The snowbanks are shrinking, ice is sliding off our roofs and the frost is coming up, turning the ground spongy. But inside our kitchen, it’s still winter.
Through the season, we’ve filled our guests with two of my favorite comfort foods: Chili and stew, turning relatively inexpensive pork shoulder, sirloin and eye round into slow-cooking marvels. It’s hard to get kids excited about stew, but the reviews have been enthusiastic. Most groups have gotten at least one or the other.
A few tips from our kitchen to yours, which you can incorporate into your own recipes:
• Mix your own chile powder: Dried chiles are inexpensive, relatively easy to work with and far more flavorful, especially when you can mix up your varieties. I purchase dried mulato, ancho, guajillo and pasilla chiles at a Mexican market in New Jersey once or twice a year, and about 1 pound of each usually will get me through winter. To turn them into powder, simply pull off the stems and shake out the seeds, then use a scissor to snip them into smaller pieces into a blender. Blend until powdered. Let it rest a moment to let the powder settle, then store in an airtight container. (You also can toast the chilies before your blend them, but since I usually make a large batch of chili powder to last the winter, I find that benefit gets lost.) Add onion powder, garlic powder or whatever else you’d like to the blend, but I prefer leaving it straight up, adding the other spices or herbs directly to the recipe.
• Add chocolate: Chocolate is traditional flavor enhancer in many Mexican dishes, adding a dark richness without any lingering Hershey’s taste. You could add straight cocoa powder, as my wife does at home, or even chopped bittersweet chocolate, but I prefer straight-up chocolate chips. About 1/4 cup per gallon adds depth to the flavor, along with just enough sweetness to take off the acidic edge from long-simmering tomatoes.
• Sear everything first: This step will add at least a half-hour to your cooking time but add endless flavor, because searing triggers the maillard reaction, creating concentrated flavor while browning, as well as caramelization in starchy root vegetables like carrots. Working in batches so you don’t crowd the pan, first sear vegetables in a bit of oil until they’re nicely browned, then transfer them into a bowl large enough to hold all your ingredients. Sear the meat last — again, cooking in a single layer — and when it’s browned, deglaze the pan with with wine, stock or another flavorful cooking liquid (we use grape juice) to release the tasty bits of fond that will be stuck to the pan.
• Parsnips, not potatoes: We have stumped many young guests who didn’t know potatoes had so much flavor. They’re always surprised to learn they’re actually eating something they didn’t expect to like. Parnsnips behave an awful lot like carrots, with a starchy sweetness that blends beautifully with beef and other root vegetables. If you really have to have potatoes, do what we usually do: Mashed red bliss potatoes on the side.
• Arrowoot, not flour: We typically cook stews without any thickeners, then add arrowroot powder dissolved in beef stock or another liquid before serving. Three benefits: Arrowroot doesn’t need to reach a boil, so it can be added while the stew is at a serving temperature. Unlike flour, arrowroot will keep a stew gluten-free, which had helped us cater to those with wheat intolerances and allergies. And it lends a velvety texture to the stew.
• Consider dried fruit: Like with chili, I like a bit of sweetness in the background to balance the richness of beef, the acidity of the tomatoes and the earthiness of the vegetables. Carrots and parsnips help. So does a sweet cooking liquid. But I like when guests have a what’s-that moment as they’re dissecting each spoonful, trying to identify each element. Dried cherries are my favorite, but at $10 a pound, they’re not practical for camp use. Dried cranberries are great, especially with venison or pork stews, and even a handful of cheap, bargain-bin raisins will work in a pinch.