Here's a syllabus for your own "stew school" - a step-by-step guide for meat-based stews, perfect for these chilly nights.
CUT EVERYTHING UP
Ideally, meat should be bite-size, meaning about a ¾-inch cube. Dice the onion so it will fade into the background. If adding vegetables at the end, the pieces should about the same size as the meat.
BROWN THE MEAT AND DEGLAZE THE PAN
Browning the meat first in vegetable oil gives the stew such a flavour head start that it's almost criminal to skip this step. Adding a cupful of whatever liquid is used in the stock to deglaze the pan provides another flavour booster. The liquid is added to the stew just before the long cooking begins.
SOFTEN THE VEGETABLES
In the stewpot, cook the onions briefly and then add the other vegetables and cook for a few minutes more. This process develops their flavours.
SPICES AND FLOUR
Spices and flour dissolve in fat, so they should be added before the broth.
The most important rule here is that what's added cannot be taken away, so go easy on anything spicy or salty. Once the browned meat and its juices, vegetables, deglazing liquid and salt and pepper to taste have been added, think about the rest, which could include tomato paste, mustard, vinegar, sweeteners such as maple syrup or brown sugar that act as flavour enhancers, dried herbs and liquids such as soy sauce, chilli paste and so on. Liquid should be added just to cover the meat and vegetables. If a starchy ingredient, such as rice, will be added later, add enough liquid to take that ingredient into account.
APPLY SLOW HEAT
Never let a stew boil. That makes the meat tough, turns the vegetables to mush and dries up the liquid. Maintain slow, gentle cooking. Keep the cover off and maintain a low simmer, allowing the flavours to slowly meld.
If you're adding grains or vegetables, pay attention to their cooking times. For potato chunks, toss them in the pot an hour before the stew is done. Barley needs about 45 minutes, and rice will be done in 20 minutes. (Rice, barley and potatoes are natural thickeners, and if you're using them, you can get away with less or no flour.) Green vegetables, such beans or peas, can be added in the last ten minutes.
Pork Paprikash Serves 8
• 4 to 5 tablespoons vegetable oil • 1 medium onion (1/4 pound), finely diced • 3 tablespoons sweet paprika • 3 tablespoons flour • 1 tablespoon tomato paste • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard • About 4 cups chicken stock • Salt • Freshly ground black pepper • 3 to 3 1/2 lbs boneless pork shoulder, butt or country-style spareribs, trimmed of visible fat and cut into bite-size pieces • About 3/4 cup low-fat sour cream
In a large pot over medium heat, heat two tablespoons of the oil. Cook the onions until they have softened and just started to brown. Add the paprika, the flour, the tomato paste and mustard, stirring after each addition. Add three cups of the chicken broth and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile add two tablespoons of the oil to a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add enough of the pork cubes to fill the pan without crowding the pieces. Brown the meat for 4 to 5 minutes then transfer it to a large bowl. Repeat with the remaining pieces, adding more oil if needed.
Using the same pan, increase the heat to high. Add the remaining cup of chicken stock to deglaze the pan, scraping up all the browned bits of pork stuck to the pan.
Transfer this mixture, the pork and its juices, to the pot with the veg. The stock should cover the pork and onion; if not, add more stock or water. Simmer. Reduce the heat and cook gently, uncovered, until the meat is tender, up to three hours, adjusting seasoning after about an hour. Serve with sour cream, or cover tightly and refrigerate for up to three days or freeze for up to three months.