The gentle giants of the kitchen are braises and stews, slowly cooked, tender, richly flavored and nourishing. The ingredients that comprise them, especially when gentleness is the organizing principle, are simple, few, and are staples of countless recipes including many classics.
While keeping the gentle giants in regular rotation has many advantages, the degree of ease and convenience they lend to a healthy or recuperative lifestyle are underappreciated. Not only does the frequent recurrence of their ingredients in many recipes streamline grocery shopping (or garden growing), it means that food preparation for multiple meals can be done all at once. Since braises and stews can (in my opinion, should) be prepared in quantities that ensure ample leftovers, a little work at the beginning of a week can greatly reduce time in the kitchen for the remainder of the week.
I am enjoying renewed appreciation for braises and stews after over a year of preparing them largely out of necessity. Amy and I were tackling gut-related issues such as FODMAP intolerance, possible autoimmune triggers, possible histamine/tyramine sensitivity, and finally h. pylori. While braises and stews provide excellent nourishment in such situations, psychologically, since they are sometimes among the few foods that remain on the menu, one can feel confined to them.
Now emerging from our proverbial culinary winter, the degree to which I gravitate to them has yielded an epiphany: what we were confined to were fairly luxurious foods–comforting, reassuring, and to the degree that cooking can be a creative expression of love and intimacy, expressive. I notice this renewed appreciation when I shop for food. My options are expanding. I don’t have to limit myself to the staples honored here. But I prioritize them anyway, not out of necessity, but out of a warm sense of gratitude and an anticipation of the dishes they yield.
From a culinary perspective, braises and stews are extremely adaptable. They encompass far more than the gentle foods that have become our focus, including amazing, FODMAP-rich, spicey chilis for those who tolerate them. They are easily adapted to lifestyle, as well. A weekend golfer with a desk job may prefer a relatively low-carb lamb stew for a measure of metabolic control. That same golfer also doing P90X might like the added carbs of some tagines.
From both an economic and health perspective, it bears mentioning that braises and stews lean heavily on bone stocks. Bones themselves are cheap sources of nutrition, but lesser known is the fact that, simmered into stock, they are protein sparing. Not only does a dieter wishing to preserve lean mass benefit, but the home cook looking to spend less on conventional cuts of meat does, as well. Bone broth decreases the amount of dietary muscle meat necessary for adding to or preserving one’s own muscle mass.
Finally, and certainly related to the economic, from an ecological perspective, braises and stews not only allow use of of animal parts that might otherwise go ignored or discarded, such as oxtail or tongue, they allow use of vegetables that may may have slipped past their prime. How many people have celery in the crisper that has gone a little limp?
So here’s my list of staple ingredients. It is by no means intended to be comprehensive either nutritionally or culinary. They have been core friends in tough times and remain so even though we are no longer friends in need. By way of shorthand, I’ll asterisk(*) FODMAPs as I go, then round them up in their own category near the end. While I have highlighted bone stock already, I should point out that the other staples, beyond their contributions to flavor, beyond their gentleness on the gut, each have important functions chemically or biologically–and sometimes even medicinally. These functions are beyond the scope of a single blog post, so maybe each deserves its own in the future.
As indicated above, this is the grandaddy. You do have to work for it a little bit, but if you have bone stock, you have food. While writing this post, I sliced some roast beef and pre-chopped mirepoix into a seasoned stock and simmered until tender for a quick, nourishing stew. I dislike spending my time inefficiently, so I prefer to make the largest possible batches of stock, most of which I freeze in jars for later, sometimes constant use depending on circumstances.
On our range as I write this is a batch of mostly beef bones complemented by some pork and lamb bones that had recently accumulated in our freezer. The quantity of bones was so large that the level of water required to cover them resulted in a little overflow once at a simmer. (Note: Monitor and clean up fat overflows. Fat is flammable!)
In addition to the protein-sparing qualities mentioned above, stock provides precursors to glutathione (the body’s master antioxidant) while also directly supporting the lining of the gut. Very importantly, it supplies readily absorbed minerals, particularly, and perhaps obviously, those important to bone health.
Ghee and coconut oil. Important for sauteeing, sweating and searing ingredients. They are primarily saturated fat, which means the heat of cooking is less apt to oxidize them than poly- or mono-unsaturated fats. (Gentle cooking also helps protect fats from oxidizing.) Ghee is butter that has had casein and lactose removed, making it generally tolerable to to those with dairy sensitivities. Combining ghee and coconut oil is delicious.
Onions*, celery, and carrots. For those dodging FODMAPS, you may want to go for the green tops of Spring onions rather than the normal bulbs. Leeks* and garlic*, when tolerated, are also huge contributors to traditional flavor, as well. These are the constituents of the classic mirepoix. Substituting red bell peppers* for the carrots will add Louisiana flavor.
Herbs, whether fresh or dehydrated, are indispensable to braises and stews. My top herbs are rosemary, thyme, oregano, bay leaf, parsely, savory and sage. These are components of the classic bouquet garni.
Raw apple cider vinegar and red wine* are my favorites. In addition to contributing flavor, they help tenderize meats and extract nutrients from any bone or cartilage that is attached to the meat. Arguably tomato paste* and even stewed tomatoes* belong in this category, too.
Himalayan pink salt, Celtic sea salt, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, chili powder*, paprika*.
Broccoli or kale, steamed or thown in at last minute for some added nutrition
If, after period of elimination, you discover you tolerate these foods, they add immensley to flavor:
- Tomatoes, whether fresh, stewed or reduced to paste
- Red wine
- Garlic, onions, shallots and leeks: for all the gentleness of the green tops of Spring onions, their FODMAP cousins are unrivaled in flavor.
- Red pepper
- Prunes, dates, raisins, apples and honey, especially in tagine-style dishes
These few, basic ingredients lend themselves to advanced preparation and large quantities of food, including leftovers. Add to consideration the nutritional density and caloric adaptability of the braises and stews they comprise, they form an important foundation to a healthy, gentle grocery list.