Tip #1: A spoonful of mustard will brighten up a slow cooked stew.
My dad is a stew man. He’s a fan of any pot of food that makes its own gravy, which can be sopped up with slices of bread one the juice is all that’s left. Or maybe even before, alternating bites of soaked bread with slow cooked meat and vegetables. But that slow cooking process also mutes bright and punchy flavors so that by the time you’re ready to ladle it out everything is a bit flat, a bit one note. It’s a common problem and recipes suggest adding one or another ingredient to liven things up.
Let’s just dismiss all the suggestions that involve cooking or preparing something extra before serving, like some finely minced herbs or lightly sauteed garlic. There are times when I have the patience to do that but in general, stew is something I serve when I’m short on time or energy. The cooking happens days in advance (or weeks if I’ve stashed some in the fridge) and when it’s on the night’s dinner menu mostly I want to just heat it up. Nothing more. The other option for sprucing it up is to add something, either at the beginning or the end of the process, to refresh the flavor.
Adding at the end doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t solve the problem of having a one note dish. The stew becomes too overly tart or acidic to the exclusion of other flavors and you end up with a different version of the same problem. The secret weapon I’ve found over years of trial and error is a spoonful or two of mustard, added to the stew at the beginning of cooking. The strong nose-tingling kick mellows during cooking but it doesn’t disappear entirely. Unlike vinegar or lemon juice which have distinct “cooked” flavors that can be off-putting, mustard tends to cook out into an indefinable yet noticeable brightness that cuts through the rich slow-cooked flavor without unbalancing it. It works for just about every stew recipe I’ve tried and when I leave it out, I notice the difference. Given the negligible extra time it takes and the fact that I always have mustard in the fridge, it’s a no brainer.