Fall Comfort Food: Rich Beef Stew
Today is October 14th, 2016 in Montreal. It's overcast and cold. At least, the rain and wind let up. The last few days featured heavy winds Maybe those in the Southern USA wouldn't consider our winds heavy after Mathew's visit.
For us it was windy.
The rain and winds combined to knock down most of the beautiful Fall foliage. Scant days ago, the leaves looked glorious on the trees. Now, they simply signal a chore. It's time to pull out the rakes.
Winter is coming.
Suffice it to say it's a blah day. That applies to both the weather and my mood.
Even Duolingo offers a suggestion. "Yo es un oso." It tells me I'm a bear.
I don't think Duolingo likes me very much.
Okay, hibernation is an idea, just not a very good one.
I'd miss the hockey season.
Instead of sleeping for the next six months, I'll turn to comfort foods. Fall marks the return of simmered stews and soups that stick to the ribs like nothing else can.
They are also super easy to do, yet, most people think otherwise.
I kid thee not, if you can boil hot dogs, you can do this.
I'll even give you some restaurant shortcuts to make your life easier.
You have two choices. If you own a heavy enameled pot with a lid, you can cook directly on the stove top. If not, pick a pot with a lid (or just aluminum foil crimped other it) and use the oven.
Choosing the meat, or, better is worse
Stews use low-quality cuts. We're talking about the muscles the animal uses most often. They are tough, dense, and full of flavor. Stewing pulls that flavor out while making them tender.
If you want to use prime rib or filet mignon, buy it then throw it in the trash right away. You will toss it after cooking it anyway, so save yourself some time.
For a stew, you want the shoulder cuts. Ideally, you want the blade, bone-in or boneless, your choice. Cost-wise, if the boneless version is less than about a third more expensive, it's worth it. For example, if the bone-in costs $4.50 a pound, boneless should be less than $6.00.
Or, just buy the boneless version to save yourself some time. That's your call. One way or another, it will end up boneless before it hits the pot.
For simplicity's sake, we'll assume a boneless blade roast here. If you bought a bone-in roast, use a sharp knife to cut the meat free. Don't worry about doing a professional job. You'll toss the bones into the stew anyway. Just fish them out before final thickening.
Shy away from packaged "stewing beef." Sometimes, the butcher has odds and ends from trimming better cuts. He tosses those little bits into a container for sale as stewing beef rather than waste them. Those "better" cuts are not better for stews. You'll end up with tough little nuggets.
Vegetable Oil - ~2 Tbs (30 ml)
Boneless beef blade roast ~3 pounds (1.5 kg)
Onions - 2
Carrots - 3
Celery or Celeriac - 2 stalks
Button mushrooms - 1 case about 8 oz (227g)
Optional: Potatoes - 3 or 4 (Caveat: Don't use potatoes if you plan to freeze the stew. Potatoes get a funky texture after freezing.)
Flour 2 Tbs (30 ml)
A few sprigs of fresh Thyme en bouquet garni (see below)
Liquid Beef broth concentrate (ex: Bovril) to taste
Cornstarch (cornflour) 1 Tbs (15ml)
Method: Prep or "Mise en Place"
Mise en place means "to put in place." This should take about ten minutes.
1 - Cut the meat into big bite-sized pieces. I like to cut them so that some guests need a knife while others cram a big chunk into their mouths. Use an 8"+ knife, ladies. I don't know what it is about women and teeny little knives. A paring knife makes this task more dangerous, not less!
2 - You may recognize that onions, carrots, and celery are a traditional mirepoix. Traditionally, the proportions are 2 parts onion, 1 part carrots, 1 part celery. Also traditionally, the veggies are cut "en brunoise" i.e. in 1/8" cubes (4mm)
I don't like celery so I don't use it. Big whup. I like onions so I use more. Again, big whup. Feel free to adjust the ratio as you like.
Also, brunoise cuts will dissolve in the stew. Cut the veggies "en paysanne" which means country-style... whatever. There is no set definition. Let's just call it bite-sized pieces...
Peel the carrots and cut the veggies into bite-sized pieces. Leave your paring knife in the drawer. Use the 8" one, 'nuff said.
3 - Tie the thyme sprigs together with some string. Leave the string ends long. A bouquet garni is just fresh herbs tied in a bunch. The long string ends make it easier to fish out later.
Mise en place = done.
Active Time about 25 minutes
On the stove top, heat the oil in your pot. Let it get good and hot. The surface should ripple. Wear an old shirt, an apron, or a chef's coat.
I don't know how many shirts I've ruined doing this. I suppose I could ask my wife. But, I'm too scared to.
Brown the chunks of meat. Don't crowd the pot. Brown it stages. Add meat, brown, remove meat, set it aside, add more, repeat.
It would be nice to brown all the meat but that's not really necessary. It's also okay to have some brown bits stuck to the bottom. Brown is good, black is not. Stop browning meat when the stuck bits get very dark, but well before they turn black.
Remove the last batch of meat. Dump the veggies in, giving them a good stir. After a minute or three, sprinkle on the flour as evenly as you can.
Stir again. The flour will mix with some of the oil and fat from the meat. It will make things gummy. That's good.
Dump the meat back in. Stir again. If you forgot to sprinkle the flour, do it now.
Pour in enough water to cover everything. Stir yet again. If you still forgot to sprinkle the flour, too late, forget the flour.
Bring to a boil. Cover and drop the heat to a simmer. That means that you should have a few bubbles popping up every now and then.
Cook 3 hours on the stovetop. If you are using your oven, cover the pot and bake at 350F for the same time.
Three hours later
Fish out a chunk of meat to taste it. It should be very tender. If not, give it another 45 minutes cooking time.
At this point, your stew will be cooked, but it won't be very flavourful. It won't be thick and rich either.
Let's fix that now.
Bring the pot to the stovetop and continue simmering. You can actually go a little past simmering.
The first step is fixing the flavor. Grab a tablespoon. Taste the liquid. Is it flavorful enough for your tastes? If so, fine. If not, that's where the beef broth concentrate comes in. You may have noticed that we didn't use any salt thus far. This is why. Beef broth concentrate is notoriously salty.
Pour in about a tablespoon (15ml) of concentrate. Stir well. Taste again. Repeat until you're happy with the flavor.
The next step is thickening. You need to make a decision here. If you plan to freeze some of the stew, delay this step. Thickening with a cornstarch and water slurry does not survive freezing. Neither does thickening with a roux, which is sort of what we did when we sprinkled the flour.
If you plan to freeze, freeze the unthickened stew.
If you plan to serve many people later, store the unthickened stew. Thicken it before service. It's a lot easier to reheat a watery stew than a thick hearty one. There's far less chance of it sticking too.
If you will just reheat a portion or two in the microwave, thicken now.
Make sure the stew is simmering (or even more).
Add the cornstarch (cornflour) to as little cold water as you can to fully dissolve it. This mix is called a "slurry."
Add some of the slurry. Add about half if you are thickening the entire recipe. Stir.
The hot stew will start thickening in seconds. After about 20 to 30 seconds, if you are not happy with the thickness, add some more slurry. Stir again. Continue until you are satisfied.
Traditionally, the "proper" method is to dip a tablespoon into the stew. Run your finger through the back. It should leave a clean swipe that does not refill.
Screw tradition. Make it like you like it.
The stew can be served as-is with thick chunks of rustic bread. It can also be ladled onto rice, mashed potatoes, or wide egg noodles.
It reheats well in the microwave so it would make good lunches too.
A note to purists
Yes, this recipe uses more liquid than a traditional beef stew. Yes, using less water and cooking the mirepoix more will build flavor without needing beef concentrate. Yes, using more flour sooner will not require additional thickening.
Do it that way if you like.
Using less liquid also significantly increases the chances of burning the stew. The method shown here is virtually foolproof.
Using more flour also removes the possibility of freezing for later use. Using less liquid removes some of the make-ahead factor. Reheating gives yet another opportunity to burn it.
This way is easier. That's the idea