Comfort stew – eating when the vegetarian’s away

I don’t really miss meat or fish. I miss particular dishes. When C goes away I cook and eat differently from when he’s here. Within minutes of the door closing behind him I revert to an earlier eating pattern and slow cooking for pleasure. Breakfast becomes fruit salad instead of yogurt and cereal. Lunch becomes crisp-bread and mackerel, crab or pastrami, instead of C’s lovely home made soup. Dinner most often turns to one of my three most beloved pasta dishes (I’ve mentioned them before) in winter, buckwheat noodles and Chinese leaf in summer, or, every now and again, a stew of some sort.

Use what you’ve got

Most of my stews are of the “what’s in the fridge?” variety. There’s a Swedish saying attributed to our first and most famous cook: “You take what you have”. It sums up my approach to cooking. I read recipes but I am very happy to adjust them and to swap ingredients in and out according to what’s available. After all, I try to buy what fresh and lovely and then find a dish to suit the ingredients rather than the other way around.

A stew looks after itself and gives a deeply satisfying result.

A stew looks after itself and gives a deeply satisfying result.

Most of my recipes come with lists or ideas for how they can be adjusted, changed or improved for this very reason. Food is flexible. (Season that statement: we know that there are some foodstuffs that really aren’t flexible at all. But what most of us eat everyday doesn’t take an awful lot of careful measuring out but can handle a bit of variety in ingredients and proportions.)

Below is my recipe for stew. If it is incredibly flexible and I never make exactly the same stew twice. But I always make something comforting and tasty.

The challenge

Adding colour and crunch: red peppers, chunky mushrooms and fennel.

Adding colour and crunch: red peppers, chunky mushrooms and fennel.

The challenge with a stew is putting together vegetables and flavourings that work. I think in “flavour universes”. Lamb, sweet potato, peppers, chillies, cumin, coriander (seed and leaf) and a good dose of lemon juice evokes North Africa. Beef, potato, barley, thyme, black pepper and cider gives us something quite British. Lamb, peppers, aubergine, rosemary, extra tomatoes and olives feel Mediterranean. Chickpeas, sweet potato, potato, cauliflower, spinach (added late), cumin, coriander, pepper, masala, lime pickle and a dollop of coconut milk and you have a rather Indian stew. You can vary it endlessly but always use the same basic recipe. That’s why this can be a little scary to beginners: you are in charge of the outcome.

What you have stew recipe

This is a basic recipe. If you’re a confident cook but want a little guidance on stew, this is a good place to start. If you’re not at all confident, you might want more guidance before you put your own stew together. Saying that, stews are forgiving and fun and this recipe gives you the basic approach for a meant, fish or vegetable stew.

There’s a lot of starchy vegetables in this stew. That’s for several reasons: starchy veg tends to be cheap, they are filling, they thicken the sauce, they provide a delightful background to meat or fish. I often throw in a tin of flageolet beans because they make the sauce really silky.

The meat is browned and it's time to add starchy veg.

The meat is browned and it’s time to add starchy veg. (Sweet potato, aubergine and turnip work well with each other and lamb shanks.)

Preparation: 30 minutes. Cooking: 45 – 90 minutes. Serves: 4 – 8 people.
That seems like a lot of variation and it is. How long it takes to cook depends on the slowest-cooking thing in the pan, whether that is a joint of meat or large chunks of sweet potato (the slowest cooking vegetable in the world). How many people it serves depends on how much stuff you put in the pot. A stew made with the smaller quantities of everything will serve three to four.

A note on fish and tofu

Fish is delicate so if you’re making a fish stew, reserve the fish until the very last moment. Where lamb shanks and stewing steak gets better after and hour and a bit of simmering, fish disintegrates and disappears. Also, fish is more delicate in flavour that most meat so you need to be a little careful about what flavourings you through in with it. I’d recommend cooking the fish separately and adding it and it’s cooking juices to the stew just before serving.

I like a bowl of stew that has everything in it. You don't need much with this. Except a glass of wine, maybe.

I like a bowl of stew that has everything in it. You don’t need much with this. Except a glass of wine, maybe.

Tofu can also disintegrate if it’s stewed for a long time too but is more robust than fish and needs longer to soak up the flavours of the sauce. I’d give tofu 40-30 minutes in the pot on a gentle simmer. Of course, a couple of tins of chickpeas is really all the protein you need and if the vegetarian was at home, that’s what I’d use in this recipe.

Comfort stew - eating when the vegetarian's away
Preparation time
Cooking time
Total time
Our fabulous stew recipe can be adapted to include whatever you have at hand. Preparation and cooking time depends on the ingredients you use.
Recipe type: Main Course
Cuisine: British
Serves: 6
  • 500 - 1,000 grams protein (a chicken, a couple of lamb shanks, stewing beef, even fish or tofu)
  • 2 - 4 onions (red or white)
  • 6-12 garlic cloves, skinned but whole
  • 500 - 1,000 grams starchy vegetables (potatoes, turnips, pulses, carrots, aubergine, beans, chickpeas or whatever you fancy)
  • Tinned tomatoes
  • 200 - 400 grams texture vegetables (mushrooms, button onions, fennel bulbs, peppers)
  • 0.5 - 1 litre stewing liquid (red wine or white, stock, tomato juice, cider, water)
  • Flavourings (thyme, parsley, ginger, coriander, lime, rosemary, olives, capers, lime pickle... user your imagination and let your palate steer you)
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Trim and prepare the protein. If using fish, put to the side for now.
  2. If using meat, brown in a pan. (Not to seal in the flavour - the long, slow cooking will squeeze almost every bit of meat juice into the stew - but because we like the flavour of browned meat. It adds delicious umami to the sauce.)
  3. Remove the skin from the onions and chop roughly or just quarter.
  4. Remove the skin from the garlic cloves.
  5. Add onions and garlic to the pot where the meat is browning and let soften. It doesn't have to soften much: it's going to stew for a long time so again we're looking for a little extra flavour through browning more than anything else.
  6. Chop he starchy vegetables into similarly sized chunks (1" square works well).
  7. Add to the pot and fry briefly.
  8. (If you have a huge joint of meat, something that will have to simmer for over an hour, reserve the starchy veg for 20-30 minutes. You don't want them to completely disintegrate when the stew cooks.)
  9. Add the tinned tomatoes.
  10. Mix the stewing liquid (or pour straight into the pan). It should just cover the meat and vegetables.
  11. Simmer as per directions on the meat, or until all the vegetables are nice and tender.
  12. This part of the process usually takes between 30-60 minutes, depending on what's being cooked.
  13. Add flavourings and simmer for another 15 minutes.
  14. Season to taste.
  15. Serve with a green salad and/or chunks of bread.


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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

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