Ever since eating salad while admitting it was stew weather, I haven’t been able to shake stew off. Stew has been following me, or more accurately I have been following stew, chasing it into every manner of manifestation in my kitchen and out onto the table, beef, pork, lamb, venison, chicken, simple, spiced, something in between. It’s been stew all of this last week.
Or, if not stew itself, a member of the stew family. That is, tagines, curries, chilis, and so on. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, all of those are really stew masquerading as something exotic. And, of course, to those who grew up eating these others as their comfort food, stew is the exotic one.
And so, because once you can make a stew you can make all of its spicier cousins, let us go over some basics of stew construction, plus variations on how to transform your warming pot of meat and vegetables into a tagine, curry, or chili.
Stew is basically slow cooked pieces of meat (or it can be beans or another protein source) with vegetables in liquid of some sort. It’s thicker – less soupy – than soup, and the pieces of meat are smaller than the one (or several) large pieces in a braise. The steps in making stew are approximately these:
Start by cutting a couple pounds of a tough cut of meat into 2-inch cubes (stew beef, lamb, or even pork tend to work well; you can also stew chicken thighs, but they’ll take a bit less time in the final cooking process) and sprinkle them with salt. If you wish you can also toss them in some flour, which will help thicken the stew, but which is by no means absolutely necessary. Follow this by browning all your meat bits in butter or oil in a large heavy pan. Do this in batches so as not to crowd the pieces of meat because if they’re crowded they’ll steam rather than browning. Once nice and brown on all sides, transfer the meat to a plate.
Add a little extra oil or butter if necessary and then add a chopped member, or a few, of the allium family, that is onion, leeks, or shallots, and probably some garlic as well. At this point, it also won’t hurt anything to add chopped fennel or celery, if you feel like it. Cook this over medium heat until softened and starting to caramelize. At this point you add your other flavorings – spices and herbs. For a simple stew you’ll probably just want some sprigs of thyme and/or rosemary and a bay leaf or two. For a tagine you’ll want to add paprika, cumin, and coriander, plus a cinnamon stick, a lot of garlic and a quartered lemon. For a curry you’ll want to add a lot of garlic and grated fresh ginger, plus curry powder and additional spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, and/or cardamom. For a chili, add a great deal of chili powder, some chopped spicy peppers, ground cumin and dried oregano, plus a spoonful of chopped unsweetened chocolate, if you feel like it.
Give the stew beginnings a stir, and let all the spices cook until they’re fragrant, which takes just a minute. Add back the browned pieces of meat, and at this point you’ll add around 4 cups of liquid total. If you’re using some wine, add that first and let it reduce for a few minutes before adding stock. Some stews use tomato paste, which you stir in with the spices, and then you add all stock or half stock and half beer. You could also use a combination of chopped, canned tomatoes and stock, which is common in tagines and chili, and if you’re making a curry, your last cup or so of liquid would do well to be coconut milk. Stir well to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom into the liquid, then cover the pot and let it simmer over low for about an hour. Or – and this is what I prefer, actually – stick it in the oven at 325F for an hour. (If you’re stewing chicken thighs, the total cooking time should be around 45 minutes, so most any hardy vegetables at the same time as you add back the browned meat.)
After an hour, add in a couple of cups of cubed root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas all work wonderfully) or cubed winter squash. Continue to cook for another 30 minutes. During this cooking period, you can leave the cover off or askew if you wish for a thicker stew. Keep it on for a brothier stew. Once the root vegetables are tender, stir in any quick cooking vegetables like peas or chopped greens, and cook for another 5-10 minutes, until whatever vegetables those are are tender themselves. Adjust the salt to your liking, and serve your soup, or tagine, or curry, or chili, with the appropriate condiments.
So what does this look like in practice (ie. recipe format)? Well, here is a recipe for a simple stew, followed by the variations to make it into a tagine, a curry, or a chili.
Winter Stew (serves 4-6)
- 2 lbs. lamb shoulder, or beef chuck cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 Tbs. flour (optional)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3 Tbs. butter
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 5 thyme sprigs
- 2 bay leaves
- a handful of flat leaf parsley stalks
- 1 cup red wine
- 4 cups good stock (chicken, beef, or lamb)
- about 1 cup diced carrot
- 2 cups cubed potatoes
- 1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
- salt and pepper to taste
- In a large heavy bottomed pot, like a Dutch oven, heat 2 Tbs. of the butter until it’s foaming. While you wait for it to foam, toss the cubed meat with the 1 tsp. of salt plus the flour if you’re using it.
- Brown the meat on all sides, cooking it in batches over medium high heat, then transfer each batch of browned meat to a plate.
- Add the remaining butter to the pot, turn the heat down to medium and stir in the onion and the celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Tuck the thyme, bay leaves, and parsley sprigs into the pot, and add back the pieces of meat.
- Pour in the wine and cook until it has mostly evaporated, a couple of minutes. Then, add the stock, bring to a boil, cover the pot, and turn the heat down to low. OR transfer the whole pot to a 325F oven (which I think makes everything cook more nicely and evenly). Allow it to cook for an hour. After an hour, add the carrot and potatoes. Stir, and then cook uncovered for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the peas and cook for 5 minutes more. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve warm, and if you wish top with a dollop of sour cream and prepared horseradish or sprinkle with fresh parsley.
Tagine Variation: Instead of celery, add 3-4 minced garlic cloves to the pot along with the onion. Do not use the thyme, bay, or parsley, instead stir in 1 Tbs. each paprika, cumin, coriander, plus a cinnamon stick. Add a whole quartered lemon or a couple of Tbs. of chopped preserved lemon as well. Replace the wine and stock with 2 14-oz. cans of chopped tomatoes and 1 cup of stock. After simmering an hour either add 2 cups of cubed, peeled butternut squash or nothing at all. In the last 10 minutes, stir in a handful of golden raisins and a handful of green olives. Serve over couscous or cauliflower, and top with chopped parsley.
Curry Variation: Instead of celery, add 3-4 minced garlic cloves and a Tbs. of minced fresh ginger along with the onion. For spice, omit the thyme, bay leaves, and parsley, and instead stir in 1 1/2 Tbs. of curry powder, a tsp. each of cumin and cardamom, plus a pinch of nutmeg and cayenne. Instead of wine and stock, use 1, 14-oz can of chopped tomatoes, 2 cups of stock, and 1, 14-oz can coconut milk. Use potatoes and peas, if you wish, or try parsnips, which I find particularly delicious in curry, and stir in a 1/4 cup chutney or a handful of shredded coconut in the last 10 minutes of cooking. Serve with rice or naan.
Chili Variation: For chili, use either cubed beef or pork (cubed pork shoulder or butt works). Start the same way, adding a minced clove of garlic and 1-2 minced jalapenos with the onion instead of celery. Then, for spices use about 3 Tbs. of chili powder, a tsp. each of ground cumin and dried oregano, one bay leaf, and a Tbs. of cocoa powder or chopped unsweetened chocolate. For the liquid, use 2, 14-oz cans of chopped tomatoes and 2 cups of stock (or replace one of those cups with a cup of dark beer). After an hour of cooking, feel free to add a can or two of beans (or your own cooked beans). When ready, serve topped with chopped cilantro, squeezes of lime, and pickled onions, sour cream, or cheese if you would like.