William Skidelsky finds himself in a stew

Food writers have made the simple stew far more complex than it needs to be

The food that is most commonly associated with winter is undoubtedly the stew. Few things are more comforting to return to on a cold night than the smell of one bubbling away in the oven. Stews stand for everything that winter opposes: warmth, sustenance, safety. A stew is, or should be, a simple dish: rustic rather than refined, elemental rather than elegant. And yet you wouldn't think so from reading many cookbooks. Recipes for stew, in my experience, tend to be far more complicated than they need be. Few foods have suffered more at the hands of food writers.

Take, for example, the often-asserted distinction between the stew and the casserole. According to some, a casserole is a stew-type dish cooked in a casserole in the oven, whereas a stew is a similar dish cooked on the hob. But how exactly does a casserole differ from an ordinary saucepan? And what if you cook a stew-type dish in a casserole on the hob? Does that make your dish a casserole-stew hybrid? A little reflection shows the distinction to be meaningless. Nor does the matter become clearer if one enlists French culinary terms. In his classic book Simple French Food (has a cookbook ever had a less appropriate title?), Richard Olney distinguishes between ragouts, daubes and sautes (all, apparently, "branches" of the stew family). Olney writes: "Whereas the soul of a daube resides in pervasive unity - the transformation of individual qualities into a single character, a saute should comprehend an interplay among entities, each jealous of distinctive flavours and textures - but united by the common veil of sauce." What on earth does this mean? On the basis of information gleaned from other passages, I think Olney is saying that a daube is cooked for longer than a saute, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Other examples of unnecessary elaboration include the belief that wine cannot be used in a stew unless it is boiled on its own first, that sauces need to be skimmed, and that the meat needs to be removed after cooking so the sauce can be reduced (this shouldn't be necessary if you've taken care with the proportions to start with). The best stews, in my view, are simply cooked and then served, with a minimum of intermediary stages. I would, however, offer a few hints, which apply to all stews. One: heavier pans work much better than light ones (this is true whether you are cooking your stew on the hob or in the oven). Two: try not to use a pan that is too big for your ingredients (ie, the pan should be close to being full); for some reason, lots of space always seems to result in a less well-flavoured end product. Three: stews often taste better reheated the next day. Again, I am not sure why. Something, I think, to do with "pervasive unity".

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