I come across a fair number of people who cannot get into stew. On one hand, I can understand because I grew up on the stuff and I’m sure 99% of them were not very nice, but that 1% that was good? Excellent, even? They totally kept me keen on the dish.
Many of the stews I grew up with were based on game meat – venison and moose being the primary suspects – and had lots done to them to disguise the gaminess of the meat. Sometimes even in the terrible spirit of playing the “Aha! Gotcha! You just ate Bambi!” game, which is deplorable and gross.
Those attempts also often didn’t work because of technique, which was largely down to tossing a bunch of stuff in a pot and letting it boil until stuff gets soft and…blech.
Needless to say, I’ve developed some very firm opinions about what a good stew comprises over the years:
- A stew does not need to stew for hours to be a good stew. While I understand that stew was created to be left over a fire while its eventual eaters were out tending to fields and children and livestock and kills for the next stew, we are in the 21st century and a lovely stew can come together in about an hour.
- Honour the meat. Less than stellar cuts that still taste like meat are far tastier than great cuts ground down and overpowered by overpowering vegetables (I’m lookin’ at you, green peppers!) or worse (I’m lookin’ at you, salt!). THAT MEAT GAVE ITS LIFE FOR YOU! Please don’t make it taste like anything other that meat. It’s not at all difficult to turn a not-so-tender cut of meat into something that melts in your mouth and still tastes like meat.
- Keep it simple. A combination of meat and vegetables that will cook through in about the same amount of time is aces. Try to stick to four Big Ingredients (beef + mushrooms + potatoes + carrots is classic) and you’ll be golden.
- Respect the mouth/palate. A good stew is spoonful after spoonful of unique flavours. The object of the game is not to make everything in the pot taste like everything else, but to let each ingredients do its own little song and dance routine on your spoon and then on your tongue. Cut your main ingredients so that each piece occupies the spoon with a little room for broth/gravy.
- Balance is key. I always try to ensure that each stew has approximately the same amount of bites/spoonsful of each main ingredient. This is important to overall flavour as well as enjoyment at eating time.
- Spices! Stew should warm the tum and the heart! The key to that is spice. I don’t know how many stew recipes I’ve seen that include nothing beyond “pepper to taste” and no. There are so many spices that will elevate a stew without overpowering. Use ’em!
- Remember that the gravy in a stew, just like any other gravy, will thicken upon serving. You don’t need to do a lot of thickening to produce a thick, rich stew. When you over-thicken, though, you end up with glop and that’s not a nice mouthfeel.
What you need:
- 2.5 lbs of beef, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour
- pinch of salt
- Oil for frying
- 1 8 oz package of white or cremini mushrooms, halved
- 1 large, yellow cooking onion, finely chopped
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp ground juniper berries (about 10 whole berries)
- 1 tsp ground cloves (about 12 whole cloves)
- 6 cloves of garlic (or more or less depending on your garlic tolerance) smashed and finely chopped
- 2 large potatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 2 large carrots, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 4 cups of stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup of wine
- Water to fill
- Salt and pepper to taste
What you do:
- Toss the cut meat in the flour with the pinch of salt.
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat a tablespoon of cooking oil over medium heat.
- Add the meat and cook until browned.
- Remove the meat from the pot and set aside.
- Add another bit of oil and the mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms are lighty browned.
- Set the mushrooms aside with the meat.
- Add a little more oil, the onions, garlic and spices and cook until the onions are just browning.
- Add a little more oil and add the potatoes and carrots. Cook, stirring constantly, for three minutes.
- Slowly add the stock, using a spoon to deglaze until the bottom of the pot is clear of detritus and all of the stock is in.
- Return the meat and mushrooms to the pot along with the wine, bay leaves and tarragon.
- Top the pot up with enough water to cover the meat and veg by an inch.
- Stir everything in and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for a good 30 minutes, or until the potatoes and carrots are fork tender.
- Serve piping hot with rolls, biscuits or breadsticks.