December 3, 2022

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Ken Morris, Cooking for Comfort: Mood Enhancing Stews | Food Columnists

Food can influence your feelings so when daylight diminishes and you have to bring out your winter coat, you know that is a good time to make that great mood enhancer: stew.

But right about now you’re wondering, what is the difference between a soup and a stew? The short answer is: liquid. The National Soup Control Board may disagree with me here but in soup the ingredients will be completely submerged in liquid, or could just be liquid, while in stews, the meat, fish, or vegetables are just barely covered. Maybe an easier way to look at it is a stew is much heartier and thicker than a soup. How much heartier and how thicker? That’s a judgment call.

I’ve picked out three stews from three distinct areas, hoping that at least one of them will speak to you to make. Everyone needs a good beef stew in their recipe collection and the classic dish below has been updated so that you don’t have to cook it three hours in the oven.

Or, maybe amp up your mood with Capsicum annumm in New Mexico’s Carne Adovada, which I found translated both as marinated beef and pickled beef, but you get the idea: this is going to be spicy hot.

Finally, one of the best uses of over ripe tomatoes and day-old bread comes from Italy: not spicy, but very tasty.

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Classic Boeuf Bourguignon

Adapted from “Dinner in an Instant” by Melissa Clark

This classic beef dish from Burgundy was a peasant dish in the Middle Ages when most people only had access to the tough cuts of meat, so slow cooking was essential to turning it edible. Traditionally, it was cooked over a two-day period to tenderize the meat and increase the flavor. France’s “King of Chefs” Auguste Escoffier created a recipe in 1903 turning this humble food into an expensive dish in restaurants of Paris and London.

These slow-cooked dishes really aren’t designed for households in which everyone works outside the home. The answer used to be the Slow Cooker, where a dish would bubble all day and you’d return home to a wonderful smell of a cooked dinner. Now, the answer is the Instant Pot, which really is the pressure cooker your grandmother used to can beans combined with electronics to turn it on and off automatically, and slowly and safely release the pressure. It’s not cooking in an Instant, no matter what it claims on the brochure, but it is quicker than baking it in your Dutch oven.

3 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes and patted dry

2¼ teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

4 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced

5 large carrots, cut into 1/4-inch-thick coins (Ms. Clark only uses one carrot but I love cooked carrots, so I upped it by 4 carrots. As always, it’s your meal so add or subtract as you want.)

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 large sprig fresh thyme

8 ounces pearl onions (about 2¾ cups)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

8 ounces cremini mushrooms, halved if large (about 3½ cups)

1 teaspoon cornstarch, if necessary

Chopped fresh parsley, for serving

Season the beef with 2 teaspoons of the salt and the pepper, and let it rest while you sauté the pancetta.

Using the sauté function, cook the pancetta in the pressure cooker until the fat is rendered and the pancetta is browned and crispy, 7 to 12 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Reserve the fat in the pressure cooker. (I’ve found it easier and quicker to do it in a large skillet since the cooking surface of an Instant Pot is fairly small.)

Increase the heat to medium high. Arrange a batch of the beef cubes in a single layer in the skillet), leaving space between the pieces. Cook until well browned on all sides, 8 to 12 minutes, transferring them to a plate as they brown. Repeat with the remaining beef.

Stir the onion and carrots into the skillet, and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, garlic, tomato paste, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Then stir in the wine, bay leaf, and thyme sprig, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the browned beef and half of the cooked pancetta, stir and transfer everything to the cooker. Cover and cook on high pressure for 20 minutes. Allow the pressure to release naturally.

Open the lid, turn on the sauté function, and cook until the sauce is thick, 7 to 12 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the pearl onions and mushrooms. (I have to admit the pearl onions are hard to find frozen and I often don’t add them. But, if you love onions, you often can find them cleaned in supermarket frozen foods aisle.)

In a large skillet set over high heat, combine the pearl onions, butter, and a pinch each of salt, pepper, and sugar. Bring to a simmer, and then cover and reduce the heat to medium; cook until the onions turn golden brown, 15 minutes.

Uncover, add the mushrooms, raise heat to high, and cook, tossing frequently, until all the vegetables are well browned, 5 to 7 minutes. If the stew is not thick enough, combine a teaspoon of the hot liquid with the cornstarch, mix thoroughly and add back to the stew to thicken.

To serve, scatter the onions and mushrooms and remaining cooked pancetta over the stew, and then top it with the parsley. I like to serve it on top of broad noodles or mashed potatoes.

Adapted somewhat from The Shed restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico

I have five New Mexico cookbooks. They each feature a Carne Adovada recipe, and each are different but share many of the same ingredients. If you go online, you’ll go blind reading through thousands of carne adovada recipes out there.

This simple to prepare but tasty stew comes from the need to preserve meat during the days before refrigeration. Meat from a freshly slaughtered hog in November would be packed into red chili and pickled. Later, a portion would be brought out as needed for a meal.

Nowadays, most cooks simply cook pork shoulder or pork chops in the sauce or maybe marinated a day in advance. I tried Carne Adovada in a few Santa Fe restaurants but really liked The Shed’s version the best. I didn’t find their recipe online, so I had to combine the versions I had in my Santa Fe cookbooks that I picked up over the years to make something close. If you ever eat at The Shed, ask them if they’ll share their recipe.

Serve carne adovada with flour tortillas, a simple salad and some beans or rice, and you have yourself a deliciously hearty and spicy meal. It also makes great leftovers for next day burritos or, my favorite, tamales.

16 dried, New Mexican red chile pods (I’ve also used ½ cup of powdered New Mexico red chile stirred into the 2 cups of water so if you don’t want to handle chiles, that’s an alternative.)

2 tablespoons Mexican oregano

2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar (not always used or appreciated in New Mexico chile recipes but I like the taste.)

5 pounds boneless pork shoulder cut into 2 inch squares

Plenty of flour tortillas

Use scissors to remove stems from the chile pods and split the pod in half to remove all the seeds. Heat a cast iron skillet or I use a cast iron Comal (griddle) and heat a few of the chile pieces at a time. The skin should just turn color. Don’t burn them or the sauce will taste bitter and don’t ask how I know. Speaking of warnings, make sure you turn the exhaust fan to high or do this outdoors. The fumes can sting like tear gas.

Place the pods in a medium bowl and cover them with boiling water. Let them sit for 30 minutes. Drain the water from the chile pods, but reserve at least 2 cups of the water.

Place pod pieces in a food processor or blender. Add the salt, garlic, oregano, and cider vinegar. Cover the mixture with the reserved chile water. Blend well for about 2 minutes or until the skins disappear (yes, you will need to run it that long to really dissolve the chilies: most people run it only for a few seconds and that’s not enough time).

Place the cubed pork in a plastic sealable bag and add the sauce. Thoroughly coat the pork by squeezing the bag so the sauce reaches all the pieces. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 325º F. Place pork and sauce in a large baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 3 hours, check the meat and leave the cover off and cook for another or until meat is so tender you can shred it with a fork. Once cool enough to handle, you actually shred all the meat. Rewarm when ready to serve. Warm up a stack of flour tortillas and serve with a simple salad and some beans or rice. Leftovers are great in a burrito or tamale.

Zuni Cafe Pappa al Pomodoro

Adapted from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers

This cookbook is packed with tips and ideas that Judy Rodgers picked up over her cooking career and this recipe is a good example. “Tomato ‘Pap’ is a friendly staple of Tuscan Cookery,” writes Ms. Rodgers. “It is a good, easy dish to make when you have too many ripe tomatoes, a half loaf of yesterday’s bread, and not much else.”

Located on San Francisco’s Market Street, Zuni Café is famous now, thanks to her cooking and her cookbook. It was heartbreaking news to the food world when she passed away in 2013. The New York Times obituary called her “a chef whose San Francisco restaurant, Zuni Café, helped transform the way Americans think of food through its devotion to local, seasonal ingredients meticulously prepared.”

About 2 pounds very ripe tomatoes

About 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup diced yellow onions

3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 leafy branch fresh basil

1/4 pound day-old, chewy, peasant-style bread, most crust removed

Freshly cracked black pepper

Core the tomatoes and trim of blemishes or under-ripe shoulders. Blanch or blister over an open flame, and peel about half of them. Leave the skins on the remainder. (Aside from giving the pappa more flavor, the skins give this version its distinctive texture.) Coarsely chop the tomatoes into 1/4-inch bits, taking care to capture all the juices. Collect the tomatoes and juice in a bowl.

Warm about 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a 4-quart saucepan or 3-quart sauté pan over low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stirring a few times, cook over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes while the onions soften and sweat in their juices; they will become translucent and sweeter. Once they are tender, stir in the garlic. Cook for a few minutes longer, then add the tomatoes, juice and seeds and another healthy splash of oil. Raise the heat and bring to a simmer.

Pick the leaves from the basil and set them aside, then push the stem into the sauce. Cook only long enough for the bits of tomato to collapse and release their skins, another 5 to 10 minutes. Watch the color of the sauce and stop the cooking just as it takes on the characteristic orange hue of cooked tomatoes. Taste for salt and for sweetness. If you find the sauce too acidic, add a pinch of sugar, but reserve final judgment until after you add the bread. You should have about 4 cups of sauce.

Remove the basil stem. Tear the basil leaves and add to the sauce. Tear the bread into fistfuls. Bring the sauce to a boil, add the bread, and stir just until it is saturated and submerged. Cover the pan with a tightly fitting lid, remove from the heat, and place in a very warm spot, or place over barely simmering water. Leave the bread to swell and soften for 15 minutes or so.

When you are ready to serve the pappa, give it a vigorous stir to break up the chunks of softened bread, taste again, and adjust for salt and sweetness.

Stir in a few more spoonfuls of olive oil to enrich the pappa and enhance its perfume. But don’t over-stir the pappa once you’ve added the bread, lest you sacrifice its delightful lightness and pleasantly lumpy, irregular texture.

Offer cracked black pepper and extra-virgin olive oil with the pappa. Traditionally served by itself, the pappa is also great “as a side dish with roasted or grilled birds or with grilled lamb chops,” adds Ms. Rodgers.

Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email [email protected].