WHEN YOU plan a menu, always take temperatures into account: A winter party that pampers the soul as well as the palate with comforting stews is bound to be a success. And there are many aspects of serving stew that make it attractive for a party.
One is the old adage that stews are better when reheated: It's true, so the majority of the cooking can be done in advance. Then again, you need not apply for a second mortgage in order to feed a crowd. The cuts of meat that impart the most flavor to stews and take best to the slow simmering that enriches the sauce are typically those less expensive cuts from the well-muscled hindquarters. And yet another benefit is the limited culinary skills required to produce results: It's a few hours in the oven that render the dish delicious, not any fancy whisking or wizardry.
Rather than serving just one stew at a dinner, consider a buffet table with several options to demonstrate the variety that can be achieved when you make a stew with different meats, combinations of herbs and spices, vegetables, and, most importantly, the liquid in which the meat is braised.
While the stews should be decidedly different, almost all go well with a bowl of parsleyed potatoes to mash into the gravy or with buttered noodles to slurp up the sauce. For a crunchy contrast to the soft stew vegetables, you can't improve on a tossed green salad with vinaigrette dressing.
When you plan a stew menu, you'll find enough classics from European and American regional cuisines to form a contrast of entrees: a French bouillabaisse, a cioppino from the San Francisco wharf, a boeuf bourguignonne, a French coq au vin, an Italian osso buco or a veal Marengo.
The spicing of the dishes offers another opportunity for contrast. Curry powder, sherry and dried currants give a chicken stew a sweet and hot sparkle. The heat from jalapeno and ancho chili peppers enlivens a pork and hominy stew.
Don't be afraid to experiment and come up with variations on the standards. For years I had cooked the classic Belgian beef stew, carbonade flamande -- a mixture of onions and sliced beef braised in light lager -- in the traditional fashion. One day I decided I would try to correct what I always felt was a lack of character in the sauce by changing the beer from light to a hearty Guinness Stout. While the new stew is based on the Flemish concoction, the heartiness of the dish bears little resemblance.
BEEF BRAISED IN GUINNESS
4 pounds beef chuck or round, trimmed of fat and gristle and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup cooking oil
2 pounds onions, peeled and sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
2 cups beef stock or canned beef bouillon
3 bottles Guinness Stout beer
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Dry the meat well on paper towels. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over high heat and brown the beef well on all sides, being sure not to crowd it in the pan. Remove with a slotted spoon, and continue until all the beef is browned.
Lower the heat to medium, add the onions and garlic and saut,e, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Return the beef to the pan, add remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil.
Cover the pan and simmer the stew for 11/2 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Uncover the pan and reduce the sauce over high heat, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.
Beverage selection: Guinness Stout, the liquid in the stew, would be appropriate; a lighter beer also works well with the dish.