By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
It may be spring on the calendar, but I still feel a big chill in the air, combined with rain and/or snow. The winds kick up and it gets downright nasty out there. Sometimes this lasts through the whole month of April. Depending on what part of the country you live in, there are still cold nights into May and early June. I’m not giving up my big stew pot just yet!
Stew, which is any combination of two or more foods boiled in a liquid in a pot, is one of the most satisfying, hearty, and deeply flavored dishes on the planet. Its origin goes back as far as when humans began to cook.
Initially people used large turtle or mollusk shells to boil stew. Often animal stomachs were used as boiling vessels. The invention of pottery between 10,000-18,000 years ago was a game changer as to what and how humans cooked. However, there is also evidence that clay pots were being used even 20,000 years ago!
I have a degree in cultural anthropology from University of Michigan, so how indigenous peoples cooked and ate has always interested me. I’m a peasant at heart. Cooking stew really speaks to me. It reminds me of all of our ancestries. It reminds me of home. Think about it: how often do you see it served in a restaurant? When I make it for my husband, Bob, he remarks “You can’t get food like this when you eat out.”
According to Bon Appetit in January 2013, “The first time that the Old French word estuve jumped to English shores as "stew," it meant either a stove, a heated room, or a cooking cauldron. That probably comes from way back, from the Latin extufare, meaning “evaporate."
As we know it today, stew usually contains a protein, vegetables, seasonings and a liquid. What makes it so delicious is the melding together of these flavors to create a homogenous dish. Sometimes it’s a combination of proteins, say, chicken and fish. Cultures use what they have readily available.
When I’m thinking about making a stew, I consider which flavor profile I have a hankering for. Is it Mexican Pazole using pork, hominy, chiles, and cilantro? Is it Moroccan lamb stew with chicked peas, almonds, carrots, and warm spices? Maybe I’d make Beef Stroganoff with sour cream and dill. Or how about the French classic, Beef Bourguignonne? Italian Cioppino (fisherman’s stew) is a seafood bonanza. So many options, my head is spinning!
Besides being a comforting dish, stew has several great qualities. You can make a little or a lot for a big crowd without much extra effort. If you’ve invited guests and you’re not sure how many will attend (this happens to everyone at some time in their entertaining lives!), stew can be stretched to feed the masses if need be.
I had an embarrassing situation happen to me when I was 27 and was cooking a lovely Italian Veal Ragout for 40 people in a customer’s home. I was pleased with the results and was proud to serve it that evening. For some reason, I can’t remember why, I was also a guest sitting at the table. I was heartily enjoying my stew so much that I took a piece of bread and wiped the bowl clean with my fingers and shoved it in my mouth. My companion gave me the sharpest elbow. Not a good look! I was young and inexperienced in etiquette.
Stew tastes even better the next day, or the day after that. The ingredients “sit” together and seem to develop even further. They can serve as a one-dish dinner, supported by noodles or rice underneath, or with a side of crusty bread. For a dinner party, the clean-up is one or two pots instead of numerous pots and serving dishes for several courses.
Stew can be a real melting pot. You find some not-so-great-looking vegetables in the back of your fridge. Throw them in, no one will be the wiser. Another great quality to making stew is its ability to test your creativity. You almost can’t fail.
Today’s recipe is a straightforward chicken stew with leeks and mushrooms. Consider this a starting point, because you can tweak it with different vegetables and seasonings. I always use chicken thighs because they don’t dry out like the breast. They have a “meatier” consistency. I prefer to cook my stews on top of the stove rather than putting them in an oven. I urge you to use a heavy-bottomed pot to avoid scorching. I use a rondeau or brazier. A large Dutch oven is also great. If you use a large soup pot, make sure it is a broad one, not tall and narrow.
So Insiders, let us know what you stew over and decide to make for your comfort food. The choices are endless. And please send a picture or two to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can share it with your fellow readers!
Chicken Stew with Leeks & Mushrooms
Yield: 10-12 Servings
3 lb. skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1” cubes
1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coarse ground black pepper
@ 4-5 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lg. onion, 1/2” dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 celery stalks, 1/2” dice
4 lg. carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2” rounds
3 parsnips, peeled, cut into 1/2” pieces
2 leeks, green part removed, thoroughly clean, sliced thin crosswise
1 c. white wine
12 oz. button mushrooms, quartered
5 c. chicken stock
1 bunch thyme stalks, tied together
1/4 c. fresh chopped parsley
In a medium bowl, toss together the flour, salt, and pepper. Add only 1 lb. chicken pieces. Toss to coat. Heat 2-3 Tbsp. oil in the bottom of a brazier or large Dutch oven over moderately high heat. Shake off the chicken and add it to the hot oil. Brown the chicken on all sides for about 5-7 minutes. The meat will still be underdone in the center. Place in a clean bowl. Add more oil and repeat this step 2 more times.
Add more oil to the pan. Turn heat down to medium. Add the onion, garlic, celery, carrots, parsnips, and leeks. Sauté until translucent and slightly browned, about 15-20 minutes. Pour in the wine, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook for 2 minutes.
Blend in the stock. Add the mushrooms and thyme bundle. Bring to a boil; turn down to a simmer. Cook the stew, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
Remove the thyme and discard. Add the chicken and juices to the pot. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Season well with salt and pepper. Mix in the chopped parsley.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.