Stew On This

No one argues with me when I say soups are great for warming your bones on a cold day. Nor will most folks dispute the fact that making a soup is cost efficient because it contains a lot of liquid and you can use up the bits of this and that in your fridge. But not everyone agrees that soup is hearty enough when you’re really hungry. Enter stew.

I wish we had a more appetizing word for stew in America like tangine or ragout whose definitions refer to well-seasoned and slow-cooked combinations of meat and vegetables. But if you put aside its less than delicious sounding name, a good stew is scrumptious, wholesome, versatile, cost-efficient, and an integral part of my personal chef menus during the cold weather months. And don’t forget one of their best virtues: as one-pot meals, they often require less clean-up.

Stews can be meat, fish, bean or vegetable based. They can be as familiar and comforting as Beef with Red Wine and Mushrooms or they can have an international flair like Indian Lentil with Chicken and Lemon or South American Fish Stew with Tomatoes, Peppers, and Lime. They can also be adapted from almost any soup recipe such as Minestrone or Potato Leek by altering the amount of liquid.

A stew can be a completely balanced meal on its own, like Portuguese Sausage, Kale, and Potato, but sometimes I compensate by serving it with a well-paired carbohydrate. Hot and Sour Tofu with Shiitakes and Bok Choi is perfect over white rice, Minestrone with Chickpeas and Chard is ideal over polenta, and Beef with Wine and Mushrooms calls out for garlic bread. And unlike many leftovers that dry out after sitting in the fridge, stews get even better, their flavors marrying with time. Any extra can be eaten for lunch the next day or two.

The key to any good stew is the broth or stock. Some stews create their own broth as they cook while others benefit from using pre-made broth. You can buy it in cans or aseptic boxes but I usually make my own. Store-bought broth varies in sodium content so I always reduce the amount of salt in my recipes. Chicken, turkey, beef, vegetable, and mushroom broth are generally available in supermarkets, and I go to our specialty fish store for frozen fish broth.

Homemade broth is even better and not hard to make if you plan ahead. I clean and roughly chopped onions, carrots, and celery for the basis of any broth. Then I put these in a stock pot, with either chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, pork, or fish bones (with skin and meat still clinging to them), shrimp shells, fresh or dried herbs, bay leaves, leeks, garlic, ginger and/or peppercorns. I cover everything with water and simmer for at least 2 hours. The more the liquid reduces, the more flavorful the broth. Once the broth is strained, it’s ready to use.

I add other liquids and flavors to the broth once it’s combined with the stew mainstays (protein, veggies and/or starches) such as dried herbs, salt, pepper, tamari, wine, sherry, vinegar, coconut milk, canned tomatoes, salsa, Worcestershire sauce, nutritional yeast, and molasses, honey or maple syrup. I add some ingredients at the end so they don’t over cook or curdle such as fresh herbs, cow or soy milk, sour cream, yogurt, grated cheese, and lemon, lime, or orange juice.

When it comes to the “main” ingredients in stew, some require a lot of cooking and some require very little, so I might add ingredients at different intervals. Lamb and beef tend to benefit from long slow simmers, while chicken (off the bone) and fish get tough if cooked too long. I soak and pre-cook dried beans but lentils and split peas can be cooked along with veggies. Carrots, parsnips, onions, and celery can hold up under a long simmer, especially if they’re cut a bit larger, but potatoes, turnips, sweet potatoes, and most green veggies need to be added closer to the end of the cooking time. If I’m using vegetarian proteins like tofu, tempeh, and seiten, I might pan-fried them before adding them to the stew.

Here’s a recipe for a wonderful, simple stew. Amounts can vary quite a bit on all the ingredients.

Irish Lamb Stew (serves 6-8)

  • 2# lamb stew meat off the bone (or 4# on the bone)
  • 3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
  • ¼ cup wheat or rice flour
  • 2 large onions, cut into large dice
  • 4 large carrots, cut into medium slices on the diagonal
  • 4 stalks of celery, cut into medium slices on the diagonal
  • 4 large Yukon gold potatoes, cut into thick quarter moon slices
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons salt (more to taste)

Preheat oven to 325. Toss the lamb with the flour. Melt the butter or oil over medium heat in a large cast iron pot or Dutch oven. Add the floured lamb and brown on all sides. Add all the other ingredients except the potatoes to the pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and place covered pot in the oven. Cook for 1 ½ hours. Remove from oven and add the potatoes. Return to the oven for another 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread if desired.

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