There is a simple seasonal-culinary formula for this time of year.
When days are cold and nights are long, there is nothing more warming and satisfying than a steaming hot bowl of stew. Or two. It makes everything seem right with the world.
Stew is hearty. Stew is filling. Stew gratifies your soul.
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On the other hand, it also drains your pocketbook. Stew used to be inexpensive. That was sort of the point – it was a good way to use the cheapest cuts of meat. Even the toughest meat becomes meltingly tender when it is slowly simmered in a sauce for at least a couple of hours.
But the price of even the cheapest, most fibrous cuts of meat has soared. Stew was originally a peasant food, but if there were any peasants anymore they couldn’t afford it.
Still, when the temperature drops, nothing is as welcome as a steaming bowl of stew.
I made three, beginning with one of my favorite dishes of all time, veal stew with mustard sauce and currants. This is more than a stew, this is a religious experience on a plate.
You begin with veal, which in itself is tender and delicious (but it’s only relatively tender; it still needs to be cooked for a while). Grainy mustard adds an irresistible bite, and its faint harshness is counteracted by the sweetness that comes from carrots and the delicate pop of currants. A bit of vinegar is all that is needed to give the meal a subtle sweet and sour depth.
I make it at least once a year, and I like to serve it on buttered egg noodles.
Next up is carbonnade a la flamande, a Belgian stew made by braising beef and onions in beer. At its heart, it is like beef bourguinon, but with hops.
I have had carbonnade a la flamande at restaurants and have cooked many versions, but I have never found a version that even comes close to the deceptively simple one created by Julia Child.
Others are far more complex in preparation, but none has the same depth of flavor. The redoubtable Ms. Child’s version is made from little more than beef, onions, beef stock, garlic and beer. What makes hers so superior is the beer.
The beer simmers for a couple of hours, and that makes its flavor more intense. I have made it with Belgian beer, which is traditional for the Belgian dish, but when the sauce is reduced the beer’s floral quality becomes overly flowery. I have made it with Guinness stout, which is recommended by some chefs, but that only intensifies the beer’s bitterness.
Child chooses a Pilsner, the relatively light flavor of which becomes just strong enough as it simmers to stand up to the hearty beef and onions. It is superb.
Finally, I made a lamb tagine with green olives and lemon. A tagine is a stew that is typically made in a tagine, an earthenware Moroccan pot sort of shaped like an upside-down funnel. I made mine in a Dutch oven, which worked fine, but then again anything would work well for a dish as spectacular as this.
What makes it stand out is the combination of spices in which the lamb marinates: ginger, paprika, coriander, cumin, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cloves, cinnamon and saffron, plus lemon zest and plenty of garlic.
Once the lamb cubes have soaked up all of those flavors, the stew is simmered to a delicate tenderness, along with carrots and onions. Then, when the dish is nearly done, it is given a shocking jolt of additional flavor from briny olives, plus cilantro, parsley and lemon juice.
It is a powerfully flavorful dish, a little hot and very spicy. On a chilly day, it is the kind of stew that warms you from the inside out.
Carbonnade a la flamande
(Beef and onions braised in beer)
Recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.
3 pounds beef chuck or rump roast
2 to 3 tablespoons rendered pork fat or cooking oil (not olive)
1 1/2 pounds (6 cups) onions, sliced thin
Salt and pepper
4 garlic cloves, mashed
1 cup beef stock
2 to 3 cups Pilsner beer
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
6 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch or arrowroot
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut the beef into slices about 2 inches by 4 inches across and 1/2-inch thick. Dry on paper towels. Put rendered fat or oil in the skillet and heat until almost smoking. Brown the beef slices quickly, a few at a time, and set them aside.
Reduce heat to medium. Stir the onions into the fat in the skillet, adding more fat if necessary, and brown the onions lightly for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper, and stir in the garlic.
Arrange half the browned beef in a Dutch oven or casserole and lightly season with salt and pepper. Spread half the onions over the beef. Repeat with the rest of the beef and onions.
Heat the stock in the browning skillet, scraping up coagulated cooking juices. Pour it over the meat. Add enough beer so the meat is barely covered. Stir in the brown sugar. Tie together the parsley, bay leaf and thyme in a piece of cheesecloth to make an herb bouquet and bury in the pot, or simply stir in the herbs. Bring pot to a simmer on top of the stove. Then cover the pot and place in the lower third of the preheated oven. Regulate heat so liquid remains at a very slow simmer for about 2 1/2 hours or until the meat is fork-tender.
Remove herb bouquet or the parsley and bay leaf. Drain the cooking liquid out of the casserole into a saucepan and skim off fat. Beat together the cornstarch and vinegar, and then stir this mixture into the cooking liquid. Simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and carefully correct seasoning. You should have about 2 cups of sauce. Pour the sauce back over the meat. The stew may be prepared in advance to this point.
When ready to serve, cover the pot and simmer slowly for 4 to 5 minutes until the meat is thoroughly heated through. Serve with parsley potatoes or buttered noodles.
Per serving: 684 calories; 37 g fat; 15 g saturated fat; 223 mg cholesterol; 58 g protein; 20 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 179 mg sodium; 68 mg calcium.
Veal stew in mustard sauce
Recipe from “The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook,” by Ellen Brown.
1 1/2 pounds boneless lean veal, such as round, trimmed of fat and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup dried currants
2 cups veal stock, chicken stock or a combination of chicken and beef stocks
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Wash the veal cubes and pat dry. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the veal on all sides, removing the cubes with a slotted spoon when browned. This will have to be done in a few batches.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the onion and garlic, and saute, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Return the veal to the pan and add the carrots, currants, stock, mustard and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so the stew is just simmering and cook the stew, covered, for 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is fork-tender.
Mix together the cornstarch and cold water and stir into the stew. Allow it to simmer for 2 minutes to thicken. Stir in the vinegar.
Per serving: 219 calories; 8 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 69 mg cholesterol; 19 g protein; 17 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 230 mg sodium; 38 mg calcium.
Lamb tagine with green olives and lemon
Recipe from Food & Wine.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
Two 2 1/2 -inch strips of lemon zest
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
One 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 cups water
6 large carrots, thinly sliced
1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 cups pitted green Picholine olives, rinsed
1 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a large bowl, mix the olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, ginger, paprika, coriander, cumin, black pepper, cayenne, cloves, saffron, cinnamon stick and salt. Add the lamb and toss to coat. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours.
Put the lamb and spices into a tagine or medium enameled cast-iron casserole; discard the lemon zest. Add the water, carrots and onion, and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat until the lamb is very tender, about 2 hours.
Spoon off any fat from the broth. Stir in the olives, season with salt and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, cilantro and lemon juice. Serve with couscous.
Per serving: 478 calories; 31 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 107 mg cholesterol; 13 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 2,018 mg sodium; 82 mg calcium.