With July traditionally being the coldest month of the year in South Africa, this is the perfect time to break out the slow-cooker and get to making your family a hearty winter stew. That said, stews can be trickier than they seem to get just right, and if you are going to all the effort, you will definitely want to make it perfectly. Here are a few tips to get your family raving about this traditional winter meal.
Choose the right dish
Stews are cooked at a low temperature for a long time. As a result, you need a dish that can evenly distribute the heat and retain it for it a long period. The lid must, therefore, fit perfectly as you don’t want to lose the heat, or worse the liquid, to the air. A decent crockpot or slow-cooker are both ideal.
Focus on the flavours
Jamie Oliver advises that you take into account the flavours you want to eat alongside your main meat. Knowing which sorts of things go together with the meat will mean your stew has everything blend together in a completely complimentary way.
“Pork loves apples, onions and juniper berries. Beef loves bay leaves, rosemary and olives. Lamb works brilliantly with ground cumin and coriander, dried apricots and fresh ginger. Fish loves fennel, tomato and chilli. Beans and green vegetables work beautifully with fresh soft herbs like basil, parsley and mint,” Oliver says on his website.
Think about ingredients
Before you start cooking think carefully about what you want to put into your pot. Simply throwing everything together in at once can and does work, but a little preparation and thinking can go a long way when it comes to taking your meal up a notch.
Fatty meats will create a richer stew. Cheaper pieces of meat often have more fat in them and fat is one of the prime ingredients for flavour. There is a reason why things like ox-tail are considered so decadent. Having a high-fat content is also why using things like bacon, and Italian Chorizo sausage as ingredients can dramatically improve flavour.
Before you throw your veggies in the pot consider doing some pre-preparation. Cooking the onions until they are golden will give them a caramelised flavour that they will pass on to the rest of the meal, while roasting veggies in herbs before using them in the stew will allow them to both add to the dish, and also retain a unique flavour of their own.
There are few ingredients more important than the liquid you are going to cook the food in. Beer and home-made stocks are great but don’t be afraid to use a quality store bought stock either. Wine is another favourite when it comes to slow cooking.
While many chefs now say that you should cook with the same wine you will be drinking, this can be dramatic overkill in a stew. Much of the subtlety of a good wine will be lost in fatty meat so pouring that great bottle of Cabernet into the food can be considered a waste. If possible you should avoid bad wine, however. The days of using papsak in your food need to be banished to the past if you want to deliver the best stew imaginable, so consider upgrading to a decent quaffing wine for your cooking. You will see the benefit without throwing away a large amount of money.
Don’t be afraid to bulk them up
Some cooks are afraid of bulking up their stews with beans and potatoes for fear of neutralising the quality flavours of the meats and herbs, but this is entirely defeating the point. Stews are meant to be a mishmash of flavours that come together to create a sublime blend. Added bulking ingredients like potatoes or beans will not only take on the flavour of the stew itself, but will also give you more of it, and keep you fuller for longer.
Give it time
Stews take time, particularly if you are planning on using the cheaper meat cuts like shin or ox-tail. If you are short on time, you shouldn’t be making a stew. You are going to want to give the stew three hours at least and preferably six to eight. It’s cooking the stew for ages on a low heat that will breakdown the meats, making them soft and tender, while also helping the flavours to infuse the food. The good news is that you won’t have to watch the stew the whole time. Because of the low temperatures you use to cook them, there is no threat of burning and you can leave them simmering on the stove until the meat starts to fall off the bone.
Think about herbs
Don’t be tentative when adding herbs and spices. This takes some experimentation to get right, but due to the sheer bulk of stuff you are attempting to flavour in a stew, you need to be unafraid when it comes to adding your herbs and spices. You want it to taste like something after all.
Secondly, you have to think about when you are going to add your herbs. The general rule is that the aromatic herbs, which tend to be hard, or in the shape of sticks, need to go in at the beginning. Herbs like rosemary, thyme, Bay leaves, origanum or sage need a chance to breakdown to add their flavour to the food. Other, more subtle herbs, like the soft-leafed varieties, should be mixed in right at the end. Parsley, coriander and Basil will be absolutely overwhelmed in the meal if you try to put them in at the start.
Season at the end
Don’t add salt or pepper from the outset. As the various ingredients breakdown, the flavour of your stew will subtly change meaning you can only really know how much salt or pepper the meal needs at the very end.