A hearty stew is the perfect winter meal

January 22, 2014 

Cassoulet is French comfort food at its best. JULIAN BRUNT/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALD

Winter is the favorite time of year for many foodies, simply because cold weather calls for hearty foods that fill the stomach and comfort the soul.

Who wants a thin soup when there is frost on the pumpkin and the wolf is at the door? Only a hearty stew will do.

Certainly, stews are among the most ancient food ideas. Long before copper pots were in use, people were filling clay vessels with water, setting them on a small fire and adding whatever could be foraged to it.

Everyone would bring something to the pot, even the children would be tasked with finding a morsel. It may be a scary thought by today's standards of what to put in the cook pot, but when a cold winter threatened, little heed was given to culinary principles.

If you Google stew you will find a long list of stews from around the world. The old saying rings true: if a recipe idea is universal, it has got to be good, right?

Don't get too hooked on following a recipe. Look at what is in your pantry, start with a good vegetable base, soffritto, mirepoix or holy trinity always are a good place to start, and use lots of it. Do you have a leftover roasted chicken, a few sausages or a bit of beef? What about a half bottle of wine? Throw what you have in the pot, add water or stock, season as you like it, and simmer until it's aromatic and bubbly hot.

If it is not as thick as you would like, even after a long simmer, make a roux and add it slowly or combine a little cornstarch in cold water and whisk it in. But a strong word of caution: if you add too much, your stew will become paste, so add a little, allow it to come back to a simmer and proceed as necessary.

Some people prefer to add rice to a stew, but many feel that a loaf of crusty bread is the best. How can you sop up that leftover gravy with a few grains of rice? Buy a big loaf of bread at your local bakery, don't bother to slice it, but just tear it into big chunks, and let your guests help themselves.

A QUICK CASSOULET

This is a quick and not very French version of the classic French stew.

1/2 cup thickly cubed bacon

4 chicken quarters

1 pound raw pork sausage

1/2 cup good white wine

2 cups cooked white beans

1 cup chopped red onion

1/4 cup thick sliced carrot

2-3 cloves chopped garlic

1 cup canned whole tomatoes

Chicken stock to cover

1 bay leaf

Small bunch fresh thyme

Sauté the bacon to render the fat, remove and set aside. Brown the chicken in the fat, taking time to get a good even sear, remove and set aside. Now do the same with the sausages. De-glaze the pot with the white wine, then add the onions and carrots, sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add all the reserved ingredients, the tomatoes, bay leaf and the thyme and cover with the chicken stock. Simmer for about 30 minutes, then add the beans and simmer for another 15 or 20 minutes.

LEFTOVER CHICKEN STEW AND DUMPLINGS

This is best if you have the leftover carcass of a roasted chicken, but it is still good without it. Serious foodies will sneer at the use of canned biscuits for dumplings, but they are quick, inexpensive and really good.

Carcass of a roasted chicken (substitute 3-4 cups chicken stock)

4 chicken thighs

1/2 cup sliced smoked sausage

1 chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup chopped bell pepper

3-4 cloves chopped garlic

2 pinches red pepper flakes

Fresh ground black pepper

1 can biscuits

Put the chicken carcass in a large pot, cover with cold water and simmer for 1 hour. Remove the bones and discard, but reserve the stock. Sear the chicken thighs in hot oil, remove and set aside. Brown the sausage in the hot oil and set aside as well. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper, season generously with red and black pepper, then sauté gently for 20 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Combine all the ingredients in a large stock pot, add the stock and simmer until the chicken is done, about 20 minutes. Remove the chicken and cut into bite size pieces, return to the pot, open the biscuits, cut each biscuit into 5 or 6 pieces and drop the simmering stew. Do not add too many, just enough to almost cover the surface of the stew. They will be done in just 2-3 minutes. Serve as quickly as possible. Some may want to add a tab of butter to each serving. Pair with a Pinot Noir or if you want something a little lighter try a good Beaujolais, one of the best light reds.

SIMPLE BEEF STEW

1 pound cubed beef

1/4 cup flour

1 chopped onion

3-4 sliced carrots

Freshly ground black pepper

2 pinches paprika

1 can whole tomatoes

1 cup hearty red wine

1 cup water

Season the beef with pepper, toss in the flour and cook in hot oil until browned and almost done. Remove and set aside. Add the vegetables and cook for 5 minutes, add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the beef and cook for 15 minutes more. The beef should not be over cooked, medium rare is best. Serve with a loaf of crusty bread and a big red wine, such as a Zinfandel or even an Argentinean Malbec.

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