After a great and excessively filling dinner, good friends might feel most comfortable reclining in front of the fireplace like beached whales, or resorting to appropriately low-skill verbal games. One particular evening, while digesting dinner with friends and trying indirectly to solve world peace by figuring out the formula for lower standards, I remembered Garrison Keillor.
A few years ago on his radio show, Keillor said that the best pumpkin pie in the world isn’t that much better than the worst pumpkin pie in the world. Although he was wrong (Google the Boston pastry chef Joanne Chang’s pumpkin pie recipe), his point resonated loud and clear. It is the raison d’être of certain things to bear the cross of mediocrity.
“What embodies mediocrity, even at its very best?” I asked my friends. Votes were cast for banana bread, ratatouille and minestrone. But the vastest and vaguest condemnation was the one I made for stew.
Byron wrote of the devil’s taste for it, as he “dined on some homicides done in ragoût, And a rebel or so in an Irish stew”. But people have been stewing meat since the time of the ancient Scythians.
Though I’ve eaten plenty of stew, I’m not so sure I’d know the difference between a good stew and a bad one. A Kenyan chef here in Santa Fe is known for his goat stew, which I will occasionally order because its coppery broth and sweet carrots, swathed in meaty juices, remind me of salona, an Emirati stew I grew up eating with indifference.
Beef, lamb or mutton, I used to think ”stew” was just a dirty word for “braise”, but it’s actually more like a variation on the theme. While braises can be gloriously savoury, sticky, finger-licking good times, from what I can tell, stews are destined to contain at least one ingredient that is mildly suspect, such as leftovers or spongy polyps of fat that should have been skimmed away, or stringy fibres of meat that leave you unsure of whether to floss or swallow. In stews, grainy Russets stagnate in murky, meaty swamps before collapsing like bags of wet sand. Carrots bob about like orange life rafts amid a shipwreck. Peas suffocate and pearl onions sink, their screams silenced by the stock pot.
The qualifying criteria for a stew include meat that’s been cut into bite-sized chunks and enough liquid to immerse it. And while many braised meats are cooked and served on the bone – think braised short ribs or the veal shanks in osso buco, most stew recipes call for boneless meat, which cheats the resulting gravy out of the flavour it justly deserves.
Braises and stews are ideal cooking methods for cheaper, tougher cuts of meat unsuitable for steaks or chops. Both require slow and steamy heat to tenderise the meat by melting the collagen-rich connective tissue into silky, sexy gelatin, which develops deep, delicious gravies.
Many cultures love to stew things, and Arabs are no exception. My late grandmother always stewed a small bone-in hunk of steak with her stuffed grape leaves, and let it all simmer beneath the weight of a heavy plate. As it poached, the steak infused the cooking liquid, which plumped the rice inside the grape leaves, leaving every grain saturated with beefy flavour.
She always served these with cold, tart homemade yogurt and I’d give anything to taste them again. But what I’m really dying to know is what she did with the meat afterward. I might think of stew as meat’s humblest act of martyrdom, but that doesn’t mean it’s a thankless one.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who lives and cooks in New Mexico
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