Stew is soup’s hard-working cousin — succulent, warm and hearty. Tough and unrefined at the beginning, mellowed and presentable at the end, stew is Eliza Doolittle personified. For me, it is a crowd pleaser that comes with a whiff of nostalgia.
The summer after my mother died, when I was eight years old, my Navy Captain Dad decided to make boeuf bourguignonne for my brother and me. I can still remember the sounds, the smells and the anticipation we felt as he chopped and diced away in the galley kitchen of our rented flat in Newport, Rhode Island. The meal lived up to all of my expectations—tender and intensely flavorful. Since Dad had quadrupled the recipe, there were leftovers to be had and then some. We ate it the next night, the night after that, the night after that, and by the time it was all gone—after so much freezing and defrosting–it had acquired the consistency of canned dog food and a new name, Barf Burgundy.
Many years later, my husband and I saw a fresco in Italy depicting Hell as a bunch of bad guys in a big pot, being cooked over a fire. Bad Guy Stew entered our family vernacular—our version of being in the doghouse. But all things tough, even miscreants, can tenderize with time, some liquid and a heavy pot. I have eaten many stews since that summer night 33 years ago, and I have been in Bad Guy Stew often enough but I have never actually made a stew myself. Steve Nill at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts is happy to show how it’s done on Day Four of his “Back to Basics” class.
Steve starts the class with a discussion of the different methods of moist heat cooking: braising, stewing, blanquettes and fricassees. “Braising,” he says, “is typically used to cook tougher pieces of meat—the working parts of the animal. These muscles contain a lot of hard, white connective tissue called collagen, which breaks down into very tender gelatin under the slow process of moist heat cooking.” With braising, we learn that the meat usually goes into the pot whole with liquid added halfway up the sides. Aromatics are added at beginning and strained at the end. With stews, the meat is cut into serving size pieces and covered with liquid. Aromatics are added only at the end.
Steve’s instructions for braising are:
Trim excess fat off meat and sear on all sides in butter or oil; do it in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the pan.
Remove meat, deglaze pot with wine or other liquid and scrape up yummy brown bits.
Put meat back in pan, fill pan with a liquid half way up the side of meat and bring to a simmer.
Put inverted lid (parchment paper first with aluminum foil on top–shiny side down) right on top of meat.
Cook in the oven at 325 degrees or less until meat is fork tender with no resistance.
Take meat out; strain out aromatics.
Use a bulb baster and suck the good stuff from the bottom of the pot, leaving the fat behind. Make a sauce, if you like, with the de-fatted liquid.
In the test kitchen, I quickly volunteer to make Braised Short Ribs with Dried Cherries. After a sublime short ribs experience at Casablanca restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, two years ago, I have been on a quest for a worthy challenger. My partner Lauren and I brown the meat in batches. We then deglaze the pan with wine as Christian, our singing chef, melodies the praises of the brown bits at the bottom of the pan. We put it all back into our large enamel casserole with liquid halfway up. We cover the mixture with an inverted foil lid topped by the enamel lid that goes with the pot. While the short ribs braise in the 325 degree oven for 2 hours, we learn how to cut fennel and baby artichokes. We also learn to separate cilantro leaves from their stems with minimal effort.
At long last, it is time to sit down. I skip over the fricassee de lapin, pork and butternut squash stew, poulet au vinaigre a l’estragon, sea bass over fennel, red cabbage and artichokes and dive, fork first, into the short ribs. Mmmm. Casablanca, I’ve met your match.
Tomorrow: dry heat cooking