With earmuffs ready, writer stews over cliché

Nothing in the world warms you to the bones and chases away the chill like sitting down to a comforting meal of hot, hearty stew. Mmm, mmm, mmmmm.

Sound familiar? It should. It's the opening of practically every food story on cold-weather stews ever written. Well, bunk, I say. I don't know about you, but, as a lifelong New Englander, and a survivor of more decades of winters than I'll admit, I'll tell you what warms me when the Montreal Express passes through: heavy wool socks, thermal underwear, and a pair of fuzzy rabbit-fur earmuffs. I may not make the cover of Men's Quarterly as some kind of fashion statement, but at least I'll be warm.

Not that stews aren't an appropriate meal when Jack Frost is your unexpected guest. Wafting from the back burner, their heady aromas grab your nostrils like a nose ring and pull you into the kitchen, where you can't help but succumb to their luscious appeal.

For the following stews, we're going underground. Gone are the warm-weather, vine-ripened tomatoes, high-rise corn, and summer squashes that hide from the sun under their umbrella leaves. That was July, this is November. Fresh root vegetables are the rule here: sweet, colorful carrots, tart turnips, elegant leeks, and comforting potatoes. For added warmth and interest, we've sweetened them with a touch of golden honey and amber maple syrup.

Remember that putting together a stew is not rocket science. If, for instance, you'd sooner eat tripe than turnip, substitute a vegetable that's more to your liking, such as parsnips or carrots. If you love garlic, add some - or more, if it's already included in the recipe. Don't like it? Leave it out.

If the recipe calls for three carrots, and you have four, put all of them in. Or two onions, and you have only one. Fine. Stews are very forgiving and always open to agreement with the particularities of your palate.

Some of the best stews I've concocted have been those that start with the notion that, well, I'd better clean out my refrigerator. In goes that unused turnip half, the odd carrots, and a leftover onion.

Don't forget the old axiom that stews can be made a day or two ahead, and kept in the fridge for a day or more. In fact, most cooks feel that this quiet time alone allows the ingredients to meld and the flavor to improve.

Stew reheats beautifully. Just slowly heat it over a low flame, being careful not to boil it. If you want a thinner stew, add water or chicken stock.

If you want to thicken a stew, take a cup of the warm stew gravy, add a tablespoon or two of flour, and stir it into the stew while it's reheating.

These one-pot dishes are a meal in themselves. A loaf of crispy bread warmed in the oven and a glass of chilled cider are all you'll need to complete the picture. Just pass the salt, pepper, and earmuffs.

Honeyed Pork and Turnip Stew

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 pounds boneless pork roast or shoulder, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes, trimmed of visible fat

1/4 cup flour for dredging

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon powdered ginger

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 cup honey

1 cup chicken stock

1-1/2 pounds turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces cipolline, white pearl, or red pearl onions

2 Granny Smith or other tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut in wedges

Put 2 tablespoons of the oil, the chopped onion, and chopped garlic in a large, heavy frying pan. Cook, stirring, over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until onion is translucent and garlic is barely golden. Transfer to heavy, covered Dutch oven or covered casserole dish.

Pat pork dry with paper towels. Put flour, salt, and pepper in a medium-sized paper bag. Add pork cubes and shake to thoroughly dredge. (The contents will shake more easily in a paper bag than a plastic one.)

Reheat frying pan to medium and add about 2 tablespoons more oil. When hot, add pork in small batches; brown on all sides. As pork browns, transfer cubes to Dutch oven or casserole dish. Season pork with ginger and allspice.

Deglaze frying pan by pouring about 1/2 cup water in pan and scrape bottom with wooden spoon to release pork bits; add honey and pour over pork in casserole dish. Add chicken stock and turnips. Bring ingredients in the casserole dish to a boil, and immediately turn down heat. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, cut a shallow X in root end of the onions. Bring to a boil just enough water to cover onions. When water boils, drop in onions; blanch for 1 minute, drain, and plunge onions into ice water to stop cooking process. Trim tops of onions, and slip off papery skins. (A sharp paring knife is useful for this.)

After casserole has simmered for about an hour, stir in onions and apples; simmer for another 1/2 hour, or until vegetables are tender. To remove fat from stew, carefully pour liquid from casserole into a bowl. When liquid has settled, spoon off as much fat as possible. (Another method is to use a bulb baster by plunging baster beneath fatty liquid, and basting the defatted juices back into the casserole.) Transfer liquid back to stew. Serves 4.

New England Maple-Braised Short Ribs of Beef

6 large leeks

Vegetable oil

4 pounds meaty short ribs of beef

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 cup ketchup or tomato sauce

1 cup chicken or beef stock

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

4 carrots, scraped and cut into 3-inch pieces

3 potatoes (preferably Yukon Gold), peeled and cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Trim root end and most of the green from leeks. Cut down through center of leeks to within 1 inch of root end. Rinse under cold running water, fanning out leeks to thoroughly remove all grit and sand.

Heat about 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy frying pan. Brown ribs, a few at a time; transfer to heavy covered casserole dish or Dutch oven. Add leeks to pan; cook until they begin to brown - about 10 to 15 minutes.

Discard fat from pan and add 1/2 cup water. Scrape pan with wooden spoon to deglaze; pour pan juices into casserole.

Place a double layer of aluminum foil tightly over casserole, pressing foil tightly around rim. Place cover over casserole and cook in oven for 1 hour; remove.

Carefully pour off juices from casserole into a bowl and degrease with either a spoon or bulb baster (see other recipe).

Add salt and pepper, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, ketchup or tomato sauce, chicken or beef stock, balsamic vinegar, carrots, and potatoes to casserole; cover, and return to oven and cook an additional 1-1/2 hours, or until meat is fork-tender. Serves 6.

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