For many people, stewing is inextricably tied to winter: bubbling cauldrons of root vegetables and thick gravies over polenta or mashed potatoes. But, of course, in much of the world, stewing is an everyday technique, even in the tropics. Consider Indian, Thai, and Caribbean curry, Mexican chili, and even Creole gumbo – all are stews. Stewed dishes are nutritious (all of the nutrients that seep into the liquid become part of the dish, and any grease can be skimmed off the top), forgiving (particularly when it comes to over-cooking), and not particularly labor-intensive (once they get going). With a broader understanding of the technique, you’ll see that seasonal stewing possibilities abound all year long.
On the surface, stewed dishes may not seem all that different from simmered dishes – ingredients are cooked low and slow in a flavorful liquid at low temperatures for long periods of time. The reasons for stewing are much the same for simmering: dealing with tougher cuts of meat that need lots of time and gentle temperatures to soften and dissolve connective tissue. One of the main features that sets stews apart from simmered dishes, though, is the size of the cut of meat being cooked. While cuts in simmered dishes range from thin slices to whole roasts or birds, stews are primarily made with smaller cuts. Stews also build upon simmered dishes in both technique and flavor. The first additional technique is sautéing the main ingredient to brown it on all sides. Browning main ingredients – like searing the goat in the first steps of a long-simmering curry, or browning the chicken pieces in a coq au vin – imparts additional flavor through a complex set of reactions known as Maillard reactions.
Also known as the “browning reaction”, or more appropriately, the “flavor reaction,” the effects are different than caramelization. Caramelization is the browning of sugars, whereas the Maillard reactions involve amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and reducing sugars to form hundreds of different flavor compounds – compounds that give seared and roasted meats, as well as dark-crusted baked goods and roasted coffee their distinctive and desirable flavors and aromas. Dredging meat in flour before stewing provides lots of sugar to be browned as part of the Maillard process – starches are made of thousands of sugar molecules bonded together. Meats (with or without a flour dredge) will also brown since proteins undergo their own transformation in the Maillard reactions. In stews, we take advantage of the Maillard reaction to add layers of flavors.
What really gives stews their heartiness, though, is the second additional technique we use to build upon simmered dishes: thickening the cooking liquid to make an accompanying sauce for stew. Stews can be thickened in any number of ways – simmering until liquids reduce, dredging initial ingredients in flour, adding a beurre manie (a paste of flour and butter) or other starches, or finishing stews with thick liquids like cream or coconut milk. When heated as part of a stewed dish, starches gelatinize: the long starch chains begin to break down and open up more sites to bond with water molecules. By taking up the free water molecules, starch molecules begin to swell and the viscosity of the liquid increases giving us the desired coats-the-back-of-a-spoon consistency for stew sauces. The flour in the beurre manie used to thicken a coq au vin provides all of the starch needed to thicken a simmering liquid into a heartier stew sauce.
Nearly every culture has a favorite stewed preparation — curries, tagines, daubes, ragouts, and potages all share the same basic stewing technique: brown the main protein item and vegetables in fat, add liquid, and simmer until tender. Thicken a variety of ways during or after cooking by using reduction, added starch, or starchy ingredients.
¼ cup curry powder
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
2 pounds goat meat, cut into 2-inch chunks
½ cup oil
4 cups coconut milk
1 habanero pepper, minced
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped red peppers
½ cup chopped carrots
¼ cup chopped green onion
4 bay leaves
Rice and pea pilaf:
1 cup jasmine rice
2 cups water
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
½ cup olive oil
Mix the curry powder, paprika, oregano, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper together to make a spice rub. Coat the goat meat in the spice rub and let sit for 1 hour.
Heat the oil in a large heavy bottom pot and add the goat. Turn the heat to medium and sear the goat until brown, about 15 minutes. Remove meat and add the onions, bell peppers, habanero, carrots, green onions and bay leaves and sauté. Cook until the vegetables are golden brown.
Return the meat to the pan and add the coconut milk and 4 cups water. Cover and cook, about 2 hours. Once the meat is tender and the curry has reduced, the stew is done.
In a saucepan, add rice and cover with water. Cook the rice on medium heat for about 30 minutes until rice is soft and the water is evaporated. Add peas and chopped cilantro, and season with salt and olive oil.
Recipe by Ally Zeitz
Chile Verde Con Cerdo
2 poblano chiles, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
4 large tomatillos, husks removed and chopped
¼ cup lard
2 pounds pork shoulder, diced
1 large onion, chopped
1 head garlic, minced
1 jalapeño, minced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cayenne
In a food processor, puree poblano pepper, cilantro, and tomatillos. Add a few tablespoons of water to help the processor. Process until a sauce has formed with small pieces of tomatillo and poblano. Set aside.
In a heavy bottom pot coated with lard sear pork on all sides. Remove from pot.
Add the onion, garlic, and jalapeño to the pot and sauté. Season with salt, cumin and chili powder. The vegetables should be soft and golden brown. Return the pork to the pan, add pureed tomatillo mixture and cover with water. Simmer for 2 hours until the pork is tender and the stew has reduced.
Garnish with cilantro.
Recipe by Ally Zeitz
Coq au Vin
1 3-pound chicken, cut into pieces
¼ to ½ cup all-purpose flour
6 ounces salt pork, small dice
24 pearl onions, peeled
2 tablespoons water
8 ounces button mushrooms, quartered
1 medium onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 stalks celery, quartered
2 medium carrots, quartered
1 bunch fresh thyme, tied together with kitchen twine
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 750 ml bottles red wine (about 8 cups)
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1 tablespoon sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons flour
To make the beurre manie, knead the butter and flour together, then set aside.
Season the chicken on all sides with salt and ground black pepper. Lightly coat the chicken with flour and remove the excess.
In a heavy bottom pot, brown the salt pork. Once the pork is about ¾ of the way brown, add the pearl onions. Cook until the onions and salt pork are golden brown. Remove from the pot and set aside.
In the same pan, using the remaining fat, sear the chicken pieces on each side until golden brown, working in batches if necessary to not overcrowd the pan. Once seared, remove the chicken from the pot.
Add the mushrooms, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, to the pot and saute in the remaining fat from the salt pork. Add the thyme bundle and bay leaves. Saute until the vegetables are brown and soft. Stir in the tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Add 4 cups of the red wine and let reduce for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the wine, the stock, chicken pieces, pork and onion, and sugar. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 2 hours, until the chicken is tender and the stew has reduced.
Fifteen minutes before serving, stir in the beurre manie, then simmer to thicken the sauce.
Plate and garnish with fresh thyme before serving.
Recipe by Ally Zeitz
Photos by Julia Silva