Stews used to be relegated to winter cooking, but with the crock pot, I realized that a good stew is all-season comfort food. Stews are a great lunch as well as supper, too. Put on a batch of rice in the rice cooker and voila, excellent satisfying meal in the making. Braised meat stews are considered one of the oldest dishes since there is evidence that stews, along with soups, have been made since prehistoric times. If a dish is around in basically the same form for all these millennium, you can be sure it is a good dish that sustains and nourishes, otherwise it would have evolved to something else. Stews started out over open fires and progressed through all sorts of cooking style innovations. They always look a bit messy. That is their charm. Slow moist heat is what the slow cooker specializes in, so stews are one of the premium dishes to make in them. Most novices go for a chili (bean stew) or meat stew first.
Stews are notorious for being able to be tossed into the pot with whatever is on hand in the refrigerator and pantry since it is so flexible, but fresh is always best when it comes to ingredients.
There are also vegetable stews, bean stews, fish stews, and poultry stews. Most cuisines contain a stew of some sort-tagines, pot au feu, daube, feijoada, ragout, hot pots, goulash, cocido, cholent, bouillabaisse, and bigos are all worldly stews with their own country and character that changes with the liquid used and the herbs, such as ginger or Mediterranean. Every one of these are able to be made in the slow cooker.
There are two basic types of meat-based stews–white stews, also known as a blanquette or fricassée, are made with lamb or veal that is blanched without browning and braised in stock. Brown stews are made with pieces of red meat that are first seared or browned, usually with a mirepoix of diced vegetables, then stock and maybe some wine are added. Both these type stews are suitable for the slow cooking method. Stews can be served with thin juices or thickened by reduction or with flour or cornstarch. The buerre manie, a little dough ball with equal parts of butter and flour is one of my favorite ways to thicken a stew. And its fun to do, too.
Cuts of meat having a certain amount of marbling and gelatinous connective tissue give moist, juicy stews, while lean meat may easily become dry. Because stewing tenderizes tough pieces of meat, you can save a buck by purchasing less expensive cuts from the rump, shoulder, and legs. Remember, all meat is essentially muscle and those muscles less used by the animal will be more tender but typically less flavorful. Meat from the more exercised muscles will be tough but have more flavor. And at the end of the preparation, remember “never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink!”
Here I am focusing on little beef stews. Not big amounts for your 6-quart slow cooker, but recipes for your small cooker. While many households don’t attempt a stew since it is usually made in a large “family size” amount, stews are beautiful made in small amounts for one or two diners, maybe with a bit leftover for next day or freezing. The smaller slow cooker does this job just as efficiently as a large one. Here are two of my best recipes. Enjoy and Happy Springtime Slow Cooking!