’Tis the season for stew

Stew 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Stew 311
(photo credit: MCT)
When I want to serve meat, a stew is one of my favorite kinds of entrées to prepare. I slowly simmer the components together in a small amount of liquid, which turns into a savory sauce. As my stew cooks I add different ingredients according to their cooking times, tasting occasionally and adjusting the seasoning several times.
It was in France that I became fond of making stews. At cooking school I learned that as a stew cooks, there is a flavor exchange between the meat, the vegetables and the sauce, so that they contribute flavor to each other and to the stew as a whole. Our chefinstructors taught us to brown a little flour with the sautéed meat to lightly thicken the stew’s liquid. (To see how it’s done, see the beef stew recipe below.) When I traveled around France, I appreciated the way cooks used these basic techniques to prepare stews in a variety of flavors according to their local traditions – cooked with beer in the north, with red or white wine in the wine producing regions, with tomatoes and olive oil in the south and with a hint of hot pepper in the southwest.
The Jews of France make delicious stews as holiday dishes. Jewish cooking in France was originally Roman style, said Joan Nathan, author of Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France. In a talk Nathan gave recently for the Culinary Historians of Southern California, she discussed the ingredients used by France’s first Jews, who lived in the southern part of the country: olive oil, wine, onions, garlic, wild fennel, spinach and probably eggplant.
Nathan has a recipe for chicken Provençal with fennel and garlic, a dish “eaten by Rashi [the famous Torah commentator] and his family in the eleventh century.” To make it, Nathan sautés fennel bulb halves and garlic cloves slowly in olive oil and simmers them with sautéed chicken pieces and white wine.
Fennel, garlic and white wine also flavor chicken bohemienne, along with peppers, tomatoes and onions, a recipe given to Nathan by Baroness Nadine de Rothschild. Fresh thyme and green olives enhance the sauce of an old Jewish recipe for Provençal lamb, which cooks with onions, carrots and garlic sautéed in olive oil, as well as tomatoes and tomato paste.
Stews with subtle flavors are favored by French Jews from Alsace and those with central European roots. The delicate taste of veal is highlighted in the Alsatian veal ragout in white sauce made by Freddy Raphael, author of Les Recettes de la Table Juive (The Recipes of the Jewish Table), for which veal shoulder cubes stew in a sauce of chicken broth and chopped onion thickened with flour cooked lightly in oil. Marcelle Roumi, author of La Cuisine de Ma Mère (My Mother’s Cuisine), prepares a simple stew of beef and carrots with sautéed onion and bay leaves, and another stew of beef browned in oil or chicken fat and cooked with chopped cabbage and with sautéed onions sprinkled with flour.
Some Jews, like Muriel Attia, author of La Cuisine Kasher Française (Kosher French Cuisine), prepare kosher versions of classic French dishes. Attia makes lamb navarin, a popular entree of lamb shoulder browned in oil, sprinkled with flour and a touch of sugar and cooked with tomatoes, garlic and a bouquet garni of fresh herbs. When the lamb is tender, vegetables – carrots, turnips and green beans – are added. Coriander seeds, shallots, chervil (a delicate herb related to parsley) and white wine flavor her stew of chicken with leeks and mushrooms.
This season, when the weather is chilly, is the perfect time to prepare and eat stews. Besides, stews with a side dish of latkes make terrific Hanukka entrees. The delicately crisp potato latkes complement the soft textures of the components of a stew.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and of the three-volume Fresh from France cookbook series.
This recipe, for the entree that was eaten by Rashi, is from Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous. Author Joan Nathan writes: “Chicken flavored with fennel and garlic is a very Jewish Friday night dish... There is something very comforting about the long-simmered fennel and garlic topped by the sautéed chicken.”
Makes 6 servings
1⁄4 cup olive oil 3 large fennel bulbs (about 1.8 kg. or 4 pounds), cut in half, with 2 Tbsp. of the fronds, chopped 1 head garlic, peeled and separated Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste About 1.6 kg, (31⁄2 pounds) chicken thighs and drumsticks 1⁄2 cup white wine 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the fennel bulbs and the garlic and sauté slowly over medium heat for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally with tongs. Season with salt and pepper and carefully transfer to a baking pan, shaking the excess oil back into the skillet.
Preheat the oven to 190ºC (375ºF) and season the chicken with salt and pepper. Saute in the oil in the skillet until browned on all sides.
Arrange the chicken on top of the fennel and garlic. Deglaze the skillet with the wine, scraping the sides and bottom with a wooden spoon. Reduce the wine and juices until you have half the quantity and pour over the chicken. Cover the chicken with aluminum foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil, add the chopped fennel fronds to the sauce and continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the chicken is tender and the fennel cooked. Serve sprinkled with parsley.
Mint gives this stew a refreshing taste and balances its richness. During Hanukka I like the stew with potato latkes. Other good accompaniments are steamed rice or couscous. You can make the stew in advance and keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Add the mint and lemon juice just before serving.
Makes 4 servings
900 gr. (2 pounds) boneless beef chuck, excess fat trimmed, cut in 3- to 3.8-cm. (11⁄4- to 11⁄2-inch) pieces 3 to 4 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 Tbsp. plus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour 3 to 31⁄2 cups water
1⁄4 tsp. firmly packed crushed saffron threads (2 large pinches) Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 Tbsp. tomato paste 450 gr. (1 pound) celery (5 large stalks), peeled, halved lengthwise and cut in 5-cm (2-inch) pieces 2 Tbsp. minced fresh mint 1 tsp. fresh strained lemon juice
Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 230ºC (450ºF). Pat beef dry. Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons oil in 4- to 5-liter (4- to 5- quart) heavy flameproof casserole over mediumhigh heat. Add one third to one half of beef, or enough so pieces do not touch each other. Brown beef on all sides, taking about 7 minutes. Using slotted spatula, transfer it to plate. Continue with remaining beef.
Add onion to casserole and cook over low heat, stirring often, until softened, about 7 minutes. Return meat to pan, reserving any juices on plate, and sprinkle meat with flour. Toss lightly to coat meat with flour. Bake uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring once. Remove casserole and reduce oven temperature to 160ºC (325ºF).
Pour juices from plate over beef. Stir in 3 cups water, or enough to barely cover beef. Bring to boil, stirring often. Add saffron, salt and pepper. Cover and bake, stirring and turning beef cubes over occasionally, 1 hour and 15 minutes. If pan appears dry or sauce is too thick, stir in remaining water. Continue baking, stirring occasionally, until beef is just tender when pierced with thin-bladed knife, about 15 to 30 minutes. Stir in tomato paste.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium- high heat, add celery and sauté until beginning to soften but not to brown, about 3 minutes. Add celery pieces to stew and push them down into sauce. Bake until celery is just tender, about 15 minutes.
Sauce should be thick enough to lightly coat spoon. If it is too thick, stir in a few tablespoons water to thin it out. If it is too thin, carefully remove beef and vegetables using slotted spoon; boil sauce, uncovered, stirring often, until lightly thickened, and then return beef and vegetables to casserole and heat through.
Remove from heat. Stir in mint and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve stew from enameled casserole or deep serving dish.