Meet my old friend, stew.
I don’t know about you but this cold weather has kept me inside unless it’s imperative for me to go out into the ‘feels like negative-degree weather. With over 50 days left until spring I’ve decided to dust off a few cookbooks I haven’t used in a while and first on my list of things to make is one of my favorites. Stew.
I don’t know why but making stew is something I love. Maybe that’s because it has staple ingredients or maybe it’s because the longer I leave it alone the better it tastes or it could just simply be because I get a glass of wine when I make this dish. This is still something I have yet to figure out but in the mean time let’s talk staples.
Stew meat. You want the lean stuff, the cut of meat that has less fat and more collagen. Your looking for something along the lines of a chuck roast or a bottom round roast.
Typically when you go to your grocer they have the meat already cut into pieces and labeled ‘stew meat’; this I find handy. If there is a sale on a whole roast or perhaps you’ve already got a pot roast in the fridge, then just simply cut your roast into one-inch cubes and you’re set.
Now having a lack of fat in your meat might cause some of you confusion but no fear, I shall explain. When you cook a stew you might have noticed that sometimes your meat might be chewy instead of tender, usually this occurs because you have not let the stew cook long enough. Eventually these lean cuts of meat will break down its collagen and become tender and fall apart with the simple touch of a fork. This is when your stew has reached its peak. If you’re hungry this can take a little patience. As I said before the longer you let your stew simmer the BETTER it will taste. Want to stir things up? Get the same cuts in lamb, venison or even goat, all of these make for a good stew.
Sear the meat. This is a very important step when making a stew. Pat your cubed meat dry with paper towel to get rid of any excess moisture and to ensure proper browning. I personally toss the meat in seasoned (salt and pepper) flour, this isn’t always a step in a stew recipe but I find it extremely essential for browning and it helps thicken your sauce later on. Lastly don’t overcrowd your meat. You want them to be friends not lovers.
Leave room between each piece and give them a good three to four minutes on each side. Sear in batches. You are looking for that golden brown outside.
Vegetables. With an endless amount of veggies and the freedom you get when making a dish such as stew, you can really use anything you would like. I prefer the basics, carrots, celery, potatoes, mushrooms, peas and pearl onions. Now don’t be bashful or afraid to use things such as sweet potatoes, yucca, cauliflower, cabbage or even squash. The list really is endless, so please feel free to insert favorite vegetable here.
Wine. If you’re cooking a hearty beef stew, do not forget the young dry red wine to bring out the flavors in your dish. When cooking with wine you typically want to use a dry wine, but one with not too much tannin (the bitterness that can make your lips pucker) or oak (the toasty vanilla taste that comes from the aging in an oak barrel) as these characteristics can overpower your dish.
When choosing a wine to cook with, try to go for something you would drink. Please DO NOT buy the “cooking wine” found in your grocery store. This is a sin. I’ve learned the hard way. I was young and stupid. Yes my father was disappointed and later on I knew why. You can’t drink that stuff so keep it out of your shopping cart! Typically you are looking for a merlot, pinot noir (my favorite), sangiovese or a light cabernet. If you have bad wine cooking with it will not improve anything about the wine or the dish. In turn you will be doomed and have no stew for dinner. Heat only heightens the undesirable qualities of bad wine.
If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it — something often said in my kitchen.
Last but not least let’s talk about herbs and spices. This is where things get amusing and inventive. You could really go crazy. And I don’t mean like looney crazy, I mean like creative genius crazy! Add an herb such as cilantro along with your yucca and go Columbian. Add paprika and give it a Hungarian twist. I take the traditional route and use thyme along with a touch of Worcestershire. Listen to your taste buds; it’s possible, I swear.
I’m going to post a stew recipe by Mark Bittman. If you don’t have it already you should pick up a copy of his cookbook titled How to Cook Everything. It’s genius. Handy, too.
Classic Beef Stew
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Time: 1 ½ to 2 hours, largely unattended
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil or olive oil
1 clove garlic, lightly crushed, plus 1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 to 2 ½ pounds beef chuck or round, trimmed of surface fat and cut into 1 – to 1 ½ – inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large or 3 medium onions, cut into eighths
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups stock chicken, beef, or vegetable, or water, or wine, or a combination
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
4 medium-to-large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup fresh or frozen (thawed) peas
Minced fresh parsley leaves for garnish
Heat a large casserole or deep skillet over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes; add the oil and the crushed garlic clove; cook, stirring, for 1 minute, then remove and discard the garlic. Add the meat chunks to the skillet a few at a time, turning to brown well on all sides and seasoning with salt and pepper.
When the meat is brown, remove it with a slotted spoon. Pour or spoon off most of the fat and turn the heat to medium. Add the onions. Cook, stirring, until they soften, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes. Add the stock or water or wine, bay leaf, thyme, and meat, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low and cover. Cook, undisturbed, for 30 minutes.
Uncover the pan; the mixture should be quite soupy (if it is not, add a little more liquid). Add the potatoes and carrots, turn the heat up for a minute or so to resume boiling, then lower the heat and cover again. Cook 30 to 60 minutes until the meat and vegetables are tender. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, and/or thyme if necessary.
Add the minced garlic and the peas; if you are pleased with the stew’s consistency, continue to cook, covered, over low heat. If it is soupy, remove the cover and raise the heat to high. In either case, cook about 5 minutes more, until the peas have heated through and the garlic flavors the stew. Remove the bay leaf, garnish, and serve.