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3 Vegetarian Stew Recipes That Don’t Take Hours on the Stove

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A slowly bubbling pot of stew on a cold winter evening, steam rising and scents wafting, is the epitome of cozy contentment.

There’s a fine line between a stew, a braise and a soup, and it’s quite subjective: Sometimes only a few spoons of broth make the difference. To my mind, a stew needs to be thick enough to eat with a fork but coated with plenty of velvety sauce so there’s a puddle left at the bottom of the bowl, easily mopped up with a piece of crusty bread (or soaked up by rice, noodles or mashed potatoes).

But what’s in the pot? A popular answer would be meat, beef, lamb or pork, simmering gently in an aromatic bath. But many other ingredients benefit from long, slow cooking, and a pot of chickpeas or beets will steam up your kitchen as pleasantly and fill your belly just as heartily as chicken or beef. Since I’ve been eating less meat over the last few years, I’ve often turned to vegetable-based stews to fortify myself and my family against the icy nights.

One benefit of vegetable-only stews is that they generally cook more quickly than meaty ones, which can take hours to soften the tough cuts traditionally called for. Otherwise, vegetable stews are cooked much like their meat-filled cousins. A base of chopped aromatic vegetables or alliums is sautéed, then liquid and more vegetables or beans or grains are added, and the mixture is simmered until tender. Starchy ingredients like potatoes or beans in the pot will help thicken the broth, turning it rich and silky. Broth or wine bump up the flavors.

Each of the three stews here has a distinct character that shows off the range of what’s possible.

The thickest and most robust features red lentils and barley, cooked together for more than an hour. This gives the lentils enough time to break down completely, while the grains of barley swell and soften. Spices, fennel and leeks lend fragrant complexity. Feel free to adjust the liquid: A little more makes it brothier and more souplike, suitable for eating with a spoon. Or let it rest a bit so the barley can absorb all the broth, making it easily forkable.

Sweet potatoes star in the next recipe, falling apart and thickening the sauce as everything simmers. I based the flavors on a Japanese nimono, including soy sauce and shiitake mushrooms for depth, sesame oil for a toasty richness, and rice wine vinegar and fresh ginger for tang. I add tofu to this stew in two ways. I marinate some of it in soy sauce, then stir it into the stew for a soft, pillowy texture. The rest is crisped until golden and spooned on top as a garnish.

The quickest of these stews is a mix of canned white beans and tomatoes, embellished with loads of browned garlic and chile flakes. Ready in about half an hour, it’s a speedy and pantry-friendly delight. The optional bacon can give the stew a brawny heft, but it’s already perfectly satisfying — cozy contentment is just what stew does best.

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