- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

As winter wears on, few comforts are as satisfying as warm, hearty foods, and nothing delivers more wholesome warmth than a bubbling pot of stew. Stew is a simple dish consisting of slow-cooked meats and vegetables and the thick, savory liquid in which they simmered, and it remains my favorite way to bring some heat to a wintry night’s meal.

Stews have countless benefits. All the ingredients are plunked into the same pot, sparing me from fussing with mounds of dirty prep and cooking dishes at the end of the night. I need not worry about using tough or cheaper cuts of meat. The slow-cooking stew tenderizes its ingredients as it simmers, producing a lusciously soft and succulent meal.

In what the ingredients simmer can vary according to time, contents and mood. Some nights I merely pour in water. Other times, I opt for homemade stock. In certain instances, I add beer or wine or a combination of the aforementioned liquids. There are no strict rules on what to use.

Whatever their quirks and variations, almost every stew recipe was born out of necessity, using whatever cooks had on hand. In the case of Irish stew, these staples of the kitchen were old, economically unviable sheep, or mutton, along with potatoes and onions.

Beginning with mutton, Irish cooks of yore would place equal parts of meat, potato and onion in separate layers in a large casserole or kettle. They added a pinch of salt and pepper, poured in enough water to cover the layers, and clamped a tight lid on the kettle.

They then set the concoction over an open fire and left it to simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Once the mutton and potatoes were tender and the stewing liquid had thickened and become infused with juices, dinner could be served.

Little of this recipe has changed since the stew became Ireland’s national dish in the early 1800s. Today, it is more commonly made with lamb, not mutton, and it simmers on a stove or cooktop instead of an open fire. Otherwise, it’s the same nurturing repast from generations ago.

When I’m cooking for a crowd, I gravitate toward the more exotic or obscure stews such as Brunswick stew and Kentucky burgoo. Both include up to a dozen vegetables, of which okra and butterbeans are musts. They additionally boast a mixture of such meats as chicken, beef, pork, lamb, rabbit and squirrel.

The last two ingredients hint at when and how Brunswick stew and burgoo came to exist. During frontier times, when every household held at least one hunter, these stews were made from whatever game was brought home from the hunt. Many cooks today forgo the inclusion of small game. They also tend to reduce the serving sizes, particularly when making spicy burgoo.

On blustery evenings when I’m craving comfort rather than exotic food, I put on a pot of creamy waterzooi. It can feature freshwater fish but now usually consists of older stewing hens. Paired with leeks, carrots, potatoes, parsley, cream and the occasional egg yolk for thickening, the chicken version provides a gentle, nourishing feast that warms me to the core.

If I can’t find a stewing chicken at my local market, I substitute a roaster or, in a pinch, chicken breasts. I then use a rich chicken stock for my stewing liquid. The stock will compensate for the flavor lost by swapping the stewing chicken for a younger bird.

A warm, hearty, one-pot stew provides the ideal antidote to a dreary and frigid night.

Irish stew

Makes 4 servings.

3 pounds lamb, cut into cubes

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste

3 leeks, washed, rinsed and chopped

2 yellow onions, thinly sliced

2 pounds potatoes, washed, peeled and sliced

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

2 cups water, plus more if needed

Place half the meat on the bottom of a medium-sized Dutch oven or small stockpot and sprinkle salt and pepper over top. Put half of the leeks and onions on top of the layer of meat and sprinkle salt and pepper. Then place half of the sliced potatoes on top of them. Sprinkle the potatoes with salt, pepper and half of the chopped parsley. Repeat the same steps for the remaining lamb, leeks, onions, potatoes and seasonings.

Pour the water over the ingredients and then cover the pot. Simmer gently over medium-low heat for roughly 2 hours or until the lamb and potatoes are cooked and tender, checking the stew periodically to see if more water is needed. The stewing juices should be thick and gravy-like. Ladle into bowls and serve.

Belgian waterzooi

Makes 6 servings.

1 whole stewing or roaster chicken (roughly 3 pounds) or 3 pounds of chicken breasts

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 dried bay leaves

3 sprigs fresh thyme or 3/4 teaspoon dried

4 sprigs fresh parsley or 1 teaspoon dried, plus extra for garnish

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large white onion, finely chopped

2 leeks, washed, rinsed and finely chopped

5 or 6 cups chicken stock

2 carrots, peeled and cut into half-coins

2 ribs celery, washed and diced

2 large baking potatoes, washed, peeled and cut into small cubes

1 cup heavy cream

Rinse the interior of the chicken or the chicken breasts and then season with salt and pepper. If using a whole chicken, place the bay leaves, thyme and parsley inside. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven or stockpot and add the onions and leeks. Saute until soft and translucent. Place the chicken in the pot and add enough stock to cover the chicken. If using chicken breasts, toss in the herbs at this point. Bring the liquid to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Continue to simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove the cover and skim the surface of the liquid to remove any fat. Add the carrots and celery, place the lid back on the pot and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes.

Add the cubed potatoes and continue cooking for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes and chicken are tender. Remove the chicken from the pot and allow it to rest until it is cool enough to be carved into small pieces. Set aside.

Slowly add the cream to the stew, stirring to combine. Simmer for several minutes until the liquid has thickened, and then add the chicken pieces to the pot. Taste the stew and add additional salt and pepper, if necessary. Sprinkle fresh parsley on top. Ladle the waterzooi into bowls and serve with a sliced baguette or thick-crusted wheat bread.

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