Feeling down at dinnertime these days? That’s not surprising. We’re a little out of practice with actual rainy winters here in Sacramento.
Here’s a suggestion: Combat your blustery-day blues with warm, hearty bowls of something rib-sticking. For our money, that means stew – but stew can seem overwhelmingly time-consuming on the average tired weeknight.
We have your solution: easy weeknight stews that use quick-cooking proteins such as chicken and fish, making for bowls of cozy comfort that are not just lighter and healthier than traditional long-braised red-meat stews, but also on the table a lot faster. Don’t get us wrong: We love rich short ribs or lamb shanks, too. But when you get home from work, reach for chicken, fish or even chickpeas to get dinner on the table before your hunger has you calling for pizza.
Our recipe for chicken cacciatore, a spin on a traditional Italian dish with a sauce of rich red wine and tomatoes, can be on the table in just 45 minutes. It relies on boneless, skinless chicken thighs (a juicier, more richly flavored and also cheaper cut than breasts) to cook through faster than their bone-in counterparts or the wild game that was the original foundation of this “hunter-style” dish. It’s particularly good served over polenta; for a simple polenta shortcut without the stirring, try baking it in the oven. (Stir together 1 cup dry polenta and 4 to 5 cups water, plus a little salt, in an ovenproof dish, and bake away at 350 degrees while the stew cooks. Stir in some Parmesan and a pat of butter, if you like.) A big handful of parsley at the end adds a fresh flavor and bright color to this one-bowl meal – great with the red wine you opened for cooking alongside.
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Elise Bauer, the locally based founder of wildly popular recipe blog Simply Recipes (simplyrecipes.com), agrees. Her father recipe for a quick fish stew, great with any firm white fish, has become a family favorite, and one of the site’s enduringly popular recipes. “My father (Tom Bauer) has been making this fish stew as long as I can remember; it’s a family favorite,” she says. “It’s easy, it tastes great, and you can make it start-to-finish in 30 minutes.” Bauer advises having plenty of fresh, crusty bread on hand to mop up the richly flavored juices.
Don’t forget vegetarian stews, either. Here, the rich spices of a Moroccan-style tagine complement earthy chickpeas and delicate artichokes. (To save on prep time, we use frozen artichoke hearts and especially recommend those sold at Trader Joe’s, but canned artichoke hearts are a good substitute in a pinch. Be sure not to substitute with the marinated artichoke hearts sold in jars.) The tang of lemon, a fresh burst of cilantro and crunchy toasted almonds add contrasts to this veggie-based dish, which is great served over couscous.
The simple formula of stews like these offers plenty of options for variation. Change them up with the addition of different winter vegetables (fennel in the fish stew, for instance, or cauliflower in the tagine), vary the braising liquid or try adding different proteins. To vary the fish stew, for example, or stretch it to serve more than four people, Bauer advises adding a half-pound of shrimp, mussels, clams and/or scallops a couple of minutes before adding the fish. Creative additions such as these can take even a simple weeknight stew from a winter night family favorite to a special occasion dish – but it’ll still be easy and delicious enough to stave off the winter blahs.
Quick chicken cacciatore
Time: 45 minutes
Traditional cacciatore, a red-wine-based “hunter-style” braise, uses bone-in game. Here, it’s sped up for weeknight convenience with boneless chicken thighs. Serve it over polenta or egg noodles for a warming one-bowl meal.
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, cut into slivers
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1/2 pound cremini or white mushrooms, cut into quarters
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup red wine
1 can (15 ounces) diced tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
In a zip-lock plastic bag, combine the chicken thighs, flour, and salt and pepper to taste. Seal and shake to coat chicken; discard excess flour.
In a large pot over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the chicken and cook, turning once, until well browned, about 10 minutes total. Transfer to a plate.
Reduce heat to medium and add onion, garlic, red pepper, mushrooms and oregano to pot. Cook, stirring, until onions are translucent and begin to soften, 8 minutes. Pour in wine and cook, scraping any browned bits from bottom of pan, until slightly reduced, 3-4 minutes.
Add tomatoes with their juices and chicken pieces. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until chicken is cooked through, 10 minutes more.
Stir in parsley and serve.