If Dinah Washington had ever recorded a song about stew in springtime, the first line would have to be, “What a difference a name makes.” Blanquette, navarin, ragout and fricassee are all stews but sound so much more seductive in a season when the weather could use treatment for mood swings. They seem as suited to dinner on a balmy night as on a chilly one.
And unlike their four-letter counterpart in months just past, spring stews have other elegant aspects. They are lighter and jazzier, not to mention far less dependent on big chunks of meat. But they share the most alluring characteristic of any stew: A melange of ingredients cooked to tenderness amalgamates into one dish that is so much more than its parts.
Unlike heavy boeuf bourguignon, spring stews also eat up much less of an afternoon over the stove. A mixture of seafood will stew into a sumptuous dinner in half an hour or so, and that includes cooking potatoes that are not exactly instant.
The ingredients at hand set spring stews apart too. Although industrial agriculture has put most traditional harbingers of the season into supermarkets year-round, whether lamb or asparagus, there is still something ephemeral-feeling about vegetables and herbs associated with the beginning of May.
Dill and chives have a liveliness that autumnal rosemary and wintry sage do not; ramps and morels and peas all taste like the season. Even winter vegetables such as leeks and carrots are available in infant sizes right now, making them fit for an enlightened stew.
For the main ingredients, veal may be a perennial staple of the meat aisle, but it still seems and tastes like spring.
Seafood of just about any type also looks more alluring than beef for an elegant stew this time of year. And baby chickens, the ones the French consider poussin, are made for stewing because they take on so much flavor from any liquid they cook with while retaining the tenderness and delicacy that distinguish them from an old coq in a vin.
The method is the same as for winter stewing, though it’s done more quickly. The main ingredients are cooked in liquid, in a covered pot or pan, over a burner or in an oven. It’s much like braising, but here more liquid is involved, and usually two or three liquids, enough to make a sauce.
This liquid foundation is also more delicate than the red wine and beef stock that are essentials in heavy winter stews. Spring stews use vermouth or white wine, court bouillon or clam juice, cream or creme fraiche; not all are literally light, but they certainly feel light.
(The pot for a stew should be anything but light, though, or the liquid will cook away before the monkfish or veal turns tender. Copper is ideal because it retains heat so well; a sturdy Dutch oven -- either plain cast iron or enameled cast iron such as Le Creuset -- will work extremely well. All those are designed to set over a stove-top burner, where it is easier to control the heat than in the oven, where winter stews can be stowed for hours unattended.)
Blanquette de veau is the quintessential bridge between winter and summer: lighter-than-beef veal with mushrooms and pearl onions, “blanketed” in a white sauce.
Veal cooks to buttery softness in much less time than beef, and because it is more delicate it needs no aggressive browning to lay down a deep flavor. The cubes of meat have to be blanched, but just to remove impurities to keep the color light. That takes minutes and is much less messy than flouring and searing beef.
Stewing also transforms poussin, the baby chickens that are so young their flavor is more subtle than pronounced. Browning them, then simmering them in wine and stock flavored with aromatic ramps brings out an intensity roasting would not. Combining them with asparagus and morels makes them a one-pot dinner that happens to be extremely elegant.
You can also put together seafood stews in daylight saving time. Monkfish is ideal as the foundation because it is the one fish that gets softer the longer it cooks, and never falls apart or dries out.
Scallops and crab are complementary in taste and texture, and then all you need are some sliced fingerling potatoes and green peas. As with all stews, the cooking liquid becomes the very flavorful sauce with just a touch of cream.
The poussin and seafood stews are meals in themselves. But buttered noodles and steamed asparagus are classic with the veal.
One mistake with stews is to think everything can go into the pot together and just cook on its own. Crock-Pots have their merits, but you almost always get better results by taking stews in steps. Cascades of flavor, and texture, are created when some components are cooked separately.
For the blanquette, the pearl onions and mushrooms need to be glazed and browned in separate steps. They both turn tender but keep their consistency, and they contribute bursts of flavor rather than melding into the sauce.
Morels sauteed separately for the poussin also take on an intensity that would otherwise be leached out in stewing in the liquid.
Seafood stew is the exception that proves the rule, though. Everything can be cooked in one pan, but in stages: the potatoes first, then the monkfish, then the scallops, with crab and peas added just at the end. It’s light and it’s rich, all at once.