Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fundamentals of Chicken Stew

When trying to decide what to do about needing a week's worth of food with a slim budget, I look for elasticity....that is, things that stretch.

A roast is great for first night meal and produces some great left overs, not the least of which is stew.  Of course, these days such a purchase may require taking out a loan. So what to do, what to do?

The mark-down section of our grocery store is my usual haunt. It's there I've been able to find items to sustain us...providing the booty is used up right away.

The other day I found some marked-down odd chunks of chicken.  It had been a while, so I made some stew with it.  Yummy!

The way it's usually done is just to lightly brown off the meat then dump everything else into the pot and let it simmer.  That's perfectly fine, only don't let the chicken get dried out.

I like to layer the flavors.....even going so far a seasoning the stew pot.  Put a low flame under the pan and clean an onion.  after adding a small bit of olive oil or butter, add the onion's "caps" (top and bottom) flat side down to the pan and let them brown.   Then turn your attention to the rest of the veggie prep.

Cut onion, celery and garlic into bite-sized pieces.While you're at it, slice the other veggies so that they're ready for adding to the foray. Add the veggie ends and cast offs to the pot and let them brown too. Don't forget to stir everything once in a while....browning is okay, scorching isn't!

When all the odds and ends are brown enough, remove them from the pan.  They can be tossed at this point...all their flavor and nutrition has been rendered.
Do not....repeat...DO NOT rinse the pan!  All that brown stuff and those little bits of flotsam are EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!  They are the difference between bland and bravo....the backbone of your dish....the Flavor.

Brown off the chicken (use other meat if you prefer....or just use veggies) in that same pan -do not over cook it...the REAL cooking will come a bit later.  For now you just want to sear in the juices.  Then remove it and add stock or water.  Stock is better.

Stir the liquid 'round...scraping the sides and bottom of your pan to incorporate the little specks and smooshes.  See how the liquid picks up the color?  It's also picking up flavor....that's something you wouldn't get with just adding water to meat and setting it to simmer!

Next add the veggies that will take the most time to cook....potatoes, carrots...that sort of thing.  Some people steam these items part way before adding to the stew pot, and that's fine-only remember to use the liquid from the steaming as part of the stock/liquid added for cooking the stew!

Once these ingredients have cooked most of the way, add the ones that don't take too long....corn, peas.....the last things to add would be items like zucchini and mushrooms, then finally the meat. Let all that simmer for about 20 minutes or so, until everything is done.  You may have to thicken the gravy...if so, it's approximately two tablespoons of cornstarch to about equal measure of cold water, stirred 'til cornstarch is incorporated, then add to the stew.  Let it all simmer some more...you'll notice it thickening.   When it's done, remove stew from the heat and let it rest after a final stir.

Some folks use flour and water as a thickener and others don't bother thickening it at all....personal preference wins out here.

Serve with biscuits, bread and butter or rice.  Egg noodles make an interesting alternative, especially when tossed with a bit of garlic, herbs and butter before service.

Learning to make stew taught me a great deal about cooking....how to layer flavors.....how to create a gravy out of vegetable odds and ends and how not to over-cook the chicken. But mostly, it taught me that there are always possibilities....even when odds and ends are all ya got.

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