It is the dish that dares not speak its name.
Nonetheless, it is sneaking back into the kitchen and onto the table. Or so I hope. I scent a comeback. Stew has returned.
A stew by any other name would smell just as savory and, it seems, often sell better. Of the hundred of words for stew and its variants (daube, ragout, burgoo, braise, bog, hotpot, potpie, gumbo, pilau, fricassee, cholent, goulash ... ) I'd guess that only two or three are a good idea on a restaurant menu. And "bog" ain't one of them. One chef writes: "We have a dish on the current menu that we were calling 'Liberty Farms Duck Stew on Fettucine.' Saleswise it went over like a lead balloon. We changed the name to 'Fettuccine with Braised Liberty Farms Duck, Winter Vegetables and a Rich Brown Sauce.' Seems to have improved the sales."
Certainly restaurant menus have seen little of the stew in recent years. Lots of grilling, lots of sauté, lots of roast. Little wet cooking. Stews are not elegant; the ingredients aren't usually rarefied or exotic. "Stew meat" doesn't nestle in the ear quite as cosily as "foie gras." Once the tablecloths are white, you're not getting your money's worth if there's lowly stew on the menu. Stews are muddy heaps on the plate and messy in the eating. Verticality is a real challenge with stews, unless you leave the bones in. And upscale restaurants have been avoiding bones on the plate for decades now, except for osso buco, short ribs and lamb shanks. Three stews with vertical possibilities and which probably account for 95 percent of all upscale restaurant stews and 100 percent of the evidence for the much-heralded comfort food trend.
Enough of restaurants and restaurant criticism. Do you stew? In the privacy of your own home, you are freed from considerations of elegance and accusations of penny-pinching. Small quantities of liquid are allowed to fall back onto the plate, even from your chin. And the turnips and carrots don't have to be babies to qualify for consumption.
But, alas, people stew less these days; I mean, even after correcting for people not cooking much at all. Or so it seems from my statistically insignificant and demographically skewed sample. (1/3 of respondents made a stew this month, 1/3 hadn't and my sister didn't answer the phone.)
Actually, when I have asked people, a goodly number say no and then correct themselves and admit to a bit of pseudonymous stewing. Would I, they ask, count curries, African ground nut stews, or fish stews? Yes, yes, and yes. Why have people been stewing less? A mix of reasons, I think. As with restaurants, there is fashion. And ease. Come home, pull out an expensive slab of protein, throw it on the grill, steam some veggies, boil some pasta--and you're done.
Stews, though not hard, take planning, and some rudimentary kitchen skills--both rarer today than 30 years ago. The disappearance of the butcher is a factor, too. We don't have butcher shops, we have meat counters. Just try to get some of the cuts of meat or tough old birds that traditional stews call for. But why should you make stews? Because. They're almost the whole meal by themselves, they're economical, they make great leftovers. They aren't really hard to make, once you know how. But the real reason is that they taste really, really good. A great stew is like no other kind of food, with that unctuous meld of deep brown flavors, the marriage of the vegetative to the meaty. If you don't eat stews you're missing out on a palette of tastes that belongs to stews alone. These tastes, the product of long hours of gentle subsimmering, are our ancestral food flavors, regionally refined and transmuted.
How do you make a great stew? The cookbooks will tell you, despite the noticeable hiatus of the last 30 years of the 20th century. But now, even trendy chef cookbooks are going braisey on us. Here's what I found looking into three recent, arbitrarily chosen, samples: Kunz & Kaminsky's The Elements of Taste, Vongerichten & Bittman's Simple to Spectacular and Batali's The Babbo Cookbook.
Among the three I found six(!) recipes for braised beef short ribs: Braised Short Ribs with Horseradish Gremolata, Short Ribs braised in Red Wine, Short Ribs braised with mushrooms, pearl onions, and bacon, Short Ribs braised with Chinese flavors, Stewed Short Ribs with marrow butter, and Braised Short Ribs with aromatic barbecue sauce. But, happily, there were other stews, a more varied lot, mostly under one alias or another. The ranged from Ham Hocks and Spareribs in Cherry Beer and Braised Oxtail with wine sauce reduction to (the misnamed) Confit of Veal Breast with Bulby Vegetables.
But you'll have to vault that 30-year lull to get to the epitomes of stew-making pedagogy. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is loaded with stew recipes, and, despite the ready-made excuse of French terminology, Julia, in text and index, is happy to say "stew." And fine instructive recipes they are, too. Richard Olney's account of stews, in Simple French Food, remains the best. In addition to the manifest recipes, he has a long edifying disquisition on the nature of stews and how various particular stews derive from varying this ingredient or that technique. So, you may as well count that as a thousand recipes.
Leaving the old country behind, we find James Villas' chunky ode to American regional cooking, Stews, Bogs and Burgoos, which has dozens of recipes. It is a reminder that no matter what we call them, stews speak their many names, loud and proud.
Shanks with Garlic
This recipe, adapted from Richard Olney's Simple French Food, is a somewhat atypical stew: only a tiny amount of liquid is used. It is very simple and very wonderful.
2-3 lbs. lamb shanks, outside fat removed
3 tbs. olive oil
20 cloves of unpeeled garlic
1/2 tsp. mix dried herbs
(e.g. herbes de Provence) or your own fresh version
1/2 cup dry white wine
You need a heavy pan with a tight-fitting lid, just large enough to hold the shanks. Salt the shanks and brown them lightly in the oil on all sides. Toss in the garlic. Cover, cook on the lowest possible flame (you may need a "flame-tamer") for about 2 hours. The shanks will be gently stewing in their own juices. Turn the shanks occasionally. About an hour into the cooking the liquid will have disappeared and they'll begin to sizzle in fat; at this point start adding a spoonful of water from time to time, so that there's always a liquid film in the bottom of the pan. Also after an hour add the herbs.
As the shanks get almost tender enough, stop moistening. When the meat begins again to sizzle in pure fat, remove it to a warm plate, pour off the fat, deglaze the pan with the white wine, scraping and stirring with a wooden spoon. Press the juice and garlic through a sieve to puree the garlic and get rid of the hulls. Return sauce to the pan, simmer a minute.
Return shanks to the pan, turn in the sauce. Pepper. Serve.
Cookbooks consulted for this article:
Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 (Knopf, 1971)
James Villas, Stews, Bogs and Burgoos (Morrow, 1997)
Richard Olney, Simple French Food (Atheneum, 1974, 1983)
Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (Random House, 1982)
Gary Kunz & Peter Kaminsky, The Elements of Taste (Little Brown, 2001)
Jean-Georges Vongerichten & Mark Bittman, Simple to Spectacular (Broadway, 2000)
Mario Batali, The Babbo Cookbook (Potter, 2002)