Life

This Food Face Off Will Help You Cook The Perfect Winter Stew

Annnnnnnd we’re back! With this month’s food face off for your to salivate / argue over. This time, we’re tackling “winter stew” — which, as you’ll see, is pretty loosely defined. The post is long so let’s get straight to the leader board:

BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round, so currently the score is:

VINCE: 6
ZACH: 3
STEVE: 4

Is today Zach’s day? Will Vince pull further ahead? Will Steve crumble into a heap of self-loathing? Let’s find out!

— Steve Bramucci, Life Editor

ZACH’S LAMB STEW


Stew relies heavily on the quality of the meat and stock involved. Add in some spices to kick its ass and make sure you don’t over thicken your base, then you’re good to go. My philosophy on the dish is that it’s a perfect blend of history and experience. My stew is that, it’s a little Czech gulaš, a little Irish pub stew, a little of German eintopf, and a slice of Spanish sun.

First, let me say, that I’m making a stew in the goulash sense of the word … that is, it’s meat with a base. The added potatoes and carrots are going to be cooked on the side. This accomplishes two major things — first, you’ll be able to maintain the integrity of the potato and carrot’s flavor and structure and not worry about over-cooking them. This means that the carrots will actually still taste of carrots and not broth-y mush, likewise with the potatoes. It also means that upon reheating your stew, you won’t end up with way over-cooked and very mushy/pointless root veg. Who wants that? Lastly, it means that you can change up your carb base for your stew on reheats. You can have it over rice on day two, over a baked potato on day three, serve it with some Czech knedličky (bread dumplings), or just on its own if you’re avoiding excess carbs. It makes your stew versatile.

THE STOCK

Since we’re dealing in winter, root vegetables are the cornerstone of our concoction.

  • Bone from a full lamb shoulder
  • Parsnip
  • Carrot
  • Celery Root
  • Leek
  • Green Onion
  • Mushrooms
  • 8-10 Peppercorns
  • 8-10 Whole allspice
  • 1 Bay leaf
  • Sea Salt

Add everything into a stock pot with a couple liters of water and a large punch of sea salt. Bring the water slowly to a simmer. As this happens you need to pay attention and skim all the debris and muck that will rise to the surface. It’s crucial that it comes up to a boil as slowly as possible to leach out all the impurities so you can skim them away.


After you’re done skimming, let it simmer on lowest heat for at least two hours, or until liquid is nearing 1/2 of where you started. Double strain the stock into another bowl or pot and set aside for later use.

THE STEW

Making a stew should be a fairly easy task that requires a few skills to execute right — you need to sear the meat, toast the spices, and deglaze everything properly to make your dark base.

  • 1.5 lbs of lamb shoulder (trimmed of excess fat)
  • 1 tbsp all purpose flour
  • Sea Salt
  • Tellicherry Pepper
  • Two medium yellow onions
  • Four cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup Fino Sherry
  • Heaping tbsp each smoked chili flakes, sweet paprika, and garlic powder
  • 4 cups of stock
  • One 16-ounce bottle of Guinness Export (non widget)
  • Two heals of a loaf of Rye Bread

First you’ll need to salt, pepper, and flour your meat after it’s been properly trimmed. Dredging the meat in the flour and searing the meat is going to give you those amazing hard bits on the bottom of your pan that will later be the base for your stew.

Sear off the meat in small batches. This is time consuming, but necessary to maintaining the quality of your meat and any chance of having a good base later.

After all your meat is seared off, set aside. Add in the onions, garlic, and Sherry and start deglazing the bottom of your pot. All that crispy fat, flour, and meat bits should come up and make a deeply dark and savory base. As soon as the Sherry is cooked off, add in your spices and mix in with the onions and garlic.

Add in the meat, Guinness, and stock. Bring the whole thing up to a light simmer, add in the diced rye bread, cover, and let stew for about 2-3 hours.

Okay, the rye bread accomplishes two things: 1) It’s a perfect thickening agent and 2) it adds an oh so slight sour note to the stew, which blends perfectly with the heaviness of the stout and a counterpoint of the spice. Chefs have been thickening stews this way for eons and it makes for a super silky stew that won’t be hindered by the taste of an unnecessary roux.



THE ACCOMPANIMENT

While the stew is cooking, prep your potatoes and carrots. I picked up a recipe for potatoes in Spain that’s about to become the only way you’ll ever cook potatoes again.

I use a pound of new potatoes, skin on. You make one layer in a large sauce pan, add in about 1/4 cup of sea salt and bring to a brisk boil. Let the water completely boil off. This will coat the potatoes and pan in a layer of salt, and they’ll be cooked through perfectly. Put the potatoes in a colander and rinse the salt coating off. Done. You have a perfectly cooked potato that taste amazing. (note: if you let these bad boys cool then shred them, you’ll make the best hashbrowns you’ve ever tasted)

I square off my carrots and put them into a pot with two cups each of water and the lamb stock. I add in a little parsley sprig and a bay leaf. It’s crucial that you take your time here. Bring the water and stock just to a very light simmer. Let the carrots cook super slowly. This will amp up the color while maintaining the carrot flavor by brining the sweetness to the surface without boiling it away. It’ll take about 15-20 minutes for the carrots to be cooked. They should be a little firm but still pierce-able with a fork.

I make sure to stir my stew every 20 minutes or so. Once the rye bread pieces are completely dissolved, you should be half way between gravy and soup consistency-wise. That’s f*cking perfect. Ladle some into a bowl, add in your halved potato and carrot, top with diced parsley, and lastly, add a dollop of creamed horseradish.

The end result has a complex flavor profile that layers in the spice towards the end and adds a slight sour note to compliment the intense savory lamb. The distinct flavor of the potatoes and carrots give a nice dimension of sturdiness and sweetness. Come at me, dogs.

VINCE ON ZACH’S STEW:

Jesus, Zach, did a roux kill your parents or something? Between this and your mac and cheese it feels like you have a vendetta. It’s browned butter and flour, dog, open your heart. That being said, I ain’t gonna lie, your rye bread technique sounds pretty boss. I’m a sucker for anything involving soaked bread.

Few questions here though: one, I’ve never once considered “skimming the impurities” off my stock. Did you not wash your ingredients or something? I just assumed that was extra flavor. Also, using a separate pot for each veg feels very un-stew to me. This feels like you made braised meat with gravy and garnished with some veg. And now I gotta cut up giant carrot and potato pieces with my spoon? Screw that, man. Don’t say you’re going to make some stew and then make not stew, that’s cheating.

STEVE ON ZACH’S STEW:

Gulp. Not only do we have pretty similar dishes, but you’ve basically gone Eminem in 8 Mile and talked shit on all my choices before anyone ever reads my entry. I would bury my face in that lamb without any regard for who was watching. And you made a hell of a presentation. And…

Look, I’ve re-read this entry four times hunting for blind spots and don’t have anything. I was all excited to write, “not enough spice” then double checked and saw that you used the phrase “heaping spoonful” when adding the chili flakes. The truth is, if I was in my beloved Austrian alps and watched some 90 year old grandma make this in the kitchen of a mountain chalet, I’d probably try to write a whole feature on it.


VINCE’S CHICKEN CACCIATORE

Sweet Jesus, well Zach wrote a novel, so I can only hope to keep up this time around. Also, I realize that I probably gave away this competition before it even started by going with a chicken dish instead of some rich, red meat. I’ll be the first to admit, it’s hard to compete with beef, lamb, or pork braised in some dark alcohol. But I was at my mom’s house over the holiday and she had some fresh oregano growing in the back yard and it was really good. I wanted something to go with that.

I guess I associate winter with some of those leafy, mulled wine-ish dry spices, and I tend to think those go better with poultry, hence the chicken. Plus I’ve been on a cacciatore kick lately, so what the hell.

Fun thing about chicken cacciatore: everyone makes it a little different. Some people use mushrooms, some don’t. Some use bell pepper, or red bell pepper, or crushed red pepper. Some people use capers, some olives, some dredge the chicken, some don’t, etc.

Me, I go mushroom heavy, because I love mushrooms, and they seem wintery. I omit the bell peppers and crushed red pepper, and in their place I use a jalapeño to add a little heat (that didn’t make the picture, for some reason).

  • 6 chicken thighs, skin separated (I’ll explain below)
  • 6 cloves of garlic (one for each chicken thigh — seems logical, right?)
  • 3-4 carrots
  • 3-4 ribs of celery
  • One strip bacon
  • 28 oz diced tomatoes
  • Fresh Italian oregano
  • Dried oregano indio (like Mexican oregano with a hint of tarragon)
  • Bay leaf
  • Homemade stock
  • Homemade egg fettuccine
  • Capers, parmesan, and chopped Italian parsley to finish

I guess my biggest personal tweak is that I like to take off the chicken skin and fry it up separately. I turn it into a cracklin’ crumble and garnish with it at the end. I do this for a few reasons: For one, having flabby chicken skin in your nice stew seems like a waste; for another, crunchy chicken skin adds a nice textural contrast to an otherwise not-crunchy stew; and for threesies, if you take off your chicken skin before you season the chicken thighs (I used salt, pepper, MSG, and a sprinkle of this spice mix I had lying around — cumin, coriander, and paprika), the skin doesn’t act as a barrier and the seasoning actually sinks into the chicken meat.

Another little trick: add a little water when you’re frying up your chicken skin. That way the fat starts to render out earlier and by the time the water evaporates there’s already a decent amount of fat between the skin and the pan — you end up with more evenly-cooked cracklins. Learned that trick from Jacques Pepin, the only man who should be legally allowed to use the title “World’s Greatest Grandpa.”

A little bacon to grease up the pot (or a pressure cooker, in my case).

I’m a die-hard dredger so I dredged the chicken in semolina (a coarse Italian flour, which I was already using to make the pasta) before browning, which gives the chicken a nice texture in addition to acting as a thickener for the gravy.


In retrospect, I might’ve even taken this a step further and added an egg wash, chicken piccata-style. I love that breaded-chicken-soaked-in-sauce texture.

Once the chicken is browned, I take it out and add the mirepoix/trinity — onions, carrots, celery, and jalapeño, in this case. When all that’s nice and mushy I add in the mushrooms and garlic (garlic cooks faster than onions and tastes worse burnt).

When the mushrooms are starting to release their water, I squirt in about a tablespoon of tomato paste (another thing I forgot to take a picture of, my bad). I season that with salt and pepper, stir it around for about a minute, and then add back in my browned chicken.


I nestle the chicken in there, then cover it with the tomatoes (I use the Pomi because it doesn’t have citric acid in it. I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference, but it’s more or less the same price and it tastes good so f*ck it, I pretend it makes a difference.)

On top of that I add in about two cups-ish of my homemade stock. I won’t show the whole stock process, but the short version is that I used pork and chicken neck bones, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and a bay leaf, and pressure cooked it for like an entire day — until the bones were soft and mushy. I strain it, cool it down, take the congealed fat off the top (I save it and use it for other stuff), and the remaining stock has the consistency of soft Jello.

I add my stock to the chicken mix and pressure cook the whole thing for a couple hours. Pressure cooking isn’t necessary, it just speeds up the simmering process. And I like to cook the hell out of this stew, until I can just pull out the thigh bones with two fingers and all the connective tissue and cartilage has liquified into and enrichified the sauce. Mmmm.

While that’s happening, I make some fresh egg pasta. Don’t be a lazy ass, it’s not that hard, I swear.

Now, you can serve cacciatore over rice (I cook mine with the above mentioned sauce, it’s good, I promise), orzo, pasta, maybe even polenta — whatever. One time I even made a bread bowl out of Yorkshire pudding batter. ANYWAY, I used egg fettuccine this time because it photographs well.

There are many different combinations of egg, water, oil, and flour people use to make pasta, but here’s my go to:

  • 1 cup 00 flour (it’s very fine Italian flour used for pizza and delicate pastas)
  • 1 cup semolina (a coarser Italian flour that gives the pasta a nice texture and yellow color)
  • 3 whole eggs, 3 egg yolks, 3/4ths teaspoon of salt

I double up on yolks and don’t use water because I like my pasta like I like my women, kinda fatty and rich as hell (jk, jk, please don’t @ me).

When the stew’s done pressure cooking, I add in a handful-ish of the chopped fresh oregano. Then I garnish with capers (nice, fruity, briny explosions), crumbled chicken skin (crunchy), and parmesan cheese. If you’re making this for a dinner, I’d recommend doing it the day before. Stew always tastes better the next day, don’t ask me why (probably something to do with water evaporating off and concentrating the flavor).

The end result? It’s tomato-y, rich, herbaceous, a little crunchy, and some briny squirts from the capers (don’t make a sex joke, don’t make a sex joke…). I dunno, I thought it was pretty good. Whatever, f*ck you.

STEVE ON VINCE’S STEW:

Listen Mancini, no asshole in their right mind is going to push away from your dish. I would eat that three meals a day, even if you did use the most boring protein on earth. But is that a stew? I mean, this particular contest was your idea. You could have said “pasta course!” You could have said, “Italian comfort food!” But you said, “Winter stew!” Now every 2007-era Filmdrunk fan on the planet is going to praise your semolina pasta (they all want your semolina) when it really doesn’t relate to our contest.

I actually think this is a result of you growing up with mild winters. Because if it’s January in Northern Michigan, I’m putting you in the three spot. But if your idea of winter is a cool Fresno morn when the grass is lightly frosted like the tips of my hair in ’99, then sure, you crushed it. Except for the jalapeños, chill already with those. Chili flakes are better here, I think.

ZACH ON VINCE’S STEW:

This sounds delicious. I really can’t find fault in any of the cooking technique or flavors without being super nit-picky. So I’ll release my inner Padma and ask two questions. If you’re going for something special and unique in a cacciatore, why not use rabbit? Chicken thighs are fine and all, but seem pretty boring given how much love you put into everything else.

Second, doesn’t the final product scream pasta course? Your presentation doesn’t really say “stew” to me. If I was served this plate of pasta with a ragu and grated parmesan at a restaurant after ordering “stew”, I’d think they sent me the wrong dish (I’m saying this having eaten stew in a deep fried ball form before, so I’m not super picky how stew is served). I don’t know, I think you might have just made a really nice ragu. Ragu alla Mancinese!

Or maybe it all just needed to be in a bowl with way less pasta?


STEVE’S GOULANOFF

Out of our four dishes, this is the second one I’ve cooked at my mom’s house in Portland, which I think helped this round. It was cold and I was able to get in the spirit better than I might have back home in the OC (don’t call it that). When I think stew, I don’t really focus on texture. I think of these long simmering Northern European dishes where the only discernible shapes are cubes of meat. So I made a Goulash-Stroganoff hybrid that I hope feels very old world.

I love the dish I made and it drew raves (from a bunch of people who already love me who were also buzzed on mulled wine). Unfortunately, I had my sisters two kids running around while I was cooking so I don’t know if I got enough photos, which, considering my photography is also always the worst, might hurt me.

I made my base with carrots, onions, and celery root. I’m on a pretty big celery root kick right now. I also added in a little cube of raw horseradish. Then I set this aside and heated up a giant pot with oil on the bottom.


I used beef and seared it off in two batches. I was in Portland, and cooking for my family, so I broke the bank on some grass-fed, organic stuff that probably lived a more fulfilling life than I can ever dream of. When I had a nice crust on the meat, I set it aside and dumped my veggies in the pot.

I wanted to draw the flavors out of everything, so I cooked my pulp of carrots, onions, and celery root on high with the rendered fat from the beef and a little oil. You can see the steam coming off. In the middle there, you’ll see my beloved pickled Calabrian chilis.

As the house started to fill up with warm winter smells I added thyme and raw garlic, let those both cook, and got ready to add liquid.


So much liquid. In two main parts: 1) red wine, 2) veal stock.

As it cooked I also added tomato paste. Next came chili flakes, Spanish paprika, salt, pepper, and a pinch of mustard powder. Vince called my last dish a “meat slurry” and I don’t think he was wrong. I like meat slurries. I’ve always loved making concoctions and a stew was my chance to do exactly that, while still creating something that wouldn’t feel too muddled. Still, I aimed for restraint. When you’re working with wine, veal stock, and a ton of garlic, onions, carrots, and celery root, you don’t need much to make the flavors pop.

I made sure that I absolutely loved it, that the stew made me warm inside just how winter food ought to, then I put the beef back in the pot and let the stew stew at 350-degrees in the oven (lid on). At this point, my sisters asked when dinner would be ready, because they’d been watching me cook for an hour, it was 5pm, and they like their meals on a nursing home schedule.

“I need four hours,” I told them. “But I can swing three.”

But you just said it was perfect!” my older sister groaned.

*Shrug*

“I’m going to eat some of the kids’ mac and cheese.”

I was ready for my kicker:


I was taught to make goulash was from an elderly German woman and her recipe is what I think of when I think “winter food.” She insists on a little berry tartness and achieves it by adding tiny wine grapes into her pot. For her rustic ass, that works. But for me, I hate those tiny pits.

Instead, I sweated some black cherries with onions. This picture was taken right as they went in the pot, I took off the stems as they heated up. When the cherries started to burst, I removed most of the fruit (to be used in some other dish, later). The result was basically tart-cherry-onion jam. No sugar added, of course.

Two and a half hours later, I was ready to plate. I piled the goulanoff (I’m calling it that because Zach is the Tom Colicchio of our squad and will ding me if I call it goulash then add anything that they didn’t use in 18th century Russia) on top of al dente egg noodles, then added my cherry jam. Over this I dolloped a spoonful of horseradish cream, along with parsley and chives. Toasted black pepper on top.

Please @ me with your complaints.

ZACH ON STEVE’S STEW:

Again, I would devour this dish. The addition of tart fruit is on point. I’ve had it with smoked plums cooked in in the same way, delectable. This looks good all around. My only gripe, and it’s minor, is that I’d switch ratios of stew to noodles, or at least have it half and half. They way it looks here, I likely would have gone back to the pot and ladled more stew on about half way through the bowl — which isn’t a bad thing, really.

If I’m going full Tom, I’d say lose the mustard and pickled chili and trust in the horseradish to give you all the sharpness you’re after.

VINCE ON STEVE’S STEW:

I can’t rip on this too hard, because stew with horseradish cream over pasta is totally my jam. I’d question this German lady’s wine grape strategy. Hey, lady, maybe just use wine? I know, I know, too logical. You guys are also reminding me to use more celery root. I guess my only criticism is that you pulped your veg like a bitch and it looked like dog food. Also, start the stew in the morning, what were you thinking?

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