These days, a slew of recipes play fast and loose with our notion of stew.
Some don't have meat, owing to the rise of vegetarians, devotees or dabblers. Other recipes don't even require all-day cooking, which seems like the hallmark of any stew. Still others, like the one for Thai-Style Pork Stew that accompanies this story, don't seem like stew at all because there isn't much liquid in the finished product. Not to say they aren't all flavorful, but they fly in the face of convention.
The difference between soup and stew is, in general, the amount of liquid left at the end of cooking. Soup tends to be more brothy, but the line is still pretty fine. Rachael Ray famously makes "stoup," a linguistic mashup that describes a super-chunky soup.
With St. Patrick's Day coming Sunday and the end to chilly nights soon to follow, I figured I better start heating up the kitchen with a long-cooked stew. Irish Stew came to mind first, which is generally made by adding dark Guinness beer to the burbling melange. On the heels of Tampa Bay Beer Week, I was over beer, so I found a recipe that called for a bottle of wine; I used a peppery zinfandel. The red wine makes the recipe more French than Irish, but nevertheless it was hearty and delicious. Potatoes, carrots, onions and peas plus Worcestershire sauce bring it all to life. (I guess I'll be making the required corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day.)
Also different about this Ina Garten stew recipe is that the beef is marinated overnight before dusting with flour and browning. I opted for a boneless chuck roast that I cubed myself rather than buying the stew meat. The wine left from marinating goes into the pot, too.
Another thing that separates stew from soup: It's more about braising than boiling, and in fact, it should never be roiling on the stove. The high heat doesn't help tenderize meat and causes more delicate ingredients to cook quickly and fall apart. Cooking in layers at a slower heat adds more flavor, which is the case with many stew recipes. The meat is browned, onions and other aromatics sauteed after the meat and then the fond — those tasty bits on the bottom of the pan — are loosened by liquid. Everything goes back into the pot, including seasonings, and then the elements cook in the moist heat. It's the perfect technique for tougher, cheaper cuts of meat.
In the end, I had a rich, flavorful beef stew that actually tasted better the next day and still better the day after that. Heavy meat stews tend to bloom with a few days' age, which is why you can never have too much. Leftovers are good for workday lunches or to take to the neighbors.
Making a muddle
I was inspired by a recipe from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, by brothers Ted and Matt Lee, to make a "muddle" — that's a North Carolina coastal term — that they call Fish Stew Man's Red Fish Stew. I did some tinkering and have rechristened it Cod and Corn Stew (though it could easily be called chowder). In our parts, red fish, means, well, redfish, a type of drum that swims in the shallows near mangroves, so the name threw me. In the Lee brothers' recipe, which suggests using spottail bass or sheepshead, the word "red" describes the color of the stew, thanks to the tomatoes in the mix.
Any white, flaky fish will do, even mangrove snapper, which is often available at local fish markets and occasionally at grocery stores. I used cod because I like it. One caveat: Do not let the fish "stew" too long. It will fall apart and become a mushy mess. I want to see chunks of fish. This stew is better eaten as soon as it's ready.
Also, the original recipe calls for mustard and coriander seeds to be pounded in a mortar and pestle to a fine powder. I did this and kept thinking about my college pal Gina who used to say if we did more cooking where we had to use our muscles — like kneading bread — we'd get out our aggressions and the world would be a more peaceful place. That was in the 1970s when we thought about such things and I do agree that vigorously twisting the pestle in the mortar for a good 10 minutes was indeed a stress reliever. Plus, I now know where I stashed this low-tech grinding device.
However, it would be fine to substitute ground mustard and coriander. The seeds offer more intense flavor and are likely fresher, but with all the other ingredients in the pot, I am not sure most eaters will taste the difference. I'll do that next time and suggest that you make the substitution if you tackle the fish stew. My changes are reflected in the recipe.
Stew, Asian style
The third recipe, a peanut-butter-spiked Thai mixture, was served over rice and seemed more stir-fry than stew. It was initially meant for a slow cooker but I used a pork tenderloin, so it didn't need long, slow cooking to make it tender.
I recommend using low- or no-sodium ingredients for the stew liquid. The combination of chicken broth, teriyaki sauce, vinegar and peanut butter can pack an unwanted sodium punch if all are full throttle. The tender pork mixture is topped with sliced scallions and peanuts — go lightly salted there too.
Two out of the three recipes with this story stretch the limits of stew, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth trying. The fish stew especially is a good warm-weather entree, because of the lighter ingredients and the shorter cooking time.
And we've got plenty of spots on the calendar for that kind of cooking, don't we?
Times senior photo editor Patty Yablonski contributed to this story. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586. Follow her on Twitter at @roadeats.