Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cold Hands, Warm Hearth

We've been cooped up in the house too long, due to what passes for a snowstorm in Georgia. A couple inches of white stuff on the ground, some ice on the roads and school officials decree a long homebound weekend with the kids. I keep a fire roaring in the fireplace and plan a filling meal to warm us up from the inside. Beef stew fills the bill.

Beef stew is a case study in how my cooking has changed over time. As a newlywed, I used the recipe in the Pillsbury cookbook that was given to me as a shower gift. One hundred or more cookbooks later, I learn about the kind of meat I should be using (chuck blade steak) and then to layering flavors by adding bacon and red wine. And I started to realize that beef stew’s appeal, aside from the bowl-of-comfort-and-warmth factor, is enhanced by these umami elements - bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, red wine. It’s an umami tsunami, if you will, that will make your hypothalamus and your belly happy.

Despite my love for the structure of recipes, I’ve endeavored to let go in the kitchen and make my own path. My recipes used to be very specific, now they tend to sound like Dizzy Gillespie in the kitchen, so my apologies in advance.

So, here’s how I make beef stew, most nights. Feel free to improvise. After all, did Dizz play it the same every time?

Beef Stew, a Primer

1/2 pound sliced bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

¼ cup flour

1 (1 lb. or so) beef chuck blade steak, trimmed of excess fat and sliced into 1½ inch pieces

2 medium onions, peeled and cut into wedges

4 carrots, peeled, trimmed, split lengthwise and then into 2-inch sections

2 stalks celery, trimmed and sliced into 2-inch pieces

4 medium red potatoes, peeled and sliced into 2-inch chunks

1, possibly 2, small containers of mushrooms, rinsed, dried, trimmed and sliced (for shiitakes) or halved (for buttons)

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 cup red wine or water, to deglaze the pan

1 can low-sodium beef broth

1 (28 oz.) can whole organic tomatoes

salt and pepper to taste

1. First of all, I use two Dutch ovens. One for browning the meat and creating the sauce, the second to hold the meat, vegetables and sauce that will go in the oven. I know that’s weird and you may not want to do it this way, but this is my method, so there.

2. Fry the bacon in a Dutch oven over medium heat. When bacon is crispy, remove and place on paper towels to drain. Pour off all but two tablespoons of grease in the pan.

3. In a paper bag, if you have it, or Ziploc bag , place a ¼ cup of flour and season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place beef pieces in bag, seal and shake, shake, shake. (This is an ideal job for any children lurking, waiting for their sister to finish her turn on the Wii.)

4. Place seasoned, floured beef pieces in pot with sizzling bacon grease and brown, turning to make sure the pieces are evenly cooked. This requires about three batches, maybe four. As the meat releases from the second side, place it in the Dutch oven that will go in the oven and cover with lid. Place drained bacon pieces with meat.

5. After you remove the meat, place a tablespoonful of tomato paste in the pan and stir for a couple of minutes, until it’s good and brown. Add the onions and continue to cook until softened. Pour a ½ cup of red wine into the pan and deglaze. This means to scrape all the brown stuff off the bottom of the pan. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the beef broth or water, canned tomatoes, one or two bay leaves, and the potatoes.

6. Now that you have a pot full of stew, get a sheet of parchment paper, crumple it in your hand and place it on the surface of the stew. Place the lid on the Dutch oven and slide the entire pot into a preheated oven. I use convection and cook the stew for a minimum of three hours at 300, checking on the liquid level every 45 minutes or so. If the liquid is too low, just add water to barely cover the meat and vegetables.

7. Serve the beef stew with buttered noodles or maybe a pan of baked polenta or, if you're in the mood (and in the South), creamy grits. And don't forget the pan of home baked fudgy brownies for dessert.


Lindsey, who is four, hears activity in the kitchen. “Mommy, can I help?“

“I thought you wanted to play with the Wii.“

“No, I want to cook. Mommy, I want do it. Let me!”

“But it’s raw meat, sweetie, it’s messy.“

“I want to put the raw meat in!”

“Not in the pot, honey, you’re not allowed around the hot pans.”

“But I want to put the meat in the bag.”

“You’ll have to wash your hands again.”

“That’s ok, I want to do it. Mommy, does the raw meat feel cold?”

And as she helps dust the meat with flour and place it in the pan, “Mommy, look at the little nest of meat. Nest of meat. Nest of meat. But mommy, let’s take it out. Let’s take it out now. Can I take it out now?”

“No, darling.”

“Why? Why?”

I distract her with a new task. “Sweetie, find me an onion.”

“Where do you keep them? Oh, that’s right, I remember.” She digs in the onion drawer, with a giggle. “Found it.”

Just in case you ever need to occupy a four-year old for 15 minutes or more, pull out an onion and watch as she peels the outer layers bit by papery bit. However, onions are not always enough to occupy a four year old, so you look around for another project and see that the trash can needs emptying. While I tie up the bag and prepare to take it outside, I teach Lindsey how to open a new bag and place it in the can.

She’s so proud of herself, she commands, “Take my picture!”

So that’s why Lindsey’s giving me the sweet face beside the trash can and I hear, “But mommy, I thought you were going to give me a hug.”

“I can give you a hug. How about a hug right now? I’m going to squeeze tighter.”

“No I’m going to squeeze tighter.”

“And I’m going to squeeze even more tighter.” And just as I thought she was on to a new project, she says,

“Let’s cook some more!”

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