Well, there’s no denying it. It’s fall. There is nothing more comforting this time of year than a rich, filling stew. On a slow and lazy weekend they’re perfect fare for laid-back cooking. We throw meats and vegetables in the oven or slow cooker and forget about them until hunger strikes. But lets face it—weekdays are a little hectic and there’s not always time to slowly sauté onions, sear beef, peel and chop potatoes and carrots and let the whole thing simmer until it’s tender.
While I love stews, I do have a confession to make—a beef with stews, if you will: I’m not a big fan of slow cookers, nor am I of anything that instructs a cooking time of any more than 3 hours (and that’s pushing it). I do make somewhat of an exception for that latter, but only for the likes of an 8-pound bone-in pork shoulder because, once smoked, it sits in my 250° oven for 8 hours or so. But there’s a difference between an all day whole, bone-in, 8-pound, slow roasted pork shoulder, and an all day stew of roughly 2 pounds of chuck roast cut into 1” cubes: the pork is unbelievably tender, falls to shreds if you look at it hard enough, and so moist and succulent, where as the beef falls apart just the same but is actually stringing and dry, sticking to the top of your molars as you chew down on them. It’s so deceptive. And then there are the vegetables. Carrots have defied all logic by maintaining their shape perfectly but melt to baby food in your mouth. The celery has kept its distinctive shape too, but just tastes hot and waterlogged. Because most slow cooker stews have you just throw everything in raw, the onions have little texture and taste like pukey wet onions. Frankly, looks don’t deceive here. It has the texture to match its appearance—brown and dull. By just throwing everything in raw, too, you get a flavor that follows suit with its look and feel. Really, the difference between boiled beef and beef stew at this point is that the stew uses stock or broth.
I know there’s some debate over the validity and necessity of searing meat in a pan to get it brown and caramelized. Some claim that in doing this you seal the natural juices of the meat in, which keep it moist and flavorful while the liquid stews it until tender; some say it must be dredged in flour; others claim that’s not the case. If you ask me, I don’t know. I’ve researched it before and I really think it’s one of those things that no real answer will ever be reached; there will always be debate and science will consistently and constantly prove what it previously disproved (red meat, pork, salt and wine was bad for us, now it’s good. Just wait—they’ll be bad again soon enough). Just as well—I don’t care. I sear the meat because of good old Maillard reaction—caramelizing the beef first adds a deeper, richer flavor in the finished dish. As for the flour, I don’t usually bother—of course, some say dredging can neutralize the beef’s flavor. Whatever.
Thankfully, slow cooker manufacturers have gotten wise and you can now get them with timers, varying temperature settings and a feature that shuts them off or just keeps them warm once the stew is perfectly cooked. Still, no carrot or celery chunks can survive a full day of stewing. I’m not saying they should be raw or anything but I feel like they should have some texture to them. And flavor, too; there’s no distinctive flavor to them after that amount of time. If I’m making a traditional stew and I want there to be chunks of carrot and celery bobbing about for eating later I just throw them in in the last 20 – 30 minutes. When I make something I refer to as Lazy Coq au Vin—I, and I must say quite remarkably, don’t chop a damn thing until the parsley at the very end—I just break a carrot and celery stick or two in half and chuck them in the wine so their flavor creates something stock-like out of the wine, but I fish them out before it’s thickened and served. They don’t taste like anything at this point, they have the texture of grainy and squishy mush, they’ve served their purpose. Thank you for giving to the stew. For one reason or another, the British social reformer Annie Besant was quoted as saying, “There is a charm in making a stew, to the unaccustomed cook, from the excitement of wondering what the result will be, and whether any flavor save that of onions will survive the competition in the mixture.”
But, still there’s the issue of our time. I am admittedly slow in the kitchen. So, even with a recipe that only needs an hour and half to stew, I’ve got 30 minutes or so of prep involved before I have to sit and wait. Like I said, lazy weekends are no problem. But on a Wednesday… forget about it. But what if I still want a warming stew on a cold night but am totally lacking in time and motivation (you know, just on the off chance…)?
This is a perfect solution. Not only are you forgoing a tough cut of meat that you have to let simmer for ages by replacing it with instant cooking shrimp, but I also have a speedy trick for tackling those potatoes: buy baby new potatoes, seal them in a zipper bag and bash them with a meat tenderizer until they’re broken into small pieces. See! Not only are you cutting down time, but you’re also eliminating stress. I know that as far as a traditional stew goes this is fairly deviant. Actually, it really does challenge the definition of what it means to “stew”. That said, if you’re someone who rigidly holds the definition of a stew to the traditional meat-and-potato image—sort of like those that think if it’s not beef on a bun then it’s not a burger—let’s just call this a thick soup, then.
What I love most about this though is that despite the short cuts this doesn’t taste as though you’re compromising anything; you still get a rich, full-bodied taste, full of those nuances you’d get from something slow simmering, but still tasting fresh (something I think most stews are challenged by). There is just something about the combination of seafood, Spanish chorizo, and dry sherry that is just magical. The fattiness of the aromatic chorizo is tamed a bit, lending its strength to the mildly sweet shrimp, both of which are accentuated by the dry, but still fruity, grapiness of the sherry—those three cooked together themselves would make anyone happy. Make sure the shrimp you buy have already been peeled, deveined and had their tails removed to keep this extra speedy (though as long as you get ones marked “EZ-Peel” or they just have their tails you can remove them while the potatoes simmer), and for chorizo I have to insist on an authentic Spanish cured chorizo—I prefer Palacios brand over anything. And if you have some crusty, chewy bread that can’t be bad, either!
First, load some baby new potatoes—you know, the ones that are no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball that are usually sold in little netted bags—into a big sealable bag. Press out all the air, seal it and lay it on a flat surface so that all the little babies are in a single layer. I should say that you should really do this on a big cutting board, not your counter top—you don’t want to crack or dent your countertop! Anyway, with a big rolling pin or a meat mallet/tenderizer, smash the tiny spuds until they break into medium sized pieces.
Next, slice the chorizo into lengthwise quarters and then into ¼” chunks.
Tumble these into a big enameled Dutch oven with some garlic-infused olive oil and put over medium heat. You want to warm them through so they give up some of those sunburst-orange oils. Once this happens, add the finely minced/chopped white and light green portion of some scallions. Stir this around for just a minute before stirring in some ground cumin and tomato paste.
Just stir everything for another minute, until the tomato paste starts to melt and soften slightly. Dump in the potato pieces, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and stir until everything is pretty well mixed.
Pour in some dry sherry and stir it into the pan. Then mix in a 14-ounce can of petite-diced tomatoes and some vegetable stock. Partially cover the pan, bring to a boil, season with more salt, and then reduce the heat to low so it all simmers. Within 10 – 15 minutes the potatoes should be perfectly tender.
I’m actually going to do a little back-peddling here. I don’t sear the shrimp. I feel this is justified though because not only has the chorizo been crisped a bit, giving that Maillard reaction I mentioned earlier, but also to sear shrimp is to cook them. They would get cold waiting on a plate for the potatoes to cook and then rubbery when added back in to warm through. So, once the potatoes are tender, bring the pot back to a boil over medium-high heat—this literally takes 30 seconds, if that—and drop in the shrimp*. Reduce the heat to low immediately and simmer for just 3 – 5 minutes, until the shrimp are opaque and slightly firm; just enough time to grab some bowls and a ladle, slice up the green parts of the scallions, and maybe some cilantro or parsley if you’d like.
Serve immediately with, naturally, bread.
*If dropping the shrimp into the stew doesn’t appeal to you then you could always, once the potatoes are tender, heat a little bit of oil in a sauté pan and cook the shrimp in that—no more than 5 minutes—and either add them to the individual bowls of stew or stir them into the Dutch oven just to combine everything and serve immediately.