What's in a name?
Unless I miss my guess, the guy who first coined the expression must have been thinking about guisado, a Mexican branch of the stew family. Why is this the case? You can answer the question by trying a simple experiment.
Think about beef stew. What images does it evoke? If your parents were good cooks, you may be rewarded with images of juicy, tender comfort food consumed slowly on a cold winter night. Unfortunately, for me it's a reminder of the meat-veggies-and-water combo that my usually-dependable parents would set on the table: Dull, drab, and boring, because they didn't reduce the liquid enough or flavor the stock.
I'd often opt for frozen pizza instead.
Now think about boeuf bourguignon. Or gumbo, if you hail from Louisiana. Porkolt or paprikash if your background is Hungarian. What we call goulash, too. Or, for that matter, carne guisado. They evoke entirely different images, although all are actually variations of stew.
Just about every culture has a signature stew. Once, humble meat and vegetables in broth ruled in American and British cuisine. Peter Howarth, in his delightfully-retro (if politically-incorrect) volume, Esquire Handbook for Hosts, (to which reprint editors later added the subtitle, The Original 1950's Guide to the Sophisticated Man,) explained it this way, circa 1954:
"Second only to steak in its standing as a Man's Dish, stew surpasses most entrees. Accompanied by a bottle of wine and a green salad, followed by a cup of strong coffee and perhaps a hunk of cheese--who could ask for more?"
I don't know--a Scotch chaser, maybe?
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SHOW ME HOW
My Mom's role model was not June Cleaver but Rosie the Riveter, and like a small but signifcant minority of women of the era, she not only had dinner on the table by the time husband and kids came home, but also held down a full-time job as an elementary-school teacher and later principal. So, like many resourceful women of the era, she invented shortcuts--which included simmering the meat and vegetables of stew...watery and dull, but stew, nonetheless.
Fortunately, many South-of-the-border chefs successfully resist shortcuts. Today's cookbooks are full of great guisado recipes. Anne Lindsay Greer describes red and green chili versions in her tome, Cuisine of the American Southwest, and her ingredients include tomatoes and other veggies, cumin, beef chuck or pork shoulder, garlic, onions, beef stock, and bacon drippings. Suggested cooking time is one and one-half hours, and the resulting juicy meat is then wrapped in flour tortillas and served with salsa, guacamole, and rice and beans. Robb Walsh suggests sirloin be used in place of chuck or pork, noting that the dish is eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the Lone Star State. Indeed, after such a filling
early-morning repast, why would anyone want Cheerios?
Speaking of the 1950's, you may be surprised to learn that the Carne Guisada served at Jorge's Tex-Mex Café located at stylish One Arts Plaza, is presented in a sauce resembling an old-school 'hunters gravy.' The beef is quite tender and when paired with Jorge's pineapple-ish salsa (not a '50s-style thing) and wrapped in flour tortillas, it becomes uniquely compelling.
For my money, it's better than unflavored meat-and-veggies masquerading as stew. Proof that a rose, by any other name, may not always smell as sweet.