Sunday, October 18, 2009

beef stew

I worked at the market yesterday, and I think that thirty hours later I am just starting to thaw. It never quite got above 35 degrees, and while all the happy tourists lucked out with a sunny crisp day for looking at their precious leaves, that is just too damned cold to stand in one place for five hours handling wet salad. But it was the market, and even a frozen farmer's market is better than no market at all.
I was working with a woman yesterday who I know just a bit. She is very accomplished in the realm of some great things, but is also very easy to talk to- an excellent combination of attributes, I think. So, there we are, talking about celeriac as we wait for the eager vegetable buyers to arrive, and she says, "What would I do with celeriac?"
And you know I like these kind of questions.
"Well," I began, trying not to let my voice get high as it does when I answer recipe queries. "Any kind of soup or stew. Or roast it up. But if you really want to make it shine, it has got to be beef stew."
"Oh," she sighed. "I wish I was the kind of person who makes beef stew."

Now, I have to say that with the things this woman is creating in her life, if she is at work too late in the day to make a pot of beef stew, I forgive her entirely. In fact, I'll bring her some of mine.

But this got me thinking. For most people, there are things that we make and the things that we don't. Usually this has something to do with what our mothers made, but sometimes it's more random- a friend gave you a recipe for baked mac and cheese in college, you made it, and now you're someone who makes baked mac and cheese. So often I think that those things that you don't make have a bit of mystical allure, and they usually seem harder than they really are. (Unless the thing that you don't make is croissants, and then it really is that hard). And this might just be where the cooking rut occurs.

Oh, the joy of realizing how attainable one of those unattainable dinners really is. And before you know it, there are so many things to cook that it might even be hard to nail it down.

Are you someone who makes beef stew? Or do you think you might like to be?

We have to go back to my frozen market for a moment. I only bring you back there so that you can fully experience the chill in my bones, and so that you can know that this story really has a happy ending, and that there was left over beef stew waiting for me when I got home. A big bowl over noodles, a bitter arugula salad, and couch where I fell fast asleep until Joey and the girls came home from their Saturday capers.

A Beef Stew Formula

I know, formula? Here I am promising to make a beef stew maker out of you, and I give you a formula instead of a recipe? But beef stew is like that- what you've got in your fridge will work out for you. As long as you brown your beef, it will all be okay

(for four people plus a bit leftover, maybe)

2 lbs stew beef
1 cup flour (I have to leave this out now due to the wheat free girl, but if you can, use it)
2 Tablespoons paprika
1 Tablespoon salt
lots of fresh ground pepper
several glugs of olive oil
about 2 cups of liquid- this can be beer, red wine, beef broth, chicken broth, or in a pinch, water

then there are the vegetables... if you've got them, you'd want to start with:

2-3 carrots, peels and cut into chunks
2 ribs celery, sliced
1 large onion cut into boats (are you with me here? I'm not sure of the terms, but cut your onion in half and then into long boat shaped strips)
3 potatoes, peeled and cup into bite sized chunks

or if life is more exciting where you are:
1/2 celeriac root, peeled and cut into chunks
2 kohlrabi bulbs, peeled and cut into chunks

(if you're going for the exciting vegetables, sub them in for the potato or some portion of the potato)

And most importantly, 1 bay leaf

Other optional elements would be soy sauce, tomato paste, and cloves. (a dash of soy sauce, a few tablespoons of tomato paste, 5-7 cloves)
And of course parsley is okay if you fly that way.

So how do you put all of this together? Well, your going to need an afternoon when you're around, but doing something else. After about 1/2 hour of prep time, this stuff just cooks itself.

Beef stew is very forgiving. But this is the important part. Are you skimming this post? Okay then, I'll say it again. THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART.
You must wash, and DRY your stew meat.
You must combine your flour, paprika, salt and pepper in a bowl.
You must heat the olive oil in a large pot until it is hot.
You must dip each DRY (did I say dry?) piece of meat into the flour mixture.
You must drop it into the pot, and let it brown on all sides. This will take turning on your part. You can do several pieces at a time, but do not crowd the pan. When the meat is brown on all sides and you need space to put more meat in, take it out of the pot and put it on a plate. When you have browned all of the meat, return it to the pot.

That was the important part. If you're still with me, you're golden. Are you still with me?

I hope all of your vegetables are chopped. If not, pause for chopping.
Chopped? Okay.
Now add your liquid. Keep the heat at medium high. Bring it to a mellow boil. Scrape the brown stuff off the bottom of the pot.
Add your vegetables. The meat and vegetables should be partially submerged in liquid. Add more liquid if your instinct tells you to (yes you have instinct- you are a person who makes beef stew!)
Bring back up to a mellow boil. Add the bay leaf. Cover, lower the heat and go do something else. Check back in every so often, stirring, cooing, adding liquid, whatever.
Cook at least an hour, but maybe three- that's okay too. Taste it when it's done, flavor if there is a need.

And what do you pour this luscious thing over? I'm partial to egg noodles, but cous cous is great too. Rice will work, as will a good loaf of bread. Or you can just eat it on its own. From the pot.


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  2. Once, at Junior High, when I was on staff, we had Beef Stew for lunch. Dan (Vlad) and I made an announcement, asking all the vegetarian campers to sit at a particular table, because we were planning a workshop and wanted to get their input. Then, because they were vegetarians, we got more beef stew. There was no workshop. I don't actually remember this, but my friend Logan was one of those campers, and reminded me of it the other day. Beef Stew : willing to lie to children for it.

  3. Alana, i think you might be the answer to my dilemma.

    I am in a cooking funk. I am so lazy about cooking lately. I rely on frozen Costco food way too often. I have forgotten the joy of cooking yummy meals to enjoy together. I hate trying to come up with a menu plan, because everything i make has become so monotonous.

    Your writing is giving me hope. And this post made me feel it. Thank you!