STEW. A stew has been described as an assortment of foods cooked in liquid within a container with a lid. Stews are usually made from several ingredients and may be named for the most important of these, for example, beef stew; for its point of origin, as in Irish stew; or for the pot in which it is cooked, as in Rumanian ghiveci, named for the Turkish güveç, an earthenware pot in which the stew is cooked.
The word "stew" is said to come from the old French word estuier, meaning to enclose. Most cultural groups have created a recipe for a special stew, and there are as many versions of them as there are cooks to make them.
In the Western world, meat stews are categorized as "brown" or "white." This means that the meat is browned in fat before liquid is added for the brown stew; meat for the white stew is not cooked in fat before liquid is added. Stews may contain meat, fish, or poultry; many of them, however, are meatless. There is also sometimes a fine line between stews and soups. Stews are usually thick, some so thick that they must be served on a plate and eaten with a fork. Others are served in soup bowls. Stews most often have several solid food ingredients. An exception is a seafood stew such as oyster or lobster stew, which contains fresh seafood, milk, and frequently butter.
Stews are commonly regarded as "comfort" foods, everyday dishes served to family or close friends in an intimate setting, rather than as fare in a more public setting or at special occasions. An exception would be boeuf à la bourguignonne, usually referred to as beef burgundy in the United States, a dish that is considered exceptional enough to be served to a guest. This stew is made with beef, tiny onions, mushrooms, wine, and herbs. M. F. K. Fisher once wrote that stews can be good enough to be haute cuisine, or the opposite, a meal fit for the lowest echelon of society, the imprisoned.
There are several important advantages to stews: Less tender cuts of meat can be tenderized with the long, moist cooking; more expensive ingredients that may be available only in small amounts can be stretched by adding less expensive foods; meat cut in small pieces cooks faster; and one-pot cooking conserves fuel and makes cleanup easier. Stews may be cooked on top of a range, in an oven, over an open fire, or in an electric Crock Pot.
In addition to being versatile in their ingredients, stews are versatile in their uses. Suggested uses include as filling for tarts or patty shells, or over mashed potatoes, rice, or biscuits.
Usually considered dishes that must be cooked for long periods, stews are, in fact, cooked quickly in countries where fuel is scarce. There are Asian chicken stews, made with young and tender chickens, that cook quickly, but are even more worthwhile because they conserve energy since the entire meal can be cooked in one pot.
Because stews are apt to use protein-and carbohydrate-containing food, as well as ingredients high in vitamin and mineral content, they are good sources of nutrients. Combining certain ingredients, for example, rice and beans, can enhance the nutrients in each food, making them more usable by the human body. Water-soluble nutrients are consumed in the sauces, or gravies, that are part of stews.
Kinds of Stew
Europe. In the eighteenth century, the term "made dish" was used to distinguish between a roast and various mixtures of ingredients. The made dishes in both France and England were often French stews, or ragouts, many still commonly served today. The term daube is more often used to describe beef stews in France. Patricia Wells's Bistro Cooking, published in 1989, contains a recipe for a daube containing wild mushrooms and oranges. An Alsatian meat stew (beef, pork, and lamb cooked with vegetables) is a tradition on Monday, washday, in certain regions. A family's stew pot is taken to the neighborhood bakery where the stew is cooked until noon, when a member of the family arrives to retrieve the meal.
Navarin is a popular French stew made with mutton, potatoes, and onion. In The Food of the Western World, Theodora Fitzgibbons tells us that if root vegetable are added, the stew should be called ragout à la printanière. Bouillabaisse, the renowned Mediterranean fish stew of France, has its counterparts in the fish stews of Greece, Italy, and Spain. There is also a less well-known bouillabaisse made with monkfish and aioli, the French garlic mayonnaise. The reader should, in addition, be mindful that the terminology can sometimes be misleading: There is a bouillabaisse de Tante Paulette, which is actually a chicken stew flavored with fennel, saffron, and Pernod or another licorice-flavored liqueur, and was frequently served at a legendary Parisian bistro, and a rabbit bouillabaisse.
The German Eintopf is another one-pot meal or stew. In the 1930s Hitler urged Germans to return to the austere meals of former days. It became law in 1933 that one Sunday a month, from October to March, was Eintopfsonntag, one-pot Sunday. Money saved from not eating more lavishly was to be donated to the poor. Eintopfs are still popular in Germany, especially in the north. Linsentopf, lentil stew, and Pichelsteiner, made with beef, veal, lamb, and pork, are popular forms of Eintopfs.
Said to be Poland's national dish, bigosunter's stewas ancient origins. It was first made of vegetables such as cabbage (fresh or as sauerkraut), mushrooms, and onions, along with prunes or apples and leftover game. It was a staple for hunters and was reheated frequently over outdoor fires. Some say a poorly made bigos will improve with reheating due to the condensation of flavors, but that a well-made bigos is delicious the first day. The meat used may be fresh pork or ham, sausages, poultryoose or duck are considered bestnd any game available. Madiera wine may be added as flavoring. Over the years, bigos has assumed greater importance at Polish New Year's Eve celebrations.
Waterzooi is a well-known Flemish stew of fish or chicken, vegetables, and white wine. It is associated with the city of Ghent in East Flanders, Belgium. Most food experts claim the original stew was prepared with fish. Whether fish or chicken, the stew contains cream and is thickened with egg yolk.
Africa. Stews are used in some cultures for dipping bread or a type of porridge. The mainstay of the Ethiopian diet is injera, a pancakelike bread made from the nutritious grain tef. Pieces of injera are broken off and used to scoop up stew. Wat is the usual name for an Ethiopian stew, frequently seasoned with berbere, a dried spice and herb mixture that can be made hot with peppers. Milder Ethiopian stews are called alechos. Although meats, fish, and chicken are all used in preparing wats, the stew is more likely to be vegetarian because of the many meatless fast days required in the Ethiopian orthodox religion. Legumes are therefore often used in these stews.
The main carbohydrate for Nigerians is fufu, a thick pasty that may be made from cassava, plantain, or from a grain. Nigerian immigrants in the United States sometimes use Cream of Wheat cereal to make fufu. A diner will scoop up some fufu in his or her fingers, deftly roll it into a ball, and then use that to dip up some stew. Nigerian stews are often vegetarian dishes, but they may contain meat, fish, or poultry, and are usually made hot with peppers.
Zambians use pounded millet for their starchy dipping porridge. As in many cultures, meat stews are frequently preferred, but vegetarian stews are more likely to be readily available.
Asia. The ancient Chinese cooked keng, meat and/or vegetable stews, in cauldrons. Ceramic, and later bronze, cauldrons have been found in archaeological digs; some of these cauldrons are thought to be eight thousand years old. In The Food of China, E. N. Anderson describes the Chinese process of preparing and cooking a stew as a gentle, subtle, and slow art. The cook typically worked with a set of well-seasoned sand pots (sand-tempered earthenware); now metal woks with lids are used for cooking stews.
Tubu-tchigae, or bean curd stew, is a Korean meal that remains nostalgically popular. The dish is made with firm bean curd, pork, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and kochujang (a red pepper, soybean, and glutinous rice paste).
The Japanese iri-dori, a one-pot chicken stew seasoned with mirin, sugar, and soy sauce does not require the long cooking times generally needed if a young chicken is used. A variation on this stew uses fish in place of poultry.
Filipinos make adobo from pork, chicken, and perhaps shellfish or fin fish. Seasonings include garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce, providing the sour-cool-salty taste the Filipinos desire. Another favorite stew in the Philippines is puchero, the traditional Sunday dinner. It is prepared with chicken, beef, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and garbanzos and sometimes is served with a sauce made from eggplant.
South America. Argentineans cook their beef stews with fruits, perhaps peaches, and sometimes chunks of corn-on-the-cob. These stews may be baked in a pumpkin or squash shell. Stews are also everyday fare in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. One is more likely to find fish stews in Chile than in other South American nations because of that country's long coastline.
North America. Traditional Mexican cooking included many stews because the meat and poultry used in that location were often not tender and they required the long, moist cooking characteristic of stews. In spite of the improved quality of meat and poultry in modern times, stews have prevailed as a favorite food. One stew, mancha manteles de cerdo, is prepared with three varieties of red chilis and tomatoes.
Mexico's pozole de lujo is often described as a "luxurious" pork stew. The recipe calls for a pig's head and pig's feet, with pork loin, chicken, and hominy. Mexican caldos (stews or soups) are traditionally served with tortillas.
First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the United States made stews in birch bark containers or hollowed-out trees before Europeans introduced metal containers. Some tribes left a stew on the fire for hours; its members would then add gathered plants or hunted game as they returned to camp.
The culinary history of both Canada and the United States includes numerous examples of stews brought by European settlers. Beef stews have been the most popular recipes among this legacy.
On the Canadian prairies, chuck-wagon cooks made stews from less tender cuts of meat. In the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, a stew would typically be placed inside a wood-stove oven; the fire was then allowed to die down. The stew cooked in the waning fire. Ontario Mennonites still prepare stews in iron kettles.
Stews have been important food for most of the world's people for thousands of years, and there is no indication that this will change any day soon. They are wonderful concoctions, savored for their flavorful combinations as well as their reminders of home and family.
See also Chicken Soup; Lamb Stew; Porridge; Soup.
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