Anyone who can cut up a carrot and turn on the stove can make a stew from scratch. Stews are satisfying to eat, gratifying to cook and forgiving of mistakes. Substitute ingredients are welcome. Knife skills are optional. The only real pitfalls are over-salting and overheating.
Stews make a delicious, full-flavored and comforting dinner. They don't need extensive side dishes. For the time-pressed, stews can be cooked hours, days or even weeks in advance. Perfectly portioned containers can be frozen, then revived as fast food at the end of a long day. Stew recipes can be doubled or tripled -- prepared in any quantity you'd like. Even at the last minute, a stew can be stretched to accommodate extra guests by throwing some extra vegetables, rice or potatoes into the pot.
Perhaps the best part is that there's no magic formula. The process is simple: Cut everything up, brown the meat, soften the vegetables, combine with broth, spices and flavorings, cook for a few hours over low heat, then eat.
Here's a syllabus for your own "stew school" -- a step-by-step guide for meat-based stews. Follow the basics and make a stew your own by varying the seasonings, broth or vegetables.
* Cut everything up: Ideally, meat should be bite-size, meaning about a 3/4-inch cube. But that's a guideline, not an absolute. Dice the onion so it will fade into the background. If you are adding vegetables at the end, the pieces should about the same size as or slightly smaller than the meat.
* Brown the meat and deglaze the pan: Browning the meat first in a bit of vegetable oil gives the stew such a flavor head start that it's almost criminal to skip this step. Adding about a cup of whatever liquid is being used in the broth to deglaze the pan provides another flavor booster. The liquid, with browned bits scraped from the pan, is added to the stew just before the long cooking begins.
* Soften the vegetables: In the stewpot, cook the onions briefly and then add the other vegetables and cook for a few minutes more. This process allows them to sweeten and develop their flavors naturally (see "On Your Stew Shopping List," Page 2).
* Add spices and flour: Spices and flour dissolve in fat, so they should be added before the broth.
* Broth and everything else: The most important rule here is that what's added cannot be taken away, so go easy on anything spicy or salty. Once the browned meat and its juices, vegetables, deglazing liquid and salt and pepper to taste have been added, think about the rest, which could include tomato paste, mustard, vinegar, sweeteners such as maple syrup or brown sugar that act as flavor enhancers, dried herbs and liquids such as soy sauce, chili paste and so on.
Liquid should be added just to cover the meat and vegetables. If a starchy ingredient, such as rice, will be added later, add enough liquid to take that ingredient into account.
* Apply slow heat: Never let a stew boil. That makes the meat tough, turns the vegetables to mush and dries up the liquid. Instead, try to maintain slow, gentle cooking, adjusting the heat as necessary. Keep the cover off and maintain a low simmer, allowing the flavors to slowly meld.
* Adding extras: If you're adding grains or vegetables, pay attention to their cooking times. For potato chunks, toss them in the pot an hour before the stew is done. Barley needs about 45 minutes, and rice will be done in 20 minutes. (Rice, barley and potatoes are natural thickeners, and if you're using one of them, you can get away with less or no flour.) Green vegetables, such beans or peas, can be added in the last 10 minutes.
* When it's done: The cooking time will vary, but 21/2 to 3 hours from when the stew starts to simmer is a good guideline. No thermometer is necessary. Just do a taste test: You'll know the stew is ready when the meat is soft and tender and will cut easily with fork.