After cooking more than 40,000 meals and writing an award-winning cookbook, Help-I Gotta Cook! (Cookbook of the Year for 2007), you might think I had learned everything I needed to know. Wrong. If you are a serious cook (is there any other kind?) you never stop learning new techniques about how to treat various foods. That’s what makes cooking a constant work in progress.
Several years ago, while writing my cookbook, I wondered why the making of a stew hadn’t changed in centuries. Granted, the advent of the slow cooker added a new dimension to stew making but the emphasis was always on long, slow cooking which almost guaranteed that the meat would be tough and stringy and the vegetables mushy. One reason for this is that stews were always suggested for those cuts of meat that were tough to begin with and the hope was that long cooking would make them more tender. You might get rid of a little bit of toughness that way but you exchanged it for a piece of meat that was now stringy.
That line of thinking caused me to wonder why I couldn’t have the rich taste and consistency of a wonderful stew, have vegetables that weren’t cooked to death and meat that, heaven forbid, might even be tender and medium rare! And so I came up with Chef Dugan’s two-stage method for braising and stewing, a culinary breakthrough if there ever was one! My method suggests that you cook the meat, poultry or fish to the degree of doneness that best compliments what you are cooking and do the same for the vegetables.
For instance, if you are making a chicken stew, cook the breasts, or other parts, in a nice broth, canned is okay, until they are done to perfection. For poultry this usually means about 15-20 minutes at a slow simmer for the breasts and for the other parts perhaps 30 minutes. Set the chicken aside and prepare your vegetable, usually carrots, celery, onions, potatoes and whatever else pleases you. Then cook the vegetables, again a a low simmer until they are done but not mushy. Taste-test them as you go along to make sure they retain just a little bit of crunch. While you are doing this your broth is becoming very tasty with first the juices from the chicken and then the vegetables. If you see the broth evaporating too much just add some more canned broth and perhaps a little white wine. Then, when you are ready to eat your stew simply combine the chicken with the vegetables, heat for a few minutes and serve.
A meat stew, made with my method, is organized the same way but it uses high quality meat, not the junk you see in the supermarket called stewing beef. You can use top sirloin, New York Strlps, Rib-Eyes or even Filet Mignon. I know, this is extravagant when you use these cuts but we are talking about pushing the envelope here with the world’s first really gourmet stew. Once again you prepare the meat to the degree of doneness you like, keeping it mind that the meat will continue to cook a little once you add it to the broth. If you are a little concerned about this, my cookbook contains an old French recipe for poached beef tenderloin, or “a la ficelle”, tenderloin on a string, which does exactly the same thing without the accompanying stew. Incidentally, veal can be used as well as beef. Don’t forget to add a little of the red wine you are drinking before it’s all gone and one last suggestion. With the kind of meat quality you will be dealing with, do not cut it up into bite-sized pieces. This is a knife, fork and spoon meal and the meat should be cut into at least 2″ pieces so that you can control the level of doneness you desire.
If you are making a fish stew, such as Cioppino use the same method of two-stage cooking but do the fish and shellfish last. They should be added to the finished broth only minutes before serving. Once the fish and shellfish is added, take the pot off the heat and let it stand for five minutes. The fish will be done to perfection. Once again, don’t forget a little white wine.
Food purists will want me to tell you that the best broths are made with roasted beef or chicken bones and, to some extent they are right. But for us common folks, with not a lot of time to prepare an evening meal, canned chicken, beef or clam broth will do just as well.
My last suggestion is to experiment a little with the vegetables. Try parsnips for instance, or green beans, or cauliflower in your stews. Instead of potatoes use white beans or, if you own my cookbook, make some spaetzle, little German dumplings to add to the stew. If you don’t own my cookbook you should. As one review said, it’s like having a cooking instructor in your kitchen and I thank you very much for inviting me.
You can buy the book, and learn more about cooking, by going to my webpage, http://www.ineedtocook.com