Indiana Daily Student

Autumn stews allow creativity in the kitchen

The making of a good stew depends less on your talent and more on your will. More specifically, are you willing to let go and create disorder in the kitchen? \nTake my friend Darah, for example. Darah is a baking marvel. She is the Muhammad Ali of the convection oven, pitying the fool who tries to outdo her on chocolate dacquoise, strawberry charlottes and Chantilly cream-filled brandy snaps. But she is not a stew-maker. She follows recipes the way literalists follow the letter of the law and measures herbs and spices as exactly as if she were handling dosages of toxic chemicals. This methodology yields perfect pastry, but, as Darah is the first to laughingly admit, leads to sterile stews. \nThe "kitchen as clinic" approach will not do for stew. Stew is a flexible dish, essentially a braise made with pieces of meat, poultry or fish rather than whole birds, whole fish or large cuts of meat. Stews can be divided into two categories: brown stews, where the meat is cooked in a bit of fat before adding any liquid to the pot, and white stews, where liquid is added to the meat and vegetables without any initial cooking. Note that "white" and "brown" refer to whether the meat or poultry has been browned, not the final color of the sauce. Thus a beef stew made with red wine, without browning the meat, is still a white stew, even though the final dish is dark brown.\nRegardless of political leanings, great stew-making requires liberal zeal. Locate a stew recipe that sounds appealing, then use it as a point of orientation only, a stovetop roadmap for proportion, flavor, technique and timing. From there, exert free will and jocularity. You want more garlic? Add more garlic. You want to use wine instead of water? Do it. The text calls for oregano but are you wild for basil? Make the change, adding a half teaspoon more than specified. Imbibe the cooking liquid from time to time, adding a pinch of this here, a dash and a dollop of that there. And poke your nose in the pot, too; breathe the heady aroma of your creation and smirk at your skill.\nNot all stews are made on the stovetop, nor are all stews made with meat. Case in point is this week's offering, an oven-roasted vegetable ragout. "Ragout" is simply another name for a thick, rich stew. It is derived from the French verb "ragoter," meaning "to stimulate the appetite." There will be no question of that function when you pull this well-seasoned ensemble from the oven. Because the technique for this stew is unconventional (roasted), an even more fitting name might be "galimafree." The traditional meaning of the word is "medieval stew," but in modern French, it translates roughly as "mess." Oh, to always have such a mess on a chilly autumn evening.\nFurthermore, it is a mess whose flavors intensify with time. Even if you are cooking for only one or two, make the whole recipe. It will gratify you for days, and if its delights diminish before it is done, freeze it for future repasts. I suggest teaming the ragout with creamy polenta, but couscous, rice, mashed potatoes, toasted crusty bread or pasta are equally agreeable. Make your chosen accompaniment while the ragout roasts. Then tuck in and triumph in your mess.\nOVEN ROASTED AUTUMN RAGOUT\n2 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces\n2 medium onions, cut into 1/2-inch wedges\n1 large red or yellow bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips\n2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into small dice\n2 medium new potatoes, unpeeled, cut into small dice\n4 large garlic cloves, crushed\n2 tablespoons all-purpose flour\n1 and 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, crumbled\n1 pound plum tomatoes, cut into quarters\n1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil\n2 tablespoons soy sauce\n1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce\n1 4-ounce package blue cheese crumbles (optional)\nPreheat oven to 500 F. In a large bowl, toss together the zucchini, onions, bell pepper, sweet potatoes, new potatoes, garlic, flour and thyme.\nTransfer mixture to a large shallow baking pan, spreading evenly; top with tomatoes and drizzle with oil, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Roast vegetables in middle of oven 25 minutes, or until they begin to brown. Remove from oven; stir and season to taste with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer vegetables to serving dish (if desired). Serve in bowls, over polenta (recipe below) and sprinkle with blue cheese. Makes 6 servings.\nEASY, CREAMY POLENTA\n2 and 1/2 cups milk\n2 cups polenta or yellow cornmeal\n1 14.5-ounce can low sodium chicken or vegetable broth\n3 and 1/3 cups water\nPour milk into a medium saucepan; gradually mix in cornmeal until smooth. In a separate medium saucepan, heat the broth with the water over high heat until boiling. Whisk hot broth mixture into cornmeal mixture. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat and cook polenta, stirring constantly, 5 minutes or until thick. Serve with ragout. Makes 6 servings.

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