The humble, eager-to-please stew

There's something comforting to be found in the depths of bone-rattling winters, at least when you're indoors and it's dinnertime: stews.

And who doesn't love stews? They're easy to prepare, humble, eager to please, and – perhaps best of all – always open to suggestions. It may be true that nothing chases the chills away quite the same as flannel sheets do, but stews have an advantage. They're a lot more appetizing. (Unless, of course, you're hosting a flock of boll weevils.)

Stews are as old as pots. A container, a liquid, two or more ingredients, heat, and voilà, you have a stew. What could be simpler? Maybe a Pop Tart, but not much else.

As simple as they can be, however, they're not usually quick. With the exception of fish stews, they can require hours of slow, gentle cooking. The good news is that most of the cooking time can be done while you're watching your favorite soaps.

Stew meats are often the less expensive cuts that, although flavorful, are not the most tender. But a tough cut of meat, simmered slowly in water or a liquid with a variety of vegetables and spices, results in a succulently tender offering replete with a flavorful, thick sauce. The vegetables, if not added too soon, should be tender but not soggy, and the meat cutable with the side of a fork. And no matter how delicious the first day, stews only improve the next, after the flavors have melded into a savory delight. This makes them perfect for entertaining; prepare them one day, serve the next.

Cuisines throughout the world have their signature stews: Irish Stew is a simple ragout of lamb, onions, and potatoes. The United States has its regional ones as varied as Brunswick Stew in the South to Lobster Stew in New England. Belgium has its carbonnade flamande. And leave it to the French to complicate things with their signature fish stew from Marseilles, bouillabaisse; and from southwest France, the complex cassoulet, a stew that, along with the required white beans, may include pork, lamb, preserved goose, and even partridge when in season.

Anatole France, writing in his "Histoire Comique," claimed that the cassoulet served in his favorite Paris restaurant had been cooking for 20 years! The cassoulet, like its cousin pot-au-feu, can comfortably simmer in a French kitchen for decades. One simply ladles out enough for a meal, and adds a few ingredients to the pot at the same time.

Happily, the stew recipes above take considerably less cooking time.

Fish stew with tomatoes, scallions, and herbs

Don't let the number of ingredients fool you; this is a simple-to-prepare main course. Being a fish stew, it does not require prolonged simmering.

Serve both these stews with a quality, crusty, white bread to soak up the juices and a simple salad, if desired.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 whole scallions, trimmed, cut into three-inch lengths
1 large red or green bell pepper, cored, chopped
1 stalk celery, including green top, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, peeled, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 24-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes including juice, coarsely chopped
2 cups (two 8-ounce bottles) clam juice
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
12 large sea scallops
12 large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
12 live littleneck or mahogany clams, shells scrubbed
3/4 pounds firm white fish such as tilapia or swordfish, cut into 1-inch pieces
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley

In a large pot, heat olive oil. When hot, add scallions, pepper, celery, garlic, and bay leaf. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, clam juice, tarragon, oregano, and basil. Bring to a boil, cover and turn heat down to simmer. Cook 10 minutes. Remove cover and continue to simmer about 10 minutes more until sauce begins to thicken slightly. Add scallops, shrimp, clams, and fish. Cover, turn up heat to medium, and cook five to seven minutes or until clams have opened. Season with pepper.

Divide fish equally into four bowls, add the broth, and top with chopped parsley.

Serves 4.

Lamb stew with white beans and artichokes

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
1-1/2 pounds boneless shoulder or stew lamb cut into 2-inch pieces
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1 bay leaf
2 14-ounce cans chicken or beef broth
1 large carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 14-ounce can or jar of artichoke hearts in water, drained
1 14-ounce can white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

In a large, heavy skillet, heat two tablespoons of the olive oil. Add onion and sauté until wilted (about 10 to 15 minutes). Remove onions with slotted spoon and set aside. Add remaining olive oil to skillet. Sauté lamb until browned on all sides. Place onions and lamb in a heavy pot (cast iron works well). Add thyme, basil, bay leaf, and broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and partially cover. Simmer for 1-1/2 hours until lamb is very tender.

Add carrot and celery. Turn heat to medium and cook, uncovered, until carrot is tender and broth has reduced to a stewlike consistency, about 10 minutes. Add mustard, artichoke hearts, and beans. Continue cooking until artichokes and beans are heated through, about five minutes. Divide equally into bowls. Top with chopped parsley.

Serves 4 to 6.

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