Stew doesn’t have a poor reputation so much as bad branding. The name itself has an aura of disappointment about it, especially the way my children repeated it back to me, after they asked what we were having and I told them. “Stew!” they would say, with heavy emphasis on the “Ew!” It probably doesn’t help that “stew” shares an etymological source with the word typhus.
It is perhaps for that reason that we are often drawn to more exotic names for what is essentially the same idea: tagine, ragout, daube. But a basic, unfussy, slow-cooked stew can rival any of these, as Felicity Cloake’s perfect beef stew demonstrates. As with most beef stew recipes, this one begins with browning the meat on all sides, in batches, and then removing it before adding anything else.
Browning brings about a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction, producing new flavour compounds from the lightly charred proteins and carbohydrates. It’s considered a vital part of the process by most cooks, and totally unnecessary by a heretical few. I brown the meat most of the time out of habit, but the idea of not bothering – and it not making a blind bit of difference – certainly appeals to me.
Andy the gasman’s stew – created by Jamie Oliver for a mate who was reluctant to cook because he thought using his oven would devalue his house – is one of the great no-browning recipes: you chuck everything in – veg, lamb, chickpeas, spices – swish it around on a high heat for a minute, then shove it in the oven for either three hours (at 180ºC/350ºF/gas 4) or six hours (at 140ºC/275ºF/gas 1) depending on that day’s diary.
Lancashire hot pot is another – even simpler – dish to put in the oven and forget about. In Nigel Slater’s version, the lamb (best end of neck chops, cut into chunks) forms the bottom layer of a heavy casserole pot. Onions come next, followed by a topping of thinly sliced, neatly overlapping potatoes. It needs about two and a half hours cooking time, but requires very little else from you in the way of input.
Welsh cawl also skips the tiresome browning stage. This not-quite-traditional take from chef Tommy Heaney owes a debt to Irish stew, and brings carrots, leeks and swede to the mix. For novelty, a slightly odd muffin-topped winter beef stew comes with a sort of cheesy dumpling lid, with the dough spooned over the top for the last 15 minutes of cooking time.
Sometimes the slow cooking most stews call for just isn’t convenient, no matter how little effort is involved. Slater has an easy recipe for sausage and mushroom stew that will be ready to eat in about half an hour. It was originally intended to use up leftover Christmas cocktail sausages, but don’t let that stop you.
If you are looking for a broader frame of inspiration, start with a daube de boeuf Provencale, which includes such continental additions as garlic, orange peel, red wine, thyme and a garnish with capers in it, but is otherwise as basic as anything above. This Persian spiced lamb shank stew, from Kian Samyani, chef at Berenjak in Soho, London, will require you to seek out some dried limes, but you probably have everything else (turmeric, kidney beans) in your store cupboard. It’s an ideal dish for two because lamb shanks take up a lot of room. Try cooking it for six and you’ll end up using a pot that won’t fit in your oven.
Here are two more vegetarian stews from Anna Jones: a root vegetable dish with celeriac dumplings, and a Greek potato yahni with tomatoes, olives, parsley and feta. Thomasina Miers’ courgette, mint and butter bean stew may sound a bit summery, but everything you need is available all year round, so don’t wait: at this rate summer may never get here.
Miers also does a Moroccan fish stew, reminding us that seafood stews are the very opposite of slow cooking – the vegetables are softened, the liquid goes in and the fish is added at the last minute. Cooking times are best measured in seconds.
For Nathan Outlaw’s fishmas stew, even the marinated seafood only takes an hour in the fridge. Like Slater’s sausage stew, this is technically holiday fare, but if you have squid, scallops and mussels, you are already celebrating something. Finally this Spanish variation (caldereta de pescado y marisco) from Michelin-starred chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho is almost too elegant to go by the name stew. It’s not difficult to make but can run to serious money, containing as it does langoustines, prawns, monkfish, mullet, cod and four distinct types of booze: white wine, manzanilla, Spanish brandy and pastis. This is definitely one to order for your last meal, if only to annoy your jailers.