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Fall Stews

By Anne de Ravel

As soon as the first sign of fall, it’s with an obvious pleasure that we put away the grill and bring out braising and soup pots. This is the start of the season is for long simmered dishes. Easy to set up and almost impossible to ruin, stews only need a hand full of quality ingredients, a couple of aromatic herbs and spices, and a long gentle cooking.

The great thing about stews is their versatility. They easily adapt to our sense of adventure, cravings, and what we have on hand. Classics such as a beef and carrot stew can be revisited and turned into a vibrant exotic dish by roasting the carrots in butter and a pinch of cumin, and adding them toward the end of cooking along with a sprinkling of fresh herbs. A hefty amount of dried porcini mushrooms give an ordinary pot roast the intense autumnal flavors of the Mediterranean.

The most important step to achieve a succulent stew is to sear the meat first over high heat to caramelize the surface, which will add richness and complex layers of flavors to the sauce. And, while simmering on the stovetop is the usual cooking method, I found that braising at a low even temperature in the oven produces less evaporation, which keeps the meat tender and moist.

Beef and Carrot Stew
Six to 8 servings

3 pounds beef stew meat, such as boneless chuck, trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes
2 large onions, sliced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large sprig of thyme
2 bay leaves
2 cloves
2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
1 bottle good quality dry red wine
3 tablespoons canola oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons butter
6 medium carrots, cut into thick slices
1 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 tablespoons minced fresh coriander

Place the meat in a large bowl. Add the onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaves and cloves. Cover with the cognac and wine, and stir to distribute evenly. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Drain the meat from the marinade and reserve the liquid. Dry the meat with paper towel.

Heat the oil in a heavy, oven proof pot over medium high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, sear the meat in batches until brown on all sides. Transfer to a bowl.

Add the onions and garlic from the marinade to the pot and cook over medium heat until wilted and golden brown. Return the meat to the pot and pour in the reserved marinade, thyme and bay leaves. Add some water to just cover the meat. Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.

Cover and place in the oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender. This can be done a day in advance and refrigerated until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the carrots, sprinkle with the cumin and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, tossing once in a while, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the carrots are caramelized and just tender.

Meanwhile, reheat the stew slowly over medium heat. Add the carrots and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes to blend the flavors. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs and serve over mashed potatoes or noodles.

Pot Roast with Red Wine, Mushrooms, and Tomatoes
Six servings

One 2 1/2 pounds eye round roast, excess fat trimmed and tied
6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 pound pancetta, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 medium onions, quartered
2 celery stalks, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1/4 cup tomatoes paste
Pinch of sugar
2 cups red wine, plus more if needed
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed
One 28-ounce can tomatoes, drained and squeezed to extract excess moisture
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Season the roast generously with salt and pepper on both sides.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy ovenproof pot over medium high heat until hot but not smoking. Sear the roast on all sides until well browned, about 4 minutes per side. Remove from the pot and set aside.

Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and add the pancetta, onions, carrots and celery, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and sugar. Add the wine and 1 cup of water; raise the heat to high, and reduce the liquid by half, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, tomatoes, and oregano and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Return the meat to the pot. The liquid should come up to 3/4, add more wine or water if necessary. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot, and braise in the oven for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, turning the meat over and stirring the cooking liquid every half hour. Make sure that the liquid is simmering gently; reduce the heat to 275ºF, if necessary.

When done, the meat will be firm to the touch and pink at the center. To serve, transfer the beef to a cutting board and cut it against the grain into thick slices. Place on a serving platter and spoon some sauce over it. Serve the remaining sauce on the side with mashed potatoes or polenta.

Lamb and Olive Stew
Six to 8 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large onion, sliced
1 to 3 cloves garlic, crushed
3/4 cup diced carrots
1 14-ounce can diced canned tomatoes, drained
1 cup red wine
About 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 large sprig fresh rosemary
1 large strip of orange peel
2 bay leaves
1 cup pitted kalamata olives
2 cups of mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Season the lamb pieces with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy pot over medium high heat. Add the lamb pieces and sauté for 5 minutes, or until golden brown.

Add the onion, carrots and garlic, and sauté for another 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the tomatoes, the wine, and enough chicken broth to barely cover. Bring to a boil. Add the rosemary, orange peel and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper and lower the heat to a low simmer. Cover and cook for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, sauté the mushroom slices in the remaining olive oil, until their released liquid has evaporated and they are golden brown. Remove from the pan with the slotted spoon and add them to the stew along with the olives. Simmer for another 30 minutes. Serve over pasta.