With the snow now falling here in Michigan and mostly likely staying, it’s time to think about stews and soups. Now there are any number of ingredients that get put into a rib sticking stew or a rich soup. What I’m going over today is that stews and soup are built, not just thrown together. Layers of? flavor and time are the intangible qualities that we are playing off of. Following a few steps here will help make a meal that will warm bellies and souls.
Tough, Hard Working Cuts are What We are After
Choosing cuts that work hard, and have major connective tissue are the cuts your are looking for. While tossing these pieces on a grill will result in something difficult to chew, they offer a world of flavor when given time to break down. The connective tissue contains collagen and with low heat and time loosen, it frees up tightly wound muscles. This collagen also thickens the broth, giving a velvety texture. Cuts from shoulders, shanks, or in the case of bird leg quarters and necks, all offer awesome stew and soup potential.
A Good Sear can make All the Difference
Known as the Maillard reaction, where amino acids and reduced sugars give the amazing “umami” flavor that make all of our mouths water. That crispy goodness on the surface will add a deeper defined, robust burst of flavor. Most folks will hear this, and move on to the next step, but taking the time required to sear, weather it’s shanks, roasts, or soup bones. A couple minutes per side can cause the rushed chef to panic, but do it. My preferred method is a cast iron pan or my enamel Dutch Oven if I’m going to be using that. The mass and even heat of heavy vessels help in the quality of the sear. Your choice of oil, butter, or both will do the trick. Some prefer a dusting of flour before hitting the heat to get an extra crunch.
Aromatic vegetables boosts a broth or stew with a punch. Known in French cooking as a “mirepoix”. It is a collection of chopped veggies that are browned and soften before being bathed in liquid to create a broth. The usual trio are carrots, onions, and celery. In Cajun country, the celery is swapped out for green bell pepper. Whatever your mix, after browning the meat or bones, toss in the chopped veg in the same vessel. The veg will bring up the brown bits on the bottom of the vessel making sure to not leave any flavor behind. Note: after a long stew, these pieces will be disintegrated enough that straining them out will be best.
As an added step I add a bit of salt to help sweat the onions, I also add a splash of liquor or beer to help deglaze the bottom. The alcohol gets boiled off and your left with a great stewing liquid to now nestle your meat into.
All Good Things Take Time
With the stew meat, veggies, and liquid all put together, cover with a tight lid and leave on low heat or in a slow oven (275-300 F). The desired effect of a simmer is what we are after for several hours. There is no way around it. The time and temp have to do their thing. Slowly loosening the meat and dissolving the collagen and veggies into a rich liquid. Pressure cookers can offer some time savings, but I think some of the richness is lost. In stews and stock, all the good ones take time, and a hefty heap of patience.
With about an hour left to make the meat fork tender, pull the meat and strain the liquid. These veggies have done their job and can be discarded. Add the meat back into the liquid. If you want potatoes, carrots, or any sort of root vegetable add it now. The single hour for half inch diced veg will soften them but not dissolve them.