What exactly makes a stew a stew and not a soup, a braise or a casserole? First let’s define the dish. Then let’s find out how best to cook one. We turned to The Food Lover’s Companion, one of the most authoritative compendiums of culinary knowledge we know, by the late Sharon Tyler Herbst: “A stew is any dish prepared by stewing,” she wrote.Well, that’s not so helpful. Oh, wait: “The term is most often applied to dishes that contain meat, vegetables and a thick soup-like broth resulting from a combination of the stewing liquid and the natural juices of the food being stewed.” So a stew, by definition, has meat? “Absolutely not,” said Crescent Dragonwagon, the author of Passionate Vegetarian, which includes plenty of stew recipes.“Chunkiness is part of a stew; it’s the potatoes, it’s the squash.” So a stew is a chunky mixture of vegetables, plus or minus meat, that’s slightly thickened after cooking for a while. So we’ve reached a definition, haven’t we? Thicker than a soup, wetter than a casserole, a stew is a chunky mix of ingredients cooked together slowly, with the liquid thickened slightly before serving, that’s good enough to feed king or commoner and leaves both happy and satisfied.THE BEST BASIC STEW For the sake of education, we’ve got some tips on how to make the best basic beef stew.Cut up the meat yourself. We like chuck for beef stew, shoulder for lamb and skinon bone-in thighs for chicken.Use a heavy pot; a cast-iron Dutch oven is a good choice. You can cook the stew on the stove top or in the oven. Put a layer of aluminum foil between lid and pot to make sure the seal is sound. Cooking in the oven provides more insurance against burning or sticking. If you’re using meat, brown it first; the caramelization from browning adds a layer of flavor to the stew. But you don’t have to do that messy flouring step. Just brown the meat in a little oil over medium-high heat, in two or more batches so the meat is not crowded. Transfer the meat to a platter.Cook the aromatics – that would be onion, garlic if you’re using it, carrots and celery and so on – until they’re tender. When they’re done, deglaze the pot with a little water, broth or wine. Let the liquid cook mostly away, then sprinkle a couple of Tbsp. of flour over the aromatics and cook and stir for 1 to 2 minutes.Return the meat to the pot. Add the vegetables after the meat passes the halfway mark. Beef and lamb need 2 to 3 hours total; chicken needs 30 to 60 minutes.Chop the vegetables you’re going to use and add them individually, according to how long they need to cook. Potatoes cut into 2- to 4-cm. cubes need about an hour; ditto carrots and parsnips and sweet potatoes, sliced about 1 cm. thick. Other vegetables’ times vary. Most everything else needs 45 minutes or so, but tender greens need only a couple of minutes, and frozen vegetables need only 15 minutes. Consider slightly unusual vegetables: butternut squash, any kind of bean or pea, turnips, Jerusalem artichoke. Cut them in slices rather than chunks if you want them to cook more quickly.Changing the spices and herbs and using different liquids can move a stew from one part of the globe to another. Cumin, oregano and chili will give the stew Latin tones, but shift to tarragon, thyme and parsley for a French effect, or oregano and rosemary for an Italian version. Similarly, substitute chicken broth for beef for a more gentle flavor or use white wine instead of red, or beer or cider. You’re the boss of the stew, not the other way around.Skim the fat before you serve the stew.Use a ladle, a fat-separating pitcher or whatever other method you prefer. Or – and this is really the best way – make the stew the day before you plan to serve it. Refrigerate it overnight. It will be easy to take off the solidified fat before you reheat it, and the dish will have benefited from its rest.BASIC BEEF STEW WITH POTATOES, CARROTS AND PEAS 8 servings This recipe is about as basic as a beef stew can get. The wine helps tenderize the beef, as well as adding flavor. Choose a full-bodied wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Shiraz. The stew also can be cooked on the stove. If it suits your schedule, prepare the stew and refrigerate it covered for up to three days. Stews are nearly always better the next day.✔ 1.2 kg. beef chuck, cut into 1-cm. cubes ✔ 1 tsp. salt ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground pepper ✔ 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil ✔ 2 large onions, chopped (about 2 cups) ✔ 3 cloves garlic, minced ✔ 3 Tbsp. flour ✔ 1 cup red wine ✔ 2 cups beef broth ✔ 2 bay leaves ✔ 1 tsp. dried thyme ✔ 4 each, peeled, cut into 1-cm. thick slices: carrots, potatoes ✔ 1 cup frozen peas ✔ 1⁄4 cup fresh parsley, minced Heat oven to 150ºC. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Heat 2 Tbsp. of the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add half of the meat. Cook, turning, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a large plate. Repeat with remaining meat, adding additional oil if necessary.Add onions to Dutch oven; cook, stirring, until almost softened, 4 to 5 minutes.Lower heat to medium. Add garlic; cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Stir in flour; cook, stirring, until lightly colored, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in wine, scraping up any browned bits. Add beef broth, bay leaves and thyme; heat mixture to a simmer. Add browned meat and any juices; heat to a simmer.Cover; place in the oven. Cook until meat is nearly tender, 2 to 21⁄2 hours.Add carrots and potatoes; return to oven.Cook until vegetables are tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Stir in frozen peas; cook 5 minutes.Stir in parsley just before serving. If you are planning to serve it the next day, add peas when you heat up the stew.EAT-YOUR-VEGGIES STEW 6 servings This vegetarian stew offers a perfect opportunity to enjoy those long-cooking grains and winter vegetables that aren’t always weeknight-friendly.✔ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil ✔ 3 cloves garlic, minced ✔ 1 large onion, diced ✔ 1 tsp. each, fresh, minced: thyme, sage ✔ 1 tsp. each: salt, freshly ground pepper, dried Italian herb blend ✔ 1⁄2 cup Riesling or dry Vermouth ✔ 2 cups vegetable broth ✔ 1 each, diced: parsnip, carrot ✔ 1 each, peeled, diced: potato, small butternut squash ✔ 1⁄2 cup each: wild rice, diced green beans ✔ 1 can diced tomatoes, drained ✔ 1 cup chopped button mushrooms ✔ 1⁄2 cup each: chopped baby spinach, finely diced Romano or Parmesan cheese Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or stockpot. Add the garlic, onion, thyme, sage, salt, pepper and herb blend.Cook, stirring, until flavors release, about 3 minutes. Add the Riesling.Cook, stirring, 1 minute.Add the broth, parsnip, carrot, potato, squash and wild rice. Heat mixture to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook until vegetables soften, about 30 minutes.Add the green beans, tomatoes and mushrooms. Cook until all the vegetables and rice are tender, 15 to 25 minutes. Stir in the spinach and cook until slightly wilted, 1 minute. Ladle stew into bowls.Add the cheese just before serving.ITALIAN FISH STEW 6 servings Any type of lean white fish such as snapper or halibut would work well in this fragrant, savory stew from Chicago Tribune assistant editor Joe Gray. Traditionally, a mixture of several kinds would be used, so experiment with what looks best at the fish counter.✔ 1⁄4 cup olive oil ✔ 1 large fennel bulb, chopped ✔ 1 tsp. salt ✔ 3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped ✔ 1 can imported Italian plum tomatoes, chopped ✔ 1 cup dry white wine ✔ 1 kg. assorted firm white fish fillets, cut in 5-cm. chunks ✔ 1 cup water, optional ✔ 1⁄2 to 1 tsp. red pepper flakes ✔ Freshly ground black pepper, chopped fresh parsley Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add fennel and 1⁄4 tsp. of the salt.Cook, stirring occasionally, until fennel begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and their juice, the wine and remaining 3⁄4 tsp. salt and heat just to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook until flavors come together, about 15 minutes.Add the fish and 1 cup water or more, if needed. Cook until just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Season with red pepper flakes, black pepper to taste, parsley and more salt if needed.