Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Classic Beef Stew

My first cooking class of 2021 was called Classic Comfort Food.  Even though the phrase "comfort food" is a bit of a cliché, I am unapologetic about the title.  I think it is useful in describing what we all seem to need at the moment.  It is meant to describe food that transports us to tables and moments past when simple, familiar food—prepared by someone who loved us—had the ability to momentarily hold our worries at bay.  I could use some of that right now.  Furthermore, for me, these foods also remind me of people that I love—and meals shared with them.  Since I’m eating all of my meals alone these days, I could use some of that too. 


The beef stew my mother made when I was growing up was delicious.  I was a picky eater…but I loved her stew.  The stew I make today is actually very similar to the one she made.  I have returned it to its French roots (with a bit more attention to technique…and added red wine, bacon and mushrooms), and I have omitted her final addition of peas.  But otherwise, the tender meat, carrots, and potatoes, suspended in a rustic “broth” –lightly thickened by virtue of the flour-dredged beef, the onions that have disintegrated from long cooking, and the starch released from the potatoes—is exactly like hers.  There are no tomatoes…or peppers…or other odd ingredients that I would have resented as a child—just a simple, straight forward, bowl of beefy goodness.  I always think of long ago family meals when I sit down to a bowl of that stew.

If you have never made beef stew, this one is a good place to start.
  It gives back loads of flavor for minimal effort...and is a perfect activity for a homebound Saturday or Sunday. As with all braises, it will take the better part of the afternoon to make.   But since most of that time is in the oven with nothing required of you (other than the occasional peek under the lid), it counts as easy in my book.  If you aren’t familiar with the hows, whys and processes of a braise, check out my basics post from a few years ago before getting started.

One important thing to note: when you’re shopping, make sure you purchase beef chuck or boneless short rib meat—not the “stew meat” sold at most butcher counters.
  Generic stew meat is usually a mystery conglomeration of beef trim that serves as a way for the butcher to make money from what would otherwise go in the trash.  To prepare a good stew, you need specific tough, sinewy cuts from around the joints and well-used muscles of the animal.  “Stew meat” may or may not contain these cuts. 

Furthermore, the pieces of meat you use for your stew need to be on the large side—certainly larger than the nubbins in the stew meat bin.
  Small pieces of meat will disintegrate into the broth.  The large pieces will look more attractive and be easier to serve.  It is an easy thing to just cut up a chuck roast or some boneless beef short ribs yourself when you get home.  Cut the meat into 1 1/2- to 2-inch cubes.  These pieces will seem large…but they will shrink as they cook.  And you needn’t worry that the large pieces will be difficult to eat from a bowl:  when cooked properly, the meat is tender enough to be “cut” into bite-sized pieces with a spoon.   Another bonus in cutting the meat yourself:  you can be as fastidious as you like in removing the fat.  I generally only remove obvious, large knobs since most of the fat will dissolve and add flavor and moisture to the stew.  Any excess can be blotted off or skimmed away from the finished stew. 


I had hoped that this year would be less traumatic than last.  So far the year isn’t very promising.  One of the things I have control over is how I feed myself.  So, I continue to cook….every day.  I highly recommend it.  Occasionally preparing and eating a bowl of stew…or some other delicious and simple food that reminds me of people I wish I could be with and better days…gives me a measure of hope that things will one day be better again. 


Classic French-style Beef Stew

2 1/2 to 3 lbs. boneless beef short ribs or chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Salt & freshly ground pepper
4 oz. thick-sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 onions, (about 1 lb.) cut in a 1/2-inch dice
2 large cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
3/4 c. dry red wine
3 to 4 c. beef or chicken stock—if using canned, use low-salt
2 or 3 sprigs thyme
1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut crosswise on a 1/2-inch short diagonal
1 lb. Yukon potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
8 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and halved (quartered, if large)
1/4 c. minced flat-leaf parsley


The day before you plan to prepare the stew, season the meat generously with salt.  I use 3/4 t. of kosher salt per pound of meat (so about 2 t.).  Wrap loosely and refrigerate overnight.

To prepare the stew: Render the bacon in a large stew pot or Dutch oven set over medium heat.
  When the bacon is crisp, remove it along with the fat, reserving each separately. 


While the bacon cooks, dredge the beef in the flour, shaking off the excess.  


Return enough of the bacon fat to the pan to coat the bottom of the pan and increase the heat to medium-high.  Brown the beef on all sides—it may be necessary to do this in batches so the pan isn’t over-crowded.  


Add more bacon fat as necessary.  Remove all the meat to a platter 


and add more bacon fat or olive oil to the pan.  Add the onions.  Regulate the heat as necessary to sweat the onions just until softened and beginning to take on a golden color (about 5 to 10 minutes).  


Add the garlic and continue to cook for a minute or so.  Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan to release the caramelized meat and vegetable juices.  Reduce the wine by at least half. 


Return the meat to the pan and add enough broth to cover the meat.  


Add the thyme.  Bring to a boil.  Cover and transfer to a preheated 300° oven.  Bake for 2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure the stew is cooking at a bare simmer.  It should not boil hard…but it should maintain an active simmer.  Reduce the oven temperature if necessary.

After 2 hours, remove the stew from the oven.  If there is a lot of grease pooling on the surface, spoon it off, or blot with a paper towel.  


Add the potatoes and carrots, season with salt and pepper, cover and return to the oven until the meat and vegetables are fork tender (about 45 minutes to an hour more).


While the stew finishes cooking, sauté the mushrooms in some of the bacon fat (or olive oil or butter) until nicely browned; Season with salt and pepper and set aside.


When the vegetables are tender, carefully stir in the mushrooms and bacon.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Remove the thyme sprigs and serve, sprinkled with minced parsley.  Serves 6
 

(Recipe adapted from The Kansas City Star November 11, 1992)

Variation

  • Classically, this French-style stew would be finished with glazed pearl onions in addition to the mushrooms and bacon.  To prepare the pearl onions, place 8 oz. of peeled pearl onions in a saucepan and cover them with water.  Add 1/2 T. of butter, a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook until almost tender.  Uncover and increase the heat to high and boil until the liquid is reduced to a glaze; reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook until the glaze turns a golden brown, swirling the pan to coat the onions with the glaze.  Scatter the pearl onions over the stew with the mushrooms and bacon.  Or, for a more classic presentation, reheat the pearl onions, mushrooms and bacon separately and garnish each bowl of stew individually with them.
  • For a more American-style beef stew, omit the red wine, mushrooms and bacon.  Brown the meat in vegetable oil.  Add a cup of frozen peas to the stew during the last five minutes of cooking.



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