Stewing over dinner Variety: Delicious dishes that are quick and low-fat yet elegant are all part of what one cookbook author calls 'Simply Stews.'

November 06, 1996|By Jane Snow | Jane Snow,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

No time to simmer a hearty stew for hours? No problem.

No room in your waistband for beef and vegetables swimming in gravy? No problem.

Susan Wyler has recipes for quick stews, low-fat stews, elegant stews, rich stews and even sweet and sour duck stew with cherries. Her book, "Simply Stews" (HarperPerennial, $10), is the last word on the subject.

"People think of stews as just beef, but there's a tremendous variety," Wyler says.

If Wyler's 100-plus recipes sound authoritative, it's because she has lived them. She gave up the elegant bistro life for the stew life six years ago, when she chucked her glamorous job as food editor of Food & Wine magazine and moved to a tiny town in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Wyler wanted to get away from the pressures of a fast-paced job and to live in a place where she could get to know her neighbors. She now edits cookbooks in a century-old farmhouse far from New York City.

Wyler not only learned to slow down, but she also learned a new way of entertaining. "I find I entertain more frequently but much more casually," she says.

Potlucks are popular in the heartland, and even company meals are laid-back, she discovered. She is much more likely to serve a stew and a salad than wild mushroom ravioli in sage buerre blanc. But as a food editor, she couldn't resist improving on the stews in cookbooks, and creating recipes of her own.

"Whenever possible, I tried to give the recipes a little twist," she says.

In her kitchen, boeuf bourguignonne became beef stew with cabernet sauvignon, maple syrup and lots of bacon and onions. Chicken stew became triple-mustard chicken Dijon stew with chardonnay wine and sour cream.

"They aren't wimpy," she says of her recipes. "They aren't namby-pamby."

Not all of her stews are slow-cooking, either. She developed recipes for a number of seafood and vegetarian stews that can be on the table in 15 minutes. Even some of her meat-based stews, such as the chicken Dijon, are quick fixes.

Long-simmered stews have their charms, though, and should not be ignored by cooks pressed for time, Wyler says.

They make the house smell wonderful on a winter day, and require little attention beyond the initial chopping and sauteing. In addition, most can be made in advance at the leisure of the cook and frozen for later. And best of all, they're practically impossible to ruin. "They're not fidgety, not persnickety," Wyler says.

Still, there are good stews and there are great stews, and Wyler knows a few tricks for turning the former into the latter.

When a recipe calls for wine, don't use Chateau Lafitte, but don't use a cheap inferior wine, either, she advises. Many decent wines are available in the $7 to $10 range and would be fine for cooking. Just make sure a wine tastes good in the glass before adding it to the kettle.

Cooking stew the correct length of time is important, she says. While seafood stews can be ruined by overcooking, some meat stews will be chewy and tough if taken from the fire too soon.

Using canned chicken broth (unsalted tastes best) is OK, but canned beef broth doesn't measure up in a stew, Wyler has found. She suggests either making homemade beef broth or choosing recipes in which other liquids such as wine and beer are added to the broth for flavoring.

Another of Wyler's suggestions is to saute the vegetables in a recipe before adding liquid ingredients. The sugar in the vegetables caramelizes and gives the broth a richer color and flavor.

If all this talk about stew has put you in the mood, Wyler's triple mustard chicken Dijon can be on the table tonight. It goes together in about the time it takes to have a pizza delivered -- 15 minutes to assemble and 30 minutes to cook.

Vegetable stew with spicy peanut sauce is great for vegetarians and those watching their fat intake. A peanut sauce is stirred into the chunky vegetable stew, and chopped peanuts and scallions are sprinkled over each serving. Although the list of ingredients is long, the stew is easy to make.

For the big splurge, Wyler recommends her lobster stewed in whisky cream with grilled portobello mushrooms and asparagus.

"It's to die for. It's really a drop-dead recipe," she says.

Two lobsters serve four as a main course, so the stew isn't as expensive as it sounds. The elegant dish features big chunks of lobster in a rich cream broth. Thick slices of mushroom and gently steamed asparagus are added just before serving.

Although Wyler cooks the mushroom slices on a barbecue grill, they also can be pan-grilled in a skillet in a small amount of oil. Those who are squeamish about plunging live lobsters into boiling water should buy from a supermarket that cooks lobsters on request. Ask that the lobsters be cooked for just three minutes.

Triple-mustard chicken Dijon

Makes 6 servings

2 pounds skinless chicken breasts on the bone

2 pounds skinless chicken thighs

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, minced

1/4 cup Dijon mustard, preferably imported

3 tablespoons honey mustard

2 tablespoons coarse-grained mustard

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