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Kitchen Mailbox Countdown to Dinner Dining
Stewed in their own juices, bold, beefy dishes show their tender sides

Thursday, February 18, 1999

By Virginia Phillips

You'd be so nice to come home to..."That's what I am singing to the beef brisket bubbling in the oven in preparation for Sunday dinner with our near-and-dear. The minute they come in the door, this pot's slow-simmered, wine-laced aroma will wrap around them like a hug.

Stew is such a team player.

I use the term loosely, meaning any thick, hearty, braised meat dish you can eat with a spoon.

This could be Beef in Barbera, a brisket browned and simmered in fruity, red Italian wine, yielding huge bistro perfume and a rich, glistening sauce. Or it could be the no-pretentions-at-all Paw Paw's Beef Short Ribs, from James Villas' delightful book about American stews, "Stews, Bogs & Burgoos," a preparation calling for so few ingredients and so little work you are sure there must be some mistake. That is, until you pick up that first full-flavored spoonful and begin to wonder how you could have overlooked short ribs so long.

Another entry, Meltaway Saute of Veal, calls for just three things, veal shoulder, onions and pasta. This is a Corsican dish Patricia Wells discovered in a Paris bistro. The proprietor showing Wells how to make it apologized for its simplicity, saying the dish was tout bete, "too dumb," to be worth sharing. But you'll be amazed, as was Wells, that so much flavor could come from so few ingredients.

A similarly streamlined option is the Pittsburgh Pot-au-Feu. A real pot-au- feu (meaning a pot simmering on the back of the stove) traditionally involves separate poaching of beef, chicken, sausage and vegetables, along with less favored meat parts, such as tongue and even calf's head. The cooking broth is often served first, with the sliced meats on a platter to follow.

The Pittsburgh version, so named because it contains kielbasa, is a one-dish presentation that couldn't be easier or more infused with flavor. It requires chicken legs and thighs, beef short ribs or shanks and beef kielbasa slowly cooked in diluted beef broth, red wine, a few carrots, onion chunks and celery. Marilyn Erwin, director of publications for The Historical Society of Pittsburgh, for whom this recipe is a standby, calls it right when she says, "There is something yummy about chicken in beef broth." Yummy it is, served in large, shallow bowls with plain boiled potatoes or ladled over noodles.

Don't forget to offer an assortment of the dish's traditional condiments, such as sour gherkins, Dijon mustard, freshly grated horseradish, sour cream and salt, preferably big flakes of sea salt.

A less traditional but delightful choice is Hoosier Sweet-Sour Pork Spareribs and Sweet Potato Stew. A waitress at Groves Restaurant in Bloomington, Ind., confided her recipe to James Villas for this tangy, tender blend of pork, sweet potatoes, mustard and orange juice. Serve it in shallow bowls, with crusty bread to mop up sauce, and don't be offended if someone picks up the bones to nibble them clean. Note that almost any stew improves on made being two or three days ahead, giving the contents time to meld flavors and the cook a chance to de-fat the pot with ease.

In cold weather we put the hot pan outside so that the grease comes to the surface fast in a solid, easy- to-remove layer. (If you are in a rush, you can de-fat by pouring broth into a gallon plastic bag, sealing the top and cutting a tiny corner off the bottom. From this hole, you will pour out the stock into a pan until you get near the fat floating at the top, at which time you will pinch off the flow at the bottom and throw the bag away.)

When you are ready, this accommodating entrée can be reheated very slowly, so that it will fill the house with all those great aromas again and provide a relaxing time for cook and guests to have a glass of wine.

Stew freezes perfectly for three or four months, so long as there is enough liquid to cover the meat and vegetables. You may as well double quantities, freeze some and then amaze people someday with a hearty little supper on a whim. One caution: Potatoes turn to mush when frozen. So put only enough in the pot for the first time around, then boil additional potatoes when you are ready to reheat the thawed portion.

Stew also wins the congeniality prize since its seasonings are usually on the unsurprising side, and the meat, its mainstay, bubbles in an aromatic broth until it turns tender as a mother's heart. So the end result, soothing and sensual, is fine fare for all ages and most digestive systems. Appetites may surprise you, so allow generous portions.

It's hard to name a rival as good, warming and filling-and tolerant of the cook's inattention. There are only three things you have to do right.

One: Sear the meat properly when required. This means in small batches to avoid crowding, and on high enough heat not to stew in its own juices. If you are browning meat that has been dusted with flour, you might try Barbara Kafka's trick and add a tablespoon of confectioners' sugar to the seasoned flour mixture to hasten caramelization.

Two: Never allow the kettle to boil. That much heat and agitation cooks too fast, not allowing flavors to develop and results in stringy meat, soggy vegetables and cloudy broth. Your stew should burble along at a simmer, with gentle bubbles breaking now and then.

Three: You should equip yourself with the best large, heavy pot you can afford. In the best of worlds this would be an enameled, cast-iron, such as Le Creuset, or a weighty, non-reactive pot such as All-Clad. These both perform brilliantly at either end of the heat spectrum. If out of reach, the next best thing would be any really heavy large non-reactive pan. Do not be tempted to use plain cast-iron. Though heavy and cheap, uncoated cast- iron, no matter how well seasoned, contributes unpleasant metallic flavors when in contact with acidic foods such as tomatoes, citrus or wine.

A final word to mull when building a fine stew is "about," as in about how much, how long, how thick, how thin. Once the liquid has been added and your stew is simmering away, time is elastic. Pans, flames and ovens vary. You want to reach the point that the meat is very, very tender, almost melting. When this occurs, if the braising liquid is too thick, add a little water, wine or broth. If too thin, pour most of it off into another pot and cook it down at a low boil 10 or 15 minutes until it has gained a little substance.

The best cuts are worth shopping around for

It pays to be a shopper when it comes to stew meat. Beef stew cuts, such as chuck, shoulder short ribs and brisket, coming from the steer forequarter, and rump roast from the hindquarter, are "book"-priced in the $3 to $3.40 per pound range, but are periodically featured for less. Beef shank recently was $1.99 a pound. Watch for chuck roast sales, when the price goes as low as $1.49. The butcher will cut a roast into stew cubes at no charge. This way you can avoid the surcharge you pay when you buy already cut up and packaged chuck to use for stew.

Old-fashioned beef stew cuts such as shin, neck and plate boil are not often carried in large supermarkets any more, but may be available in specialty markets.

Pork country ribs sold recently for $2.59, a little less for "family packs." They go as low as $2 on sale. Lamb shoulder recently was $3.69, lamb shanks, $3.19. Veal, though a treat, is seldom a bargain, with shoulder selling recently at $4.99.

Virginia Phillips is a free-lance writer and translator of French and Spanish living in Mt. Lebanon.

Related Recipes:

Meltaway Saute of Veal
Hoosier Pork Spareribs and Sweet Potato Stew
Paw-Paw's Short Ribs of Beef
Beef in Barbera
Pittsburgh Pot-au-feu

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