YOU CAN GIVE SOME RECIPES in a single sentence. Others can be told in two or three sentences.
At our house the stew, a beef burgundy, is a three-sentencer. It goes like this:
Take a pound or two of sirloin tips and brown them in butter or oil. Throw in some chopped potatoes and onions and about 3 cups of water and a measuring cup of burgundy or any stout red wine. Put on a lid and turn the heat way down to a low simmer.
You can go to a movie or take a long nap, and still end up with a dish that is as good as you'll get in many restaurants.
And for the history-minded, there's something of interest, too, in the ancestry of meat stews. As a culinary art form, it just has to be about the same age as the discovery of the pot . . . say 6000 B.C. Cookbooks these days are filled with disguised, retitled, elegant stews that are presented without the slightest hint that the stew may well be the second or third oldest cooking method, right behind stick broiling and hot rock fries.
The all-timer among classic stews is perhaps chicken marengo, created, so says the legend, by Napoleon's chef, who regaled the French generalissimo with his inventive stew in the field during 1800 just after Nappy stomped the Austrians in a battle at Marengo, Italy.
A chicken marengo (and you can fill in the details without it much mattering) is merely a stew of cut up, sauteed chicken, done in a Dutch oven. The meat is caressed with garlic, oregano, basil and white wine and garnished with mushrooms, green peppers, black olives and pearl onions that simmer in the mix about 20 minutes.
Second in historic rank probably comes Brunswick stew, also a Dutch oven natural that blends tender chunks of rabbit with onions, celery, tomatoes, potatoes and spices. Real Brunswick stew creators often add other vegetables to the mix, things like limas and whole kernel corn. Though it sounds English or German, tradition has it that the stew was created in Virginia (some say Georgia) over 150 years ago. (Though rabbit or squirrel is preferred for this classic, Southerners and fanciers of Cajun dishes make a version combining chicken and barbecued pork, plus vegetables.)
A third big name to look for in the stew line is Mulligatawny stew, a curried chicken dish with accents of tomatoes, peppers and celery.
The master chef Paula Wolfert has given us estofat, a tenderized, slow-baked beef dish that is Catalonian Spain's answer to the stew competition. You marinate beef shin for 24 hours in Sangre de Toro, Barbera or any stout Pinot Noir wine, then sear it and slow bake it (250 degrees) for four hours. Oven roasted potatoes, onions and carrots are added at the last minute.
If your meat is very choice, it really doesn't matter much when the wine goes into a dinner stew as long as it is simmered a bit, but marinating of less tender cuts is recommended.
The simplicities of beef burgundy do not mean you're overdoing it if you make a complex or gourmet stew. Here are two recipes for sophisticated stews prepared for party consumption and admiration:
Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz included this rich and admirable baked stew in 1981's "Cooking with the Young Chefs of France," (M. Evans and Co., $8.95.) Make it, marinate it and bake it for two hours the day before the dinner, leaving a half hour for baking and serving the day of the party, to save last minute baking. Or bake, as indicated, the day of it will be served.
Beef stew Provencale
Serves 8 to 10.
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
4 slices bacon, chopped
4 pounds beef chuck or round, cut into 2-inch cubes
2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 medium-sized carrots, finely chopped
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
1 medium sized tomato, peeled and chopped
1 cup each of pitted black and green olives
3 cups dry red wine
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
Bouquet garni (See below)
Heat the oil in a large skillet and saute the bacon over moderately high heat until the pieces are crisp. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and transfer to a flameproof casserole. In the fat remaining in the pan, saute the beef, patted dry with paper towels, until it is lightly browned all over. Add it to the bacon. In the fat remaining in the pan, adding a little more oil if necessary, saute the onions, garlic, carrots and mushrooms until the vegetables are soft. Add to the casserole with the tomatoes. If the olives are very salty, soak them in cold water for 10 minutes before adding them to the casserole. Otherwise just rinse them thoroughly. Add the bouquet garni.
Pour the wine into the skillet and bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Scrape up all the brown bits and pour the wine deglazing into the casserole. Season beef and liquid with salt and pepper. Let the mixture marinate, covered in a cool place or in the refrigerator overnight, turning it occasionally.