Stews welcome Autumn by Sandra A. Gutierrez
The French make "ragouts", the Morroccans call them "tagines", and in Latin America they are known as "guisos". As the leaves begin to turn color and the crisp, cool air of autumn descends from the North, few things are as comforting as a bowl of hearty stew.
Simply put, to stew is to cook pieces of meat, poultry, fish, fowl or even vegetables, for a very long time and over very low heat. The stewing process typically begins with the browning of the meat in question, a crucial part of the process that ensures that the meat develops color and that the resulting gravy has depth of flavor. Browning is done to allow caramelization of the meat, which further allows for a "fond" to develop--those brown bits at the bottom of the pot--that will add punch to the finished sauce. Not all stews begin with browning as is the case with the French Blanquette de Veau, or Mexican Pipianes, where the meats are first boiled before being added to the stewing liquid. However most stews begin with the browning process.
Most stews will follow browning with a deglazing of the pan. This will usually begin with the addition of aromatics--mirepoix for the French, sofrito for the Latinos--before enough liquid to cover is added. This liquid can take the form of broths, wines, beer, juices or water. Sometimes before the liquid is added to the stew, spices are incorporated with the aromatics and are allowed to "bloom" or develop their flavor as they come into contact with the heat.
The length of the cooking process is extremely important and care needs to be taken not to hurry it along. What happens inside the pot during the stewing process is short of magic. Tough cuts of meat may appear fully cooked during the first minutes of the cooking process; however they are not and if interrupted, an unfinished stew will yield rubbery, stringy meat. When allowed to cook longer, the connective tissues in the meat begin to relax, and an exchange of stewing juices is allowed to occur, as the meat releases its collagen. This entire process rewards the patient cook with fall-off-the-bone goodness.
Trapping the steam inside the pot as it stews is extremely important in order to ensure that little evaporation of the liquid is allowed and for this, a tight-fitting lid is required. In addition, I like to place a layer of parchment or waxed paper over the stewing pot before placing the lid on it.
The temperature at which a stew is cooked is also key in the success of a final dish, particularly if one wants it to be tender and delicate to the tooth. It must be given enough time to cook at a very low simmer--small bubbles--over very low heat that will permit the flavors to blend and will allow enough time to transcend before the stew is completed. The raising of the temperature in order to shorten the cooking time will always result in scorching the food at the bottom of the pan and the entire stew will be ruined. This counters our modern need for fast fixes; however a little patience will ultimately delight the gastronome's palate with succulence that cannot be obtained in a hurry. Sometimes good things are worth waiting for.
Stews are the perfect vehicle for cooking inexpensive, tougher cuts of meat, such as beef shoulder, ribs, pot roasts and chuck. Try stewing a blade of pork, veal shanks, chicken giblets or inexpensive cuts of lamb. If making a fish stew consider selecting those with firm flesh, such as monkfish, that will withstand the longer cooking process.
Autumn is the perfect season to introduce stews into your menu. While your pot does all the work, go rake the leaves, carve pumpkins or play with the kids. A wonderful meal will await your return, rewarding you with rich, warm and comforting flavors of the season.
CopyrightÂ©Sandra A.Gutierrez,2007;All Rights Reserved.