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Winter Stew Recipe: Create Your Own

With one easy method and your choice of ingredients, you can have this cold-weather favorite any way you like.

by Molly Stevens

from Fine Cooking
Issue 121

The appeal of stews is obvious: they're easy and inexpensive to make, they make a big batch and leftovers taste even better. Plus, using one basic method, you can swap the meat, the vegetables, and the flavorings to create infinite variations. One week, your stew might be classically French: beef, red wine, onions, and mushrooms; the next, it can take on the flavors of Mexico, featuring slow-braised pork and chiles. Or maybe something along the lines of a Moroccan lamb tagine with tomato, spices, and preserved lemons.

Indeed, in teaching countless culinary students how to make stew over the years, I always say that it’s one of those dishes best made without a recipe. Once you understand the basic technique, you can improvise based on what flavors you’re after or what ingredients are available. Read on to learn how.

Winter stew, your way
Serves 5 to 6

Prep the meat

Though pre-cut stew meat is sold at the supermarket, I prefer to buy a larger cut of meat and cut it myself. This way, you can cut it into chunks large enough to make a proper stew, one that requires a knife and fork to eat.

Cut 3 lb. boneless meat of your choice (see options below) into 1-1/2- to 2-inch pieces. Spread the pieces out on paper towels to dry for 10 to 20 minutes before browning. (You can use this time to prepare the aromatics; see opposite page.) If the meat is very wet, pat it dry.

Choose a meat

  • beef chunks
    Beef (shoulder roast, chuck roast, or top blade)
  • pork
    Pork (shoulder)
  • lamb
    Lamb (shoulder or leg)
  • veal
    Veal (shoulder or leg)
Brown the meat

Browning improves the appearance and deepens the flavor of a stew. A pot with a light-color interior, such as enamel or stainless steel, makes it easy to monitor the color of the drippings on the bottom so you can adjust the heat as needed to keep them from burning. You can brown the meat in oil, but for more savory flavor, I often include bacon in my stews and use the fat from cooking it to brown the meat.

Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 325*F.

In a 6-quart Dutch oven or other heavy-duty pot, cook 2 oz. thick-cut bacon or pancetta, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, in 1 Tbs. of grapeseed or vegetable oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned but not crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and set aside. Do not wipe out the pan.

Or if you'd rather not use bacon or pancetta, heat 3 Tbs. oil in the Dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat until it's shimmering hot.

Season about one-third of the meat with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and arrange it in a single layer in the pot (there should be at least 1/2 inch of space between the pieces). Brown well on at least 4 sides, adjusting the heat as necessary; each batch should take about 10 minutes to brown. Transfer the meat to a large bowl or rimmed baking sheet as it browns and repeat with the rest of the meat, seasoning with salt and pepper before browning. Once all of the meat is browned, remove the pot from the heat to let it cool for a few minutes.

Cook the aromatics

A mix of chopped vegetables adds a base layer of aromatic flavor. From there, you can take the stew in whatever direction you like with flavor accents, adding garlic, rosemary, and tomato paste for an Italian take, for example, or minced fresh ginger and lemongrass to create a Thai-inspired stew.

Pour off all but 2 Tbs. of the fat from the pot. (If there is not enough, add oil to equal 2 Tbs.) Return the pot to medium heat, then add 1 coarsely chopped onion, 2 coarsely chopped celery stalks, and 1 coarsely chopped carrot. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spatula, until the vegetables begin to soften, 5 to 6 minutes.

Stir in your flavor accents (see options below) and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.

If using bacon or pancetta, return it to the pot.

Choose 2 to 5 flavor accents

  • garlic
    Garlic: 1 to 4 medium cloves, minced
  • jalapeno
    Jalapeno or serrano chiles: 1 to 2, minced, seeds included
  • tomato paste
    Tomato paste: 1 Tbs.
  • dried bay leaves
    Dried bay leaves: 1 or 2
  • orange zest
    Orange or lemon zest: 1 or 2 strips about 1 inch wide
  • chipotles in adobo
    Minced chipotles in adobo: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • ginger
    Minced ginger: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • lemongrass
    Minced lemongrass: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • dried red chiles
    Dried chiles: 1 or 2 small
  • cinnamon
    Cinnamon: 1 3-inch stick
  • oregano
    Minced fresh oregano: 1 Tbs.
  • marjoram
    Minced fresh marjoram: 1 Tbs.
  • rosemary
    Minced fresh rosemary: 1 Tbs.
  • sage
    Minced fresh sage: 1 Tbs.
  • fresh thyme
    Minced fresh thyme: 1 Tbs.
  • red pepper flakes
    Crushed red pepper flakes: 1/8 to 1/4 tsp.
  • cayenne
    Cayenne: 1/8 to 1/4 tsp.
  • mustard
    Dry mustard: 1/8 to 1/4 tsp.
  • ground cumin
    Ground cumin: 1 tsp.
  • paprika
    Paprika: 1 tsp.
  • coriander
    Ground coriander: 1 tsp.
  • fennel seeds
    Fennel seeds: 1 tsp.
  • caraway seeds
    Caraway seeds: 1 tsp.
  • turmeric
    Turmeric: 1 tsp.
  • dried mushrooms
    Dried mushrooms: 2 oz., soaked in 2-1/2 cups warm water until soft, then chopped, soaking liquid reserved
Deglaze the pot

Deglazing dissolves the flavorful browned bits on the bottom of the pot. I usually use wine or beer, most of which gets cooked off, because alcohol carries flavors well. However, water will work, too.

Add 1 cup of the deglazing liquid (options below), stirring with the wooden spatula to dissolve any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Raise the heat to medium high and boil to reduce by about half, 5 to 8  minutes.

Choose a deglazing liquid

  • red wine
    Dry red wine
  • vermouth
    Sweet or dry vermouth
  • beer
    Beer (any kind)
  • hard cider
    Hard cider
  • white wine
    Dry white wine
  • water
Begin stewing the meat

I like to start the meat before adding the vegetables to keep the vegetables from overcooking. For the stewing liquid, I tend to use beef broth for beef and lamb and chicken broth for pork and veal, but I include some water, too, because using all broth can overpower other flavors.  Cooking the stew in the oven heats it evenly, and placing a piece of parchment over the stew before securing the lid reduces moisture loss.

Add 2-1/2 cups of stewing liquid (see options below) and, unless you plan to add canned tomatoes in the next step, also add 1-1/2 cups water (even if you used water for your deglazing liquid). Bring to a boil.

Return the meat to the pot along with any accumulated juice. Lower the heat to maintain a simmer.

Crumple a 12x16-inch piece of parchment, then flatten it out. (Crumpling makes for easy handling.) Place the parchment directly on the surface of the stew, allowing the ends to come up the sides of the pot.

Cover and cook in the oven until it’s time to add the vegetables.

Choose a stewing liquid

  • chicken broth
    Chicken broth (homemade or lower-salt store-bought)
  • beef broth
    Beef broth (homemade or lower-salt store-bought)
  • mushroom soaking liquid
    Mushroom soaking liquid (if you chose dried mushrooms as one of your flavor accents)
Add the vegetables

I add the vegetables (and dried fruits) in stages according to their cooking times so that when the meat is done, the vegetables are tender but not overcooked.  You don’t have to use an equal amount of each vegetable, but they should total 4 to 6 cups.

For pork and veal, add slower-cooking choices (see options below) after 30 minutes of stewing and quicker-cooking choices (see options below) after 1 hour of stewing.

For beef and lamb, add slower-cooking choices after 1 hour of stewing and quicker-cooking choices after 1-1/2 hours of stewing.

Cover with the parchment and lid and cook until the meat is fork-tender. Times will vary; expect shoulder cuts to take longer than leg cuts.

Approximate total stewing times are: Beef, 2 to 3 hours; Lamb, 2-1/4 to 2-3/4 hours; Pork or Veal, 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

Choose vegetables and fruits (at least two, up to 4)

Slower-cooking choices

  • dried figs
    Chopped dried figs: 1 cup
  • apricots
    Chopped dried apricots: 1 cup
  • prunes
    Chopped dried prunes: 1 cup
  • parsnips
    Parsnips, halved lengthwise, cored, and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • fennel bulb
    Fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • onions
    Onions, cut into 3/4-inch wedges (or whole peeled pearl onions)
  • potatoes
    Red or white potatoes, halved if small, or peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • leeks
    Leeks, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • celery root
    Celery root, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • rutabagga
    Rutabaga, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • carrots
    Carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • shallots
    Shallots, left whole if small, halved or quartered if large

1 image section: quicker-cooking choices

  • butternut squash
    Winter squash, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • turnips
    Turnips, cut into 1-inch pieces (up to 2 cups)
  • canned tomatoes
    Canned tomatoes, 1 28-oz can, drained and chopped (discard juice)
  • mushrooms
    White or cremini mushrooms, trimmed and halved if large
  • bell peppers
    Sweet or medium-hot peppers, raw or roasted and peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
Add the beans, if you like

Canned beans are a great addition to stews, but they're prone to falling apart, so I add them at the very end of the cooking time.

Stir one 15- to 19-oz. can of drained and rinsed beans, if using, (see options below) into the pot and return to the oven for 5 minutes.

Choose one type of beans (optional)

  • black beans
    Black beans
  • cannellini beans
  • chickpeas
  • kidney beans
    Kidney beans
  • pinto beans
    Pinto beans
Finish the stew

These finishing ingredients brighten the flavor of the stew, and should be added only when the meat is fully tender.

Stir in the finishes (see options below). If you like, degrease the stew by laying a clean paper towel over the surface of the stew and gently pushing it into all the bumps and dips, then quickly peeling it off. Repeat as necessary with more paper towels. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve or let cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate for up to 2 days. (If you are making the stew ahead, you can skip the degreasing step and lift the solidified fat off the top of the stew with a spoon once it is chilled.)

Choose up to four finishes

  • italian parsley
    Chopped fresh parsley: 1/4 cup
  • cilantro
    Chopped fresh cilantro: 1/4 cup
  • chives
    Chopped fresh chives: 1/4 cup
  • basil
    Chopped fresh basil: 1/4 cup
  • horseradish
    Drained prepared horseradish: 2 Tbs.
  • mustard
    Dijon or coarse-grained mustard: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • sherry vinegar
    Sherry vinegar: 2 Tbs.
  • balsamic vinegar
    Balsamic vinegar: 2 Tbs.
  • red wine vinegar
    Red wine vinegar: 2 Tbs.
  • white wine vinegar
    White wine vinegar: 2 Tbs.
  • lemons
    Fresh lemon juice 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • limes
    Fresh lime juice: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • olives
    Halved, pitted olives (black or green): 1/2 cup
  • preserved lemon
    Chopped preserved lemon: 1/4 cup
  • soy sauce
    Soy sauce: 1 to 2 Tbs.
  • fish sauce
    Fish sauce: 1 to 2 Tbs.
Stew Dos and Don’ts

Keep these tips in mind for great results.

• Start with a large piece of meat and cut it up yourself (see page_62 to learn why).
• Choose a heavy-duty pot. A good pot will help the meat brown evenly.
• Dry the meat before browning, and brown it in batches without crowding.
• Make the stew a day or two ahead; it will taste better and be easier to degrease, too.

• Let stew boil—heat that’s too high can toughen the meat.
• Skimp on the vegetables. A good stew is a meal in a bowl and should include plenty of vegetables.
• Thicken the stew with flour, which can make it greasy and heavy. As the cooking liquid reduces, it will thicken a little on its own.

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