* Meat: Beef chuck has the perfect combination of intramuscular fat and flavor. For pork, veal or lamb, look for cuts marked "shoulder." Chicken thighs take to braising well. In all cases, be sure to trim off large, visible pieces of fat.
* Vegetables: The one almost essential ingredient in any stew is onion, which provides the flavor base. Root vegetables are by far the best to add to stews along with mushrooms and celery; they all benefit from long cooking. Avoid broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, because they will grow undesirably stronger in flavor as the stew sits in the refrigerator or freezer.
* Broths: Besides chicken, beef and vegetable broths, try adding apple cider, white and red wines, vegetable and fruit juices. Broths can be thinned or supplemented with water.
* Spices and herbs: Dried spices and herbs should be added to the vegetables before any additional liquid goes in the pot. If using fresh herbs, add them at the last minute.
* Thickeners: A basic method is to add flour to the pot before any liquid goes in. Starchy ingredients -- pastas, grains, rice and potatoes -- also will do the trick.
* For more flavor: Mustard, tomato products (pastes, sauces and juice), maple syrup, dried fruits, brown sugar, vinegars, spice pastes and Asian sauces are among the many things that can be added to give a stew character.
Be imaginative, but follow a simple maxim here: Less is more. Add flavorings judiciously and sparingly. Look for a balance, not a hodgepodge, of flavors.
-- Stephanie Witt Sedgwick