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Cooking Tips For Stews


I'm friends with quite a few young folks in their 20's who are just starting out, and for many, cooking is a mystery. To them, my first piece of advice is, don't worry, that's how we all started. My second piece of advice might be to start with something pretty basic and useful: classic winter stews. Chef Jerry Pellegrino will tell you there are a few basic tips that will come in handy not just for this winter, but for the rest of their lives.

Here are some tips that represent accumulated knowledge over the decades which should be pretty useful.

Water is the enemy of flavor when cooking. So use broth or stock. Beer can be a great cooking liquid, as is wine. Just use good quality. Credit to the late great Morris Martick for coining this concept.

Since stews often involve a fair amount of vegetable peeling, get one of those sling-shot shaped peelers, preferably with a ceramic blade. They'll make fast work of those carrots.

Speaking of carrots, when you are cooking an assortment of vegetables you want everything to end up equally tender. So start with your hard textured veggies  like carrots and potatoes; then go to you mediums like onions and peppers; and finally cook your tenders like tomatoes and peas.

When it comes time to cook your proteins, say beef or chicken, allow them to come up to room temperature first. Do not toss frozen meat into a pot and expect it to thaw automatically. It doesn't work that way.

If you choice of protein is chicken, remember these four words: chicken thigh family pack. For my money, chicken thighs are the most flavorful part of the chicken, and often very cheap.            

If beef is your choice of protein, you don't need an expensive cut for a stew.

Look for bargains like round steak or chuck roast, since they will tenderize with long slow cooking and provide a ton of flavor.

Always brown your meat before adding it to the pot. And it's a good idea to dredge it in seasoned flour, which will eventually help to thicken your broth.

We just mentioned seasoning. Your recipes will give you good guidance, but feel free to improvise. One trick is to tie up a mixture of herbs and spices in a piece of cheese cloth, which is what we call a "bouquet garni".  You drop it into you pot and fish it out when you think it has had a positive effect on your dish.

I think your most important piece of equipment is your own tongue. Taste your sauces and dishes and ask if they are in balance. To me balance suggests an equal representation of savory elements, saltiness, vegetal sweetness, with a detectable bottom of deep flavors that work with lighter aromatics.

Some of the ingredients I use to achieve balance include things like kosher salt, black pepper, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, brown sugar or even molasses.

If you want to avoid sugar as your source of sweetness (and remember a little goes a long way) try sweetening with carrots or parsnips. You'll be astonished how effective they are.

Many soups and stews tasted better when they are a little thicker. Things like flour, corn starch and cream of tartar are classic thickeners. But you don't just dump them into the pot. The trick is to make a "slurry."  Take a little of your corn starch, let's say, and add a tablespoon or two of your cooking broth.  Whisk it thoroughly and you will have a pale dense liquid. Add it to the pot, increase the heat, and stir vigorously.  Your sauce will thicken. Repeat as necessary.

Finally (and this should appeal to young folks today) cook low and slow.

There is no need to rush the process. Get a crock pot or a Dutch oven and set it to "low" for the better part of the day. You'll be very pleased with how effortlessly everything in the pot comes together.

-Al Spoler 

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.