The New Stew: Light and Easy

Stews, those aromatic long-simmered one-pot meals of meat and vegetables, represent the best of home cooking. They're satisfying and comforting, hearty without being heavy. Stews are practical; reheating actually enhances their melded flavors, and most stews freeze extremely well.

Stews are also adaptable to today's food preferences. It's easy to cook a luscious stew that uses little fat and allows for less meat and more vegetables per serving than those of the past.

One aspect of stew preparation deserves further attention. Although they are cooked in one pot and are relatively easy to make, they are not intended for people who don't like to cook. Each preparatory step requires a certain focus from the cook, and cannot be executed too quickly or carelessly. That's the magic of a stew; the ingredients go into the casserole in a prescribed order and emerge a harmonious, delicious meal.

The stews that follow are so varied that you may be tempted to try every one of them. The Farmhouse Stew with turkey, cabbage and potatoes cooks in broth intensely flavored with well-smoked bacon and Hungarian sweet paprika. The Harvest Vegetable Stew with white beans is naturally sweetened by the mix of squash with the vegetables, and is completely satisfying without any meat. The Spring Lamb Stew with leeks, vegetables and Port is seasoned with cumin and cayenne, and garnished with minced cilantro (fresh coriander).

These stews require little additional help to make them a great meal--just good bread to sop up the juices and a side of green salad, stewed fruit or warmed applesauce. Sometimes just a condiment suffices: chutney, or corn or cabbage relish. A plate of brownies or lemon bars and a bowl of chilled grapes are the perfect dessert.

Slightly sweet-and-sour, this is a hearty, peasanty mix with a deliciously light touch. It's always surprising how cabbage cooks to such sweetness. The turkey comes out moist and tender, seeming more like veal. If you prefer, 8 ounces of smoked sausage (cut into 1/2-inch slices) can be substituted for the bacon (which should be deeply smoked for the best flavor). Warm applesauce or a Waldorf salad of tart apples, walnuts and currants, rye rolls with caraway seeds and chocolate brownies round out this meal perfectly.

FARMHOUSE STEW OF

TURKEY, CABBAGE

AND POTATOES

4 ounces thick-sliced applewood smoked bacon (about 5 slices), finely diced

2 to 3 tablespoons safflower oil

1/2 turkey breast (about 1 3/4 pounds), boned, skinned and well-trimmed, cut in 1-inch chunks

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

3 medium onions, cut in quarters

1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

3 large cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons Hungarian sweet paprika

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 medium head cabbage, cored, each half cut in eighths

10 small red potatoes, cut in halves

3 medium carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch diagonal slices

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 bay leaf

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt

Chives, optional

Place bacon slices in heavy 6-quart casserole with lid. Brown and stir over high heat, about 2 minutes. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Pour off fat from casserole. Heat 1 tablespoon safflower oil in casserole over medium-high heat.

Pat turkey dry with paper towels. Combine turkey, flour, salt and pepper in large plastic food bag and shake to coat meat. Brown meat in single layer without crowding, in batches if necessary, about 3 minutes per batch, stirring often and adding oil if needed. Remove as browned.

When last of meat is removed, place onions in casserole and cook over medium-high heat until tender, about 4 minutes, stirring often. Add brown sugar and cook until onions are coated and lightly browned, about 4 more minutes, stirring often. Add garlic and paprika. Stir well and cook 1 minute until fragrant and well blended. Add chicken broth, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, vinegar, bay leaf and cayenne. Bring to boil and stir well. Mix in turkey.

Cover and place in center of 350-degree oven and bake 1 hour. Remove cover, stir well and bake uncovered 15 minutes more. Adjust seasonings. Remove bay leaf. Serve hot. Garnish with chives, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days and frozen 3 months. Let come to room temperature before reheating. Reheat stew gently, covered, in 350-degree oven or in microwave oven. Add water for desired consistency.

The lightness of this lamb stew is due in part to the Port, carrots and parsnips, all sweet and mild ingredients. The cumin adds an interesting tang and the coriander a fresh finish. Serve with a red cabbage slaw or mixed green salad, tossed with a mild horseradish-mustard dressing and crusty French or Italian bread. Plan lemon bars for dessert.

SPRING LAMB STEW

WITH LEEKS,

VEGETABLES AND

PORT WINE

3 tablespoons light-tasting olive oil

2 pounds leg of lamb, cut in 1-inch squares, trimmed of all visible fat

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

3 large cloves garlic, minced

3 medium leeks (about 1 pound total), trimmed of tough green parts, split, washed and thinly sliced

8 ounces mushrooms, cut in 1/2-inch slices

7 slender carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch diagonal slices

3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch diagonal slices

3 large russet potatoes, scrubbed, split lengthwise and cut in 3/4-inch slices

1 (14-1/2 ounce) can clear beef broth

1 cup ruby red Port

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/3 cup minced cilantro

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in heavy 5-quart casserole with lid over medium-high heat until hot. Pat meat dry with paper towels. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Lightly brown half of meat about 3 minutes, stirring often. Remove meat and set aside. Add another tablespoon olive oil to casserole and brown remaining meat. Add to first batch and set aside. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in casserole. Add garlic, leeks and mushrooms. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add reserved lamb with juices, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, beef broth, Port, water, cumin and cayenne pepper. Mix well to combine. Bring to boil.

Once stew is boiling, use back of wooden spoon to press vegetables and meat into liquid (liquid need not cover ingredients). Cover casserole and place in center of 350-degree oven. Bake 30 minutes.

Uncover casserole, stir gently, and press vegetables and meat back into liquid. Bake, uncovered, until meat is tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Serve hot, garnished with cilantro. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days and frozen 3 months. Thaw before cooking. Reheat stew gently, covered, in 350-degree oven or in microwave oven, adding water as needed for desired consistency.

This is a strictly vegetarian stew. It thickens when made ahead and reheated, but you just need to add enough water for a flowing sauce and gently combine. Add warm grainy wheat bread, a tossed green salad and brownies for a wonderful meal. This stew would also be a great side vegetable dish with a baked ham, serving about 12.

HARVEST VEGETABLE

STEW

1 1/2 tablespoons light-tasting olive oil

3 large cloves garlic, minced

1 large butternut squash, about 2 1/2 pounds, peeled, seeded, cut in 1-inch squares

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 medium sweet potato, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut in 3/4-inch slices

8 small red potatoes, scrubbed and halved

1 pint pearl onions, peeled (best to blanch them stovetop or in microwave oven to loosen skins)

1 medium cauliflower, separated in 1-inch florets

1 (24-ounce) can vegetable cocktail juice

1 1/4 cups water

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Red pepper flakes

1 (15-ounce) can Great Northern white beans, rinsed and drained

1 sweet red pepper, diced 1/3-inch

1 green pepper, diced 1/3-inch

8 green onions, thinly sliced

Heat oil in 6-quart casserole with lid over medium-high heat. Add garlic, squash and thyme. Cook until heated through and fragrant, about 4 minutes, stirring very often to avoid sticking or burning. Add sweet potato, red potatoes, pearl onions, cauliflower, cocktail juice, water, bay leaves, salt and red pepper flakes. Bring to boil. Stir gently and press vegetables into liquid. (Liquid need not cover vegetables).

Cover casserole and bake in center of 350-degree oven, until vegetables are almost tender, about 35 to 40 minutes, stirring once midway and pressing vegetables back into liquid. (Do not overcook vegetables--they may become mushy when reheated.) Add white beans and diced peppers. Mix to combine. Cook, uncovered, until vegetables are just tender but still intact and beans and peppers are heated through, about 10 more minutes. Adjust seasonings.

Remove bay leaves. Serve hot, garnished with green onions. Offer red pepper flakes in small dish. Makes 8 servings.

Note: Other hard squashes can be substituted for butternut squash. In fall, pumpkin adds great flavor. Also, stew can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days and frozen 3 months. Let come to room temperature before reheating. Reheat gently, covered, in 350-degree oven or in microwave oven, adding water for desired consistency of sauce. Adjust seasonings.

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