When we begin to crave stew in the fall, most of us automatically conjure images of thick, hearty chunks of red meat slow-simmered in brown gravy, sometimes all alone, and sometimes with sturdy root vegetables.
And that’s just about the most perfect thing one can have on a crisp autumn evening. But it can be so much more than that.
Stew is less a particular thing than a technique: Food that is sometimes (though not always) browned and then simmered slowly in liquid to cover. That liquid can be anything —thick, thin, clear or dense. It can be broth, wine, juice, milk or just water. And almost anything can be cooked this way, from red meat and poultry to fruit and hefty fall vegetables.
It also need not take hours: not everything needs a long simmer to absorb flavors and become tender. Some need only a few minutes.
The following includes a couple of new recipes, some oldies that are worth making again, and a couple that don’t have any animal protein at all.
Stew Basics: Before we get to the recipes, here are a few fundamental tips for getting the most from a stew. I’ve been through them before, but it never hurts to brush up on them.
• Stewing is most often applied to tougher, less luxurious cuts of meat and old birds. But you still want to use the best you can afford. Generic “stew meat” is always cut too small and is often scraps. Buy meat in one large piece, then trim and cut it up yourself.
• When the recipe calls for meat to be browned, dry it well with several layers of paper towels: otherwise, it won’t brown but will only steam in its own surface moisture.
• Browning doesn’t “seal in the juices,” but it does add color and flavor, and improves the meat’s texture. However, don’t get carried away: if you let it get too dark, it’s not browned but scorched, and will be coarse and bitter.
• Don’t get carried away with seasonings, especially garlic and hot pepper. Whether the main ingredient is meat, poultry, vegetable, or fruit, it’s just that: the main thing. Aromatic seasonings such as garlic, herbs, hot spices, wine, Worcestershire and ketchup are meant to bring out the main ingredient’s flavor, not to dominate and cover it up.
• A slow, steady simmer insures fork tender meat that’s neither dry nor mushy. I like using the oven or a slow cooker for this stage: the heat can be maintained without my having to monitor it at all. But if you like puttering and watching the pot, the stove-top is fine. Invest in a simmer mat if your heating elements won’t get low enough for a slow simmer.
• Whether vegetables are an element in a meat stew or are part of an all-vegetable stew, add them in stages beginning with the one that takes the longest and finishing with the quicker cooking types. That way none of the vegetables will bend up being overcooked.
• Cut vegetables to roughly the same size so they cook more evenly and are easier to eat.
• If you’re not using a slow cooker, the right pot is as important as quality ingredients and solid technique. Choose one with a heavy, thick bottom and sides. My own preference is an enameled iron Dutch oven.
Beef Stew with Autumn Vegetables and Rosemary
Here’s that hefty, meaty stew in brown gravy, with an autumnal twist. In addition to the usual carrot, celery, onion and potatoes, there are also two fall root vegetables that, while under-appreciated nowadays, used to be fairly common in beef soups and stews. You can make it with wine or not. If you do add it, instead of the red called for here, you may also use a medium-dry white wine or add a slightly sweet element with a medium-dry sherry or Madeira. Serves 8.
• 3 pounds not too lean beef, such as chuck, rump, or sirloin
• 6 ounces (about 3 strips) extra-thick cut bacon, diced, or 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced small
• 1 large carrot, peeled and diced small
• 1 large rib celery, washed, strung, and diced small
• 2 medium or 1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 2 cups medium dry red wine such as pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, or merlot, optional
• About 2-4 cups beef broth
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste
• 2 small or 1 large bay leaf
• 2 tablespoons chopped chopped fresh or 2 teaspoons crumbled dried rosemary
• 4 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 4 ribs celery, washed, strung, and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 4 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 4 small turnips, scrubbed, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 8-12 small or 6 medium red-skinned potatoes, scrubbed and halved if small, quartered if larger
• About ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
• 1-2 baguettes or other crusty home-style bread, for serving
1. Preheat oven to 400° F. Trim beef, cut into 1½- to 2-inch cubes, and wrap well in several layers paper towels. If using bacon, put in large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (preferably enameled iron) over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until bacon is browned and fat is rendered. Remove bacon with slotted spoon. If not using bacon, add enough oil or drippings to pot to cover bottom by about ¼-inch and warm over medium heat.
2. Unwrap meat and add enough to pan to loosely cover bottom of pot without crowding. Raise heat to medium high and brown on all sides, turning often. Remove meat to plate and repeat until all meat is browned. Remove pan from heat. Season meat lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Spoon off all but 3 tablespoons fat and return to medium heat. Add diced onion and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes, then add carrot and celery. Sauté until onion is golden, about 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Turn off heat and return meat to pan (do not add any juices that have accumulated yet). Sprinkle in flour. Put pot in center of oven and bake 4 minutes. Remove, stir, and bake 4 minutes more.
4. Remove pot from oven and reduce oven heat to 275° F. Stir in wine and/or enough broth to just cover meat. Stir in any meat juice that had accumulated on plate, tomato paste, Worcestershire, bay leaf and rosemary. Cover, return to oven, and bake 1½ hours.
5. Fold in chunk-cut carrot and celery, parsnip and turnip, cover, and return to oven. Bake until vegetables and meat are almost fork tender, about 40-45 minutes longer, then add potatoes and bake until all vegetables are cooked through and meat is fork tender, about 30-40 minutes longer.
6. Remove from oven and let settle 10-15 minutes before serving. Remove and discard bay leaf. Garnish each serving with parsley pass crusty bread separately.
Autumn Vegetable Stew
This is simpler than it looks: Yes, there are a lot of ingredients, but it goes together quickly and the prep and assembly isn’t complicated. It isn’t really vegetarian, since it contains bacon, but you can make it so by omitting the bacon. Increase the oil to 2 tablespoons as directed and add the optional butter. Serves 8.
• 12-18 small shallots or boiling onions (not pearl onions)
• 1 pound small brown (cremini or baby bella) mushrooms
• 4 extra-thick slices applewood smoked bacon or pancetta, diced, optional
• 1 tablespoon (2 if omitting bacon) canola oil
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional, use only if omitting bacon)
• 1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
• 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped fine, plus 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 1 small rib celery, peeled and chopped fine, plus 4 medium ribs celery, washed, strung, and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh, or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried, sage
• 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
• 2 cups crushed canned tomatoes
• 2 large or 3 small bay leaves
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce plus more as needed
• 3-4 parsnips, scrubbed, peeled, and cut into 1-inch chunks
• 3-4 small or 2 large turnips, scrubbed, trimmed, and cut into 1-inch chunks
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• Florets from 1 small head cauliflower, washed and broken or cut into bite-sized pieces
• 12 small or 6 medium red or gold potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
• ¼ cup finely chopped flat leaf (Italian) parsley
• 2 baguettes or other homestyle crusty bread, for serving
1. Bring 2 quarts water to a boil. Cut X into root end of shallots or onions and add to boiling water. Cook 1 minute, drain and refresh under cold running water. Trim root and stem end and peel. Wipe mushrooms clean with dry paper towels and cut into quarters. Set both aside.
2. If using bacon or pancetta put it and oil in 5 quart heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, preferably enameled iron over medium heat. Sauté until browned and fat is rendered. If omitting the bacon, put oil and butter in pot and warm over medium heat until butter is melted and bubbling.
3. Add chopped onion and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add chopped carrot and celery and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes more. Add mushrooms and sauté until moisture is evaporated and mushrooms begin to color, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and sage and sauté until fragrant, about 20 seconds.
4. Deglaze with 1 cup broth, stirring and scraping bottom of pot, then add remaining broth, tomatoes, bay leaves, and Worcestershire. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Add peeled whole shallots or onions, chunks of carrot and celery, parsnips, and turnips. Season with salt and pepper and bring to boil, adjust heat to simmer, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are almost tender, about 20 minutes.
5. Add cauliflower and potatoes, raise heat long enough to bring back to boil, and once again adjust heat to slow simmer. Simmer until vegetables are all tender, about 20-30 minutes longer. Taste and adjust salt, pepper, and Worcestershire. Simmer 2-3 minutes and turn off heat. Let settle 10-15 minutes before serving garnished with parsley and accompanied by baguette.
Stewed Prunes in Port
If you’re turning up your nose at this homey standby, that’s too bad: it’s lovely and embarrassingly easy to make. The recipe works with pitted prunes (that’s what was used for the photograph), but is better with whole prunes that still have their pits (but good luck finding them). Old recipes called for them to be soaked or precooked, but that’s not necessary with the softer fruit we have now.
This is also lovely with dried figs. If they’re dense and hard, soak them in water to cover for several hours or overnight before cooking and use the soaking liquid to cook them.
Serve stewed prunes as is, with their syrup, over whipped mascarpone (Italian cream cheese — allow 2 8-ounce containers for 6), or with a scoop of vanilla or dulce di leche ice cream. Serves 6.
• 1 pound prunes, preferably not pitted (but pitted prunes will work)
• 1 lemon
• 1 cinnamon stick
• 2 tablespoons raw (turbinado) or regular granulated sugar
• 1½ cups ruby port
1. Put prunes in saucepan. Slice half of lemon and add to pan with cinnamon stick, sugar, and wine. Add enough water to barely cover. Bring to simmer over medium heat, lower heat to slow simmer, and cook until prunes are plumped and tender, about 15 minutes for pitted prunes, 20-25 minutes for whole fruit.
2. Remove prunes with slotted spoon; remove and discard sliced lemon. Raise heat to medium and boil until cooking liquid is lightly syrupy but not too thick — it will thicken as it cools. Turn off heat and remove cinnamon stick; it can be rinsed, dried and used 1 more time.
3. Taste, and if needed, add a squeeze of lemon juice from remaining lemon half. Pour syrup over prunes and let cool to room temperature before serving. Can be made a day or two ahead: cover and refrigerate when cooled.