When I was a kid growing up in the Northeast, cold weather was good news. I'd get outdoors early to enjoy the snow and chat up cute girls in puffy down jackets. And I'd spend the entire day outside, trying to stay upright on my minibike while running wide open across snowy fields, laughing at friends that sported snotcicles, and trying to hang in there for one more snowball fight before I got frostbite.
One of the best parts of those days, with the exception of blowing some unsuspecting schlub's wool hat off with a direct hit to the back of the head with a snowball, could very well have been staggering inside and peeling off my wet clothing in a
kitchen filled with my mom's screams of "take your boots off outside, Bradford!" and the rich, heavy smell of a meat stew on the stovetop.
Stews kick ass for reasons beyond making visitors to your home drool visibly. They're dishes that can benefit from the tougher, more flavorful cuts of meat, which is easy on the budget. They also seem to get better as leftovers, so an afternoon's effort can yield multiple meals with little complaints from family members. And, like meatloaf, a stew can take a huge array of ingredients and turn them into more than the sum of their parts. This week I'm offering up two versions: an American-style beef stew like I grew up on, and a Southwestern pork stew that I wish I'd grown up on.
The key to a good beef stew is balance. You want to brown your beef well and slow simmer it in stock or wine to build your meaty base flavors, then add veggies, herbs, and spices to provide the brightness. Keep in mind that this is a basic building block recipe; you should feel free to change ingredients and amounts to suit your own childhood memories.
Start with two pounds of chuck or bottom round, cut into two-inch cubes and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a mix of dried thyme, oregano, and basil. Dredge them in flour and drop them into a Dutch oven with two tablespoons of oil heated over medium-high heat. Brown the meat on all sides in batches small enough to avoid crowding the pan, remove with a slotted spoon, and pour off all but two tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add ¾ cup of chopped onions, and ¼ cup each of chopped celery, carrots and leeks, and a few cloves of smashed fresh garlic. Cover and cook, stirring often, until the onions have softened.
Put the meat back in, add three bay leaves, a teaspoon or so of the blend of herbs you seasoned the meat with, and half a teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Now pick yer poison: chicken stock, dry red wine, or beer. Take three cups of your choice and add it to the pot, covering the meat at least half way. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the meat is fork-tender in about two hours.
Now add veggies: three carrots, four potatoes, two parsnips, and two turnips, all peeled and cut into one-inch chunks. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. If you want it thicker, whisk in one to one and a half tablespoons of kneaded butter (made by mooshing equal parts softened butter and flour together), and stir until thickened. Remove from the heat, skim the fat from the surface, and serve it up.
Not only does this bad boy feature green chiles and pork, two of my favorite things, but it's easy to make. The selection of chile pepper type is up to you: see what you can find fresh, though in a pinch (and as a last resort) you can use the canned stuff. Vary the amount of chiles used based on their heat and your belly's ability to handle it.
Cube three pounds of boneless pork loin, dredge it in flour, and brown it in small batches in a Dutch oven with three Tbsp of oil oven over medium-high heat, removing each batch as it cooks. Add a chopped stalk or two of celery, a chopped onion, five smashed cloves of garlic and six to eight chopped green chile peppers (some of which can be jalapeno for heat), cooking over a medium-low heat until onions have softened.
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Add the meat back in along with two chopped tomatoes, a few shots of green Tabasco sauce (a major staple in my kitchen) and enough chicken stock and/or water to barely cover the ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until pork is fork-tender, two hours. Optional: Add a few chopped potatoes and some kidney or black beans and simmer for an additional 40 minutes until potatoes are soft. Serve with chopped fresh cilantro.
You really can't go wrong with either one. The meats, spices, hell, anything can be substituted with alternates of your choice, and that's part of the beauty of stews: they're flexible, they're personal, and they make your house smell like it did when moms wore aprons and listened to their husbands.
Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and will do anything for a girl in down.