What I especially like about stews is their versatility. The eight recipes here range from spicy braised beef with a Chinese accent to a rich French bourride, and three of my favorites focus on poultry, seafood and vegetables instead of the usual hunk of meat. These stews also take to add-ons; I drop biscuit dough on my vegetable stew and pat Parmesan crumbs on stewed lamb.
The process of turning a cheap cut of meat into something grand always amazes me. The meat starts out as a big, tough, ugly lump. I brown it, add carrots, garlic and onions or other vegetables, and pour in some wine, water or stock. Maybe I'll flavor the mixture with a handful of spices and a bunch of herbs. The meat cooks for a few hours and it ends up a luscious meal to be devoured with friends over a glass of red wine.
It's the oven that works this magic. Even though cooking stews on top of the stove is the accepted method, I prefer to use the oven. I can get the temperature a little lower and the heat a little evener, allowing the meat to cook more slowly with less evaporation--and freeing the stovetop for other dishes to accompany the main course.