Forget the steak… five reasons to love stews

 When the temperature dips there’s sometimes nothing better to eat than a bowl of hearty stew. It’s comfort food at its very best and some of my favorite food memories from childhood are indulging in a stew my grandmother had cooked. Meat, vegetables and a savory liquid that are simmered together for hours on top of the stove to take away the chill of a winter’s day. It’s not surprising that just about every cuisine in the world has its own version. However, the best thing about a stew is, apart from the fact it tastes so good, it’s the budget smart cook’s best friend.

Easy on the Cook

Stews are one of the easiest of dishes to prepare and there are just a few simple rules to follow. I know lots of people say you can skip browning the meat before  you add it to the saucepan or casserole dish but my grandmother taught me it’s the essential part of making a delicious stew. My grandma would put flour, salt and pepper onto a plate and toss the cubes of meat in the mix. I’ve found a freezer bag with the same mixture is quicker, clean up is easier and you can make sure every single piece of meat gets coated. Then all you to need to do is saute the meat in a pan.Don’t rush this part and be tempted to add all the meat at the same time because if you overcrowd the pan the meat doesn’t brown as well and that’s the whole point of going to this extra trouble. Turn the meat, with spoons and not a fork as you want to seal in the juices and flavor, until it’s browned on each side.

Easy on the Budget
Here’s one of the best things about stew, you can make it with cheaper cuts of meat. In fact, less expensive cuts of meat work the best with this slow cooking process. Plus, while the stew simmers the meat soaks up the liquid, making it even more tender. And another money saving trick is to use cheaper things like thighs and drumsticks when you’re making a stew featuring chicken. The bones add lots of flavor. And as most of us make stews during the colder months, root vegetables, which make ideal partners for the meat, are usually at their cheapest during fall and winter. And if you use your own homemade stock, that’s basically free, but even if you resort to store bought ones, it’s not going to put a too big a dent in your budget.

One Pot Cooking at its Best
I can’t think of an easier meal than a stew, everything cooking together in one pot. Apart from preparing the meat and chopping the vegetables, and of course checking everything now and then, it’s a snap to put together. Although my preference is to serve a stew with mashed potatoes, I sometimes add the potatoes or dumplings to the stew for the ultimate one pot meal. And if you want to cheat even further or want a ready cooked meal when you come home from work, opt for cooking your stew in a slow cooker.

Freezers Love Them
Stews are some of the best dishes to put in the freezer. You can make up two batches, eat one and freeze the other. Or, and I know leftovers aren’t a common thing when stew is served, but you can easily freeze what’s left. Talk about the ultimate cook once, eat twice dish.

Add Your Own Spin
Even if you’ve got a favorite recipe for stew you can add your own touches and family favorites to a stew. Nothing can basically go wrong with adding a bit more of this or that. If you want to stretch your budget even further you get add more vegetables and cut down on the meat, or you can add things like pulses. My grandmother always added pearl barley to beef stew. And when it comes to seasonings once again you’re in charge. One thing I never leave out of a stew is a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce.

The Quicker Cooking Version of My Grandmother’s Beef Stew

Grandma never followed a specific recipe but this is one I remember from watching her put a stew together. Her version took most of the day but I’ve found this one can be put together in under two hours.

1/4 cup flour

Good pinch of salt and pepper

2 tablespoons oil

2 medium sized onions, chopped into bite size pieces

3 carrots, chopped into bite size pieces

3 cups beef stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Bouquet garni (she’d use cheesecloth and add a couple of bay leaves and sprigs of thyme and parsley)

1 pound of skirt or flank steak cut into small chunks

1 tablespooon of Worchestershire sauce

1/4 pearl barley (optional)

Mix the salt and pepper with the flour in a freezer bag and add the meat, shake it so everything gets coated. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and saute the meat until it’s lightly browned, remove from the saucepan and set aside while you prepare the rest of the stew.

Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until they’re softened.

Add the stock and whisk in the tomato paste.

Add the bouquet garni and then the carrots and the meat and if using it, the pearl barley.

Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer for gently  1 1/2-2 hours, checking on it occasionally.

I’ve also found this works well as a casserole in the oven too…if not better than the stove top version.

Serves 4-6.

Grandma would serve it with cabbage and mashed potatoes. I also like roasted parsnips too.

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