by Jules Silver
Making a savory tasting stew is the ultimate when it comes to comfort food. This is not a new idea but one that began with the advent of fire and some form of pottery, pot, or vessel to retain and cook the contents.
Every culture has created some version of a stew. Different types of stews were based on the seasons and the availability of domesticated meats, wild game or birds, poultry, fish and vegetables either raised or hunted. The same traditions are carried on today with many ingredients more readily available on a year round basis.
I'm sure that in the beginning it was a simple process of putting everything in a pot with liquid and seasonings and simmering them over an open fire until the contents had reached the desired doneness. Now the process has taken on a new level of sophistication, even the making of a rustic farmhouse stew has reached a new plateau.
The cost of making stew can be as simple as going to the garden and harvesting the ingredients, hunting for your own meat, raising it or going to the sea and catching it. With the level of sophistication and exotic stews being created today, some ingredients can become quite costly.
We could write a book on the history of making stew and the various stews from around the world. But for this article we'll breakdown the various stew groups and give you some timely tips on how to prepare and cook some of the various ingredients so that you can create your own signature dishes.
Regardless of the country of origin or the infusion of cultural influences over the years, five basic stew groups stand out. They include the meat based stews like beef, pork, lamb, and veal.
Poultry stews such as wild bird, plus a variety of chicken and domestically raised poultry are also popular. There are a variety of wild game stews. Seafood stews, vegetable stews and last but not least fruit stews.
Use a large Dutch oven or large heavy pot. Usually a 6 to 8 quart size is best. Heavy stainless steel or a lined cast iron pot.
Be sure to use a good quality stock. (Try our More Than Gourmet line of stocks) They'll save you lots of time unless you're willing to make your own.
Stews should be cooked in an oven not to exceed 250º. It's the slow simmering process that marries the proteins from the meat with the liquids, vegetables and seasonings into a hearty, intense flavor that makes it a comfort food.
Use the appropriate cuts of meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetables for stewing.
Cut the various ingredients to a uniform size for more even cooking.
Use a quality wine, not expensive but of good drinkable quality. Try young fruity wines either reds or white. $7 to $15 range like cabernets, Chianti, or Zinfandel. (Please do not use cooking wine)
You can freeze leftovers of the meat, game, and poultry stews being sure to remove any potatoes before freezing. They will turn mushy. Just boil new potatoes when you reheat the frozen stew and add them.
Never freeze seafood stews as they are more delicate and breakdown to quickly and easily.
Beef stews-Use a chuck roast or rib eye steak and cut into 1 ½-inch cubes. This is generally superior to buying precut stew meat.
Pork stews-Use pork shoulder cut into 1 ½-inch cubes.
Lamb stews-Use lamb shoulder or shoulder chops and cut into 1 ½-inch cubes.
Chicken and poultry stews-The preferred parts of the chicken are the thighs bone-in and skin-on for browning. If available older, mature hens or so called stewing hens can be used as they do better than young hens in the stewing process.
Fish stews-We generally recommend any firm, white-fleshed fish for stewing. Use red snapper, monkfish, sea bass, cod, grouper, or halibut, and the fresher the better. Usually cut into 1 to 1 ½ inch pieces.
Wild game stews and domestically raised game-Boneless venison shoulder, boar shoulder, and buffalo shoulder 1 ½-inch cubed, whole young rabbits cut into 6 to 8 pieces.
Vegetable stews-Always use the freshest vegetables possible with this exception, if the fresh version is not available consider using frozen corn, lima beans, canned tomatoes, and dried wild mushrooms.
Browning the seasoned meat in a Dutch oven or pot on top of the stove will help bring out a deeper, richer flavor to the stew. De glazing the pot with a portion of the wine or stock after the browning process (scrapping to loosen the bits and pieces remaining in the pot) will help add to the flavor of the stew.
Saute onions and then garlic in the pot, this adds to the caramelizing and melding of the flavors before adding the additional ingredients. Vegetables like carrots and other root vegetables or potatoes should not be added to the stew until the meat has cooked for at least one hour. Other vegetables depending on their tenderness, like peas, should not be added until the last 5 to 10 minutes.
Seafood stews rarely require that the fish or shellfish be added until the last several minutes of the cooking process. All the flavors in a seafood stew come from the stock, seasonings and other ingredients. Even firm fish added to early will over cook and fall apart and shellfish will become tough in the shell.