There is an extreme version of just about every stew you can name – beef stew, Irish stew, curry, cassoulet, bouillabaisse – in which vegetables are used, if at all, as “aromatics.” You may start by sweating a little bit of onion, carrot, celery, maybe garlic, with a bay leaf and a thyme sprig, and then you proceed to brown your main ingredient, usually chunks of meat, and add some liquid.
It’s difficult to believe that this tradition goes back much before the ’50s, because so few people had access to the 2 pounds or more of meat that it takes to make a stew containing little else. From Henry IV to Herbert Hoover, the promise was made that every Sunday, there would be a chicken “in every pot.” No one ever said “a half-pound of meat per person per day,” which is about what we eat.
Politics and even nutritional arguments aside, a beef stew with a few token peas and carrots is not exactly a paradigm of complex flavors, nor does it have the tiniest hint of freshness. There’s more complexity and interest in a stew of vegetables, with or without a little meat, than there is in the typical American version of “beef stew.”
The whole thing needs to be rethought, and those feelings are particularly strong in the midst of stew season. I set about to do that a few years ago; the first recipe along those lines that I remember publishing, and one that remains one of my favorites, is “Cassoulet With Lots of Vegetables.”
It is exactly what it sounds like, a dish in which vegetables (in this case, beans) are emphasized over your duck confit, your stewed lamb, your sausage and so on. It doesn’t mean those things can’t be included, only that they become special treats to be fished out, rather than the main feature. Think of a vegetable stir-fry with pork, as opposed to a pork stir-fry with token vegetables.
You can apply this kind of thinking to almost any stew or braised dish you like. (In theory, a stew has more liquid than a braise, but in practice, you can use the words interchangeably.) The benefits are myriad, and they start with respecting tradition. Choucroute garnie, for example, means essentially “garnished sauerkraut,” or, really, “sauerkraut with stuff on it.” It doesn’t mean 3 pounds of meat with some sauerkraut as garnish.
If you apply the more-vegetables principle to stews, you'll be eating less meat, which is generally a good thing, and you'll probably be saving money. Even more important, I think, you'll be lightening and brightening dishes that are otherwise fairly dull standards.
It may take some getting used to. For one thing, you may think you need “protein,” which we’ve been convinced is synonymous with animal products but isn’t, to feel satisfied. But satiation comes from many factors, including fat and, not surprisingly, quantity, and I’m not proposing versions of dishes that are either low fat or dainty.
In my gingery chicken stew, for example, I use one chicken thigh per person. This may seem downright semivegetarian for a meat dish (although that is a bit of the idea), but you still get chicken to eat. And there’s a variety of flavors, which of course you can incorporate into a meat-heavy dish as well. But the bonus is bright, creamy winter squash and a big hit of daikon radish, both of which are not only unexpected but also substantial.
Fish stews tend to be generally lighter and more interesting than those with meat, but there’s room for more vegetables as well. The one here, which features chickpeas, spinach and a puttanesca-esque seasoning combination, turns proportions on their heads. There is enough shrimp and squid so that you know you’re eating a fish stew, but also enough variety so there’s a sense that this is something different.
The paradoxical thing is that even many vegetable stews could have more vegetables, and this ribollita achieves that by adding a small boatload of kale to what is typically beans, tomatoes and a little bit of green. It’s not vegetarian in principle – if you had a piece of prosciutto, it would go a long way – but it’s fully loaded with vegetables. That’s the difference.