
(Étouffée des Crevettes)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons flour
1 medium onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 cups fish or chicken broth
1 cup crushed tomatoes (canned)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 bunch green onions, sliced thin
Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet over high heat until very hot. Carefully add the flour and stir it with a wooden spoon until it turns golden brown. Add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic; lower the heat to medium and cook the vegetables for a minute. Stir in the paprika, salt, basil, cayenne, thyme, and black pepper; cook an another minutes. Carefully stir in the broth, tomatoes, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer. Stir the sauce and simmer it for a few minutes. Add the shrimp and green onion, simmer the for a couple minutes or until the shrimp are cooked. Serve over steamed rice.
Autumn Chicken and Pumpkin Stew
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds chicken breast, diced
4 tablespoons flour
1 small onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 jalapeno peppers, minced
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon minced ginger
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch saffron threads
1 pound pumpkin, peeled and diced
3 cups chicken broth
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup raisins
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Dust the chicken with the flour and place it in the hot pan. Cook the chicken over high heat until it begins to color, then add the onions, carrots, and jalapeno; sauté another minute or two. Stir in the sugar, pepper, ginger, salt, cinnamon, saffron, and pumpkin; sauté 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and lemon juice, simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly. Stir in the raisins and serve over cous cous or rice pilaf.