For many folks the world over, stew is the ultimate comfort food. Nearly every home cook has mastered a stew recipe or two, often based upon a recipe they inherited themselves. Americans think of beef first when they imagine stew meat, but just as popular in other parts of the world are fish, shellfish, and chicken as well as stronger-flavored stew meat such as pork, lamb, and even goat. Since ancient times, hunters have brought home wild game, much of which has also jumped into the stew pot.
For the best beef stew, the cook needs to select stew meat that contains a good amount of fat as well as connective tissue. During cooking, the connective tissue breaks down and thickens the sauce with a rich, almost velvety consistency. Some cooks swear that beef ribs make the most delectable stew, while others prefer beef cut from chuck, plate, or shank. A true stew combines all ingredients and cooks them together with liquid of some kind in an open pot. Many home cooks prefer to braise the meat in a lidded pot separately for a long time over low heat then add it to vegetables that have been prepared in another pot for a final cooking as this marries layers of distinct flavors rather than melding them into one.
Cooks with a source of wild game can cook Brunswick stew, which traditionally contains squirrel and onion in addition to tomatoes, beans, corn, and other vegetables. Many diners refuse to eat squirrel; rabbit or chicken make acceptable substitutes because both are mildly flavored. As with other stews, Brunswick stew is good the day it is made and better still after a day or two.
One nice thing about stew is that, even when it’s composed of leftovers, the final dish is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Meat lovers or anyone with an abundance of veggies can compose Burgoo, which contains a mix and match of meats such as beef, pork, or lamb and poultry, like chicken or turkey. Root veggies like potatoes and onions are de rigueur, and autumn offerings including carrots, lima beans, and cabbage result in a hearty meal.
Not to be outdone, the ocean offers its own variety of stew meat. French bouillabaisse begins with a liquid base of olive oil and white wine then adds any combination of fish that might be available. Shrimp, lobster, and clams, as well as squid or octopus, are also welcome to join la célébration, which is perfected with a little garlic and expensive, though fabulous, saffron. The Italians have their own marvelous version called cioppino. This seafood stew is simpler and includes tomatoes, olive oil, and a number of herbs and spices as the cook desires.