Winter is here and it is freezing. There is nothing nicer than a hearty, warming stew or casserole on a cold day. Using the slow cooker is now widely know as the cheapest way to cook and a stew is so easy to make in one, and is nutritious and doesn’t have too many calories. You can also cook a stew in the oven or on a stove top but make sure it has a tight fitting lid to keep all the flavour in.
The ingredients can be cheap too, especially if you use what is in season and what you already have in. The brilliant thing about stews is that you can make them out of anything. You can put raw, or cooked meat in them, have them vegetarian, and can use most vegetables (even if they are old or wizened). I made a gorgeous beef stew last week from some ends of a cooked beef joint that a friend gave me (she used to throw them a way as they were too small to slice). Sometimes, though, stews can be a bit flat or tasteless if you don’t get the balance right. Here are some ways that you can make sure that your stew or casserole is full of flavour and a lovely meal.
1. If you are adding raw meat, brown it first in oil on a high heat as this adds flavour (some people roll the raw meat in flour first but I find that this reduces the taste and gives a grey stew.). Don’t put too much meat in the pan at once when browning as it will reduce the taste. I do mine in batches.
2. De-glaze the pan that you have cooked the meat in and add to your stew to get all that lovely flavour. Make sure you scrape out all that gunk from the bottom of the pan.
3.If you are making a vegetarian stew adding beans will add body and protein to your stew, and I sometimes brown some of the other vegetables quickly to caramelize and add extra taste.
4. Make sure that you are adding something from the onion family to add depth of taste. This can be leeks, red or white onions, shallots or even Spring onions. I think that onions give the best flavour. I sometimes saute them in the juices of the meat I have browned before adding them to the pot. Caramelised onions are nice if added too. If you have any roasted garlic this adds a lovely flavour when added.
5. You will need enough liquid to cover the ingredients. Use stock rather than water if you can. Home made stock is the best, but stock cubes are fine.
6. Add acidic ingredients in moderation eg tomatoes puree or wine (they can make your stew sour), and don’t add them until after your beans are cooked or else they can make them tough.
7. Chop vegetables different sizes, depending on how quickly they cook and so some don’t turn to mush. You can add any veg. I usually add the classics like carrots, swede, onions and potatoes, but sometimes use things broccoli stalks, peppers or cabbage. I like to use the colours of the rainbow and use up what I have. I even add some frozen veg like peas, green beans or sweetcorn sometimes. Lots of people add celery but I don’t like the taste.
8. Add herbs at the beginning that will slowly release their flavour eg. Rosemary, thyme, oregano or bay leaves. Most other herbs are best added at the end. I put big pieces of rosemary in and fish the stalks out later.
9. I find adding salt at the beginning is best and not waiting until the end helps with the flavour. If using stock cubes they will have salt in them already and so you do not need a lot.
10.Dried mushrooms in a stew can add lots of depth of flavour. I soak them first and add the liquid too.
11. Whole spices like cinnamon, star anise or cloves are great added to a stew if you want your dish to have a warm, spicy flavour in a middle eastern style. You need to remember to remove them before serving, though. Alternatively you could add chillies, cayenne pepper or smoked paprika for a more Mexican style, or Ginger for an Asian style, etc. I sometimes add harissa or other pastes as well.
12. You can add sauces eg. Worcester sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce or tomato sauce to add flavour. I haven’t tried this as they are not to my taste, but friends swear by it.
13. I saw a chef on TV add a splash of lemon juice (or you could use apple cider vinegar) just before serving the stew as he said it brightened it up, though I have not tried that either.
14. Alcohol can enhance the taste of a stew eg beer, wine, or cider. If I ever have spare wine after entertaining I freeze it in ice cube trays to add to stews sometimes.
15. It is best not to boil a stew. It wants to be cooked long and slow for best flavour.
16. Fill your pot. If you have a big space between the liquid and the lid it will condense and you will get a watery sauce.
17.Thicken your stew so that it is not watery. I use cornflour mixed with a bit of water to thicken mine. You can also use flour and water but don’t add flour straight to the stew or else you will get lumps. My friend who is gluten free takes some of the veg from the stew and whizzes it into a puree and mixes it back into the stew to thicken it. I add starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and potatoes to thicken a stew also, and add a bit of soup mix or pasta some times. Often I will put a few pulses or grains into a stew which also help to thicken it.
18. Cook your stew slowly to allow it to developed taste. This also means that you can use cheaper cuts of meat.
19. It is a good idea to always taste the stew before serving. Adding a bit of sauce, some herbs, some seasoning or even brown sugar or honey can just lift the taste. I had a friend who swore by putting a spoonful of peanut butter in her stews to flavour and thicken them.
20. Add a spoonful of fruit chutney to a beef stew. It makes it extra special.