Take several pounds of tough meat, some chopped vegetables and a dash of seasoning, cook it in simmering liquid and what do you have? Almost every person in the world for the last 5,000 years would answer, "My mother's stew."
Stew is a universal constant, like death and taxes. And if you could learn only one cooking technique on which to survive, it should be stewing. With that single technique, you could make use of almost any kind of animal, vegetable and fruit, while enjoying a completely different meal every day of your life.
Stewing and braising--a variation on stewing--are important techniques for the new cook to learn. This is especially true when food costs must be kept low. These two methods tenderize tough, less-expensive pieces of meat and use the scraps left when the butcher cuts large roasts and steaks.
Stewing means to simmer small pieces of meat, vegetable or fruit in a large amount of liquid until tender. In the case of meat, it is often--but not always--browned or saute'ed in a little fat before the liquid is added.
Braising is almost the same as stewing except that the food is usually left in larger pieces and a smaller amount of liquid is used. When braising, the pan must be covered with a tight lid to keep the liquid from evaporating and to keep the upper portion of the meat moist. Basting with the cooking liquid helps to flavor the food being cooked.
Because stewing is such an ancient technique used in virtually all cuisines, many different kinds of stew pots and equipment have been devised. Possibly the oldest is the calabash, a hollowed gourd that was placed in the ashes of a fire or hung above the fire for very long, slow cooking. And for thousands of years, clay pots have been a favorite in countries all over the globe. Colonial cooks hung a three-legged pot in the fireplace to bubble away all day. At Mount Vernon you can still see the pulley system used to adjust the heat by lowering or raising the pots.
But the most popular and enduring stew pot is the dutch oven, which is as useful today as it was 400 years ago. Although bright-colored enamels and painted flowers decorate modern versions, the basic shape and function remains the same. The heavy cast iron ensures even cooking, and the heavy lid keeps juices in. The French have reinvented the dutch oven and called it the doufeu. The main difference is the indentation in the lid that can be filled with ice or cold water to increase the condensation of steam. This source of steam constantly bathes the meat in liquid, automatically basting it.
Actually, it is possible to stew in any fairly deep pot or saucepan as long as it is large with a heavy bottom. And the French sauteuse, with its straight sides and tight lid, is perfect for braising.
Recent technology has also brought us the slow-cooker--automated stew pots These appliances require some slight adjustments in the amount of liquid used because there is so little evaporation. It seems to me that these most resemble fireplace cooking because the cooking is slow and requires so little effort on the part of the cook. Be sure to follow the instructions that come with the machine and to adjust the amount of liquid proportionally when using your own recipes.
Generally, the meats used for stewing and braising are the less-tender cuts. There are two reasons for this: First, the long stewing process softens the gristle and tendon, which enrich the liquid and make the meat seem juicy and moist. Second, the less-tender cuts have more flavor. If one were extravagant enough to stew tenderloin, he would end up with a dry flavorless meat in a less-than-rich gravy. Cuts such as shank, chuck, ribs and breast of lamb or veal are good for stewing. Chicken and duck may also be stewed or braised. If tender meat is stewed, the cooking time should be very short. Stewing works wonders with game, which is often tough but very flavorful.
Vegetables flavor stew, adding color and texture as well. Onions, leeks, carrots, celery and garlic are the most typical additions. But stewing is international and one may also find papaya, chili peppers, chayotes, coconut, tomatoes, turnips, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, corn and many other fruits and vegetables in a stew pot. Some vegetables are added only in the last hour of cooking so that they don't disintegrate.
To increase the flavor of the vegetables, saute' them in a little butter and olive oil first. This carmelizes the natural juices. Mushrooms should always be saute'ed before they are added to a stew, and they are added at the end of cooking or just before serving.
The liquids used in stewing vary so any list would be incomplete. Almost any palatable liquid imaginable has been used: water, stocks and broths, wine, brandy, soy sauce, pomegranate juice, tomato juice, cider, milk, cream, whey, oyster liquor and beer. Occasionally all of the liquid comes from cooked vegetables, usually tomatoes. Whatever liquid is used, it is usually brought to a boil before being added to the meat and vegetables. This helps keep juices in the meat and speeds the cooking process.
Seasonings differ with the world's cuisines. The curries of India, the sambals of Indonesia, the goulash of Hungary and the red stewed dishes of China are all highly seasoned stews. Yet most European- and American-style stews require a light hand with the herbs and spices. The flavor of the meat should be highlighted, with vegetables and seasonings adding compatible and harmonious undertones.
Most stews and braises begin with browning the meat and sauteing the vegetables. To brown the meat properly, pat it dry with a paper towel or dredge it in flour. The pan is heated until a drop of water dances on it, then 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of oil are added. Add only enough meat cubes to the pan to cover the bottom in a single layer with lots of space between pieces. If you are braising a fatty piece of meat, such as duck, be sure to brown well enough to release most of the fat from the skin. In all cases, remove the meat from the dutch oven before saute'ing the vegetables. Once the vegetables have browned, return the meat to the pot.
White stews, such as blanquette de veau, require no browning whatsoever. Instead, the veal is dropped into boiling water or stock and then simmered gently. This technique--used only for very tender, light-colored meat--is often finished with cream and egg yolks, which thicken the sauce.
In many stews and braises, the flour used to dredge the meat is usually sufficient to thicken the sauce. If the sauce does not thicken, make a beurre manie (using equal parts of butter and flour blended together) and stir it into the liquid until a slight thickening occurs. Often, a day's rest in the refrigerator will likewise cause the sauce to thicken.
Most stewed dishes will hold in the refrigerator for nearly a week. In fact, the flavor improves and mellows after one or two days. During that time the fat, which rises to the surface, congeals and may be lifted off.
Here are some rules for stewing and braising:
* Choose the right kind of meat for stewing, usually a tough but flavorful piece with gristle and a little fat running through. Old laying hens are the ones to use in the stew pot.
* Cut fruits and vegetables into thick pieces. Those that might disintegrate are added during the last 45 minutes of cooking. Most vegetables are sauteed first to improve color and flavor.
* Sear the meat and discard excess fat.
* When stewing, cover meat and vegetables with liquid and simmer gently. When braising, add rich stock to a 1-inch depth. Do not let the liquid boil.
* The cooking time depends on the size and toughness of the meat. A veal or chicken stew requires only 45 minutes of simmering; a beef stew might take two to three hours.
* Stir the stew gently and not too often, as this tends to break up the vegetables. Braised dishes and pot roasts should be checked occasionally and basted. More liquid should be added as necessary.
* Check for doneness by pinching a piece of meat. When the springiness is gone, the meat is tender. Taste testing works well, too.
* Cool and chill your stew overnight. Remove congealed fat. After reheating, taste for seasoning and add salt as necessary. Thicken with a butter and flour mixture if the sauce is too thin (a tablespoon of each to one cup of unthickened liquid is the rule of thumb). BRUNSWICK STEW (8 servings) 4 ounces of bacon, cut in 1/2-inch dice 6 pounds of chicken (or game if you have it), cut in 2-inch pieces. Flour for dredging 2 cups onion, cut in large dice 2 cloves garlic, mashed Chicken stock to cover (about 1 quart) Salt, pepper and thyme to taste 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 8 ounces of fresh or frozen lima beans 8 ounces of fresh or frozen corn 8 ounces of fresh or frozen okra About 1 cup of mashed potatoes
Saute the bacon cubes in a large heavy pan. Remove the crisp pieces and set aside. Dredge the cut-up chicken in flour and brown well in the bacon fat. Set aside. Add the diced onion and mashed garlic to the pan and cook until translucent. Add the chicken stock to the onions and bring to a boil. Place the bacon and chicken in a stew pot and pour the chicken stock over the meat, taking care that all the onions are scraped into the stew pot. Add the salt, pepper and thyme (I use 1/2 teaspooon of each). Cover with a tight lid and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the tomatoes, lima beans, corn and okra and simmer for another 25 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Use as much mashed potato as necessary to thicken the sauce. COQ AU VIN (Chicken braised in red wine) (4 to 6 servings) 4-pound roasting hen Flour for dredging Butter and oil for browning 1 clove garlic, mashed 1 large carrot, cut in 1/2-inch-thick slices 1 cup of very small onions, peeled 4 shallots, minced 1 tablespoon chervil 1 tablespoon parsley 1 tablespoon chives 1 bay leaf Pinch of thyme Salt and pepper 2 tablespoons brandy 2 cups dry red wine 8 ounces of small mushroom caps 2 tablespoons butter (optional)
Cut the chicken into serving-size pieces (a roasting hen offers a little more flavor and meatier pieces). Dredge the pieces in flour and brown well in a mixture of half butter and half oil. Place in the stew pot with the garlic. Reheat the pan used to brown the chicken and saute' the carrot and baby onions. When they have just begun to brown, add the shallots. Add to the stew pot with all of the herbs, salt and peppe. Add the brandy to the still hot saute pan to deglaze it, scraping up any brown bits that remain. Add the wine to brandy and bring to a boil. Pour over the chicken. Cover with a tight lid. Place over moderate heat and simmer for about 1 hour. Every 15 minutes, baste the chicken by spooning the liquid from the bottom of the pan over the meat. Add more liquid if it reduces too much. Just before serving, saute' the mushroom caps in the butter. Add them to the chicken. Taste the sauce. If it's too acid, try whisking in 2 tablespoons of soft butter.