My five-year-old started a new school recently, with a fresh crop of kids and a fresh crop of kid's parents. Word got out that I was a professional writer and a foodie with a food blog, and I've been fielding questions--which I love. One that made sense and I never really thought about before is this, "How do you make beef stew?" Beef stew is so essential, so basic to cooking. It's like chicken soup. A sandwich. Hard to imagine using a recipe for these things. They just are, is all. You throw a bunch of stuff you like in and voila--comfort food.
But the truth is, at some time in the ancient recesses of my past, I must have watched Mom make her simple yet wonderful beef stew and figured out the beef stew meme. Over the decades, as my palate has evolved, so has my beef stew meme. Now it's up to a foodie writer to look with fresh eyes at this and break it out into steps. It's not a recipe, but more like a way of creating the gestalt of beef stew from the sum of its parts.
Searing the Beef
Use good quality beef for good quality, tender stew. We love sirloin for stew in my house. If you want to go crazy, filet will definitely reward you. But sirloin (or tri-tip, which is a portion of the sirloin) is perfect. Do not use chuck if you can avoid it, but if that's what you have on hand, by all means, go for it.
Cut two or more pounds of beef into 1" cubes, roughly, and dredge in flour, salt, and pepper. Sear these dredged cubes in some olive oil in a sturdy pot, preferably a Le Creuset or iron dutch oven, turning and cooking lightly, until they are light brown on the outside (beef should be raw inside). Remove from the pot and set aside.
Onions and Garlic, Oh My!
Sauté sweet onions (at least one large or two medium onions) cut roughly (large triangles) in more olive oil until they are slightly translucent (but not caramelized). Add in many cloves of fresh, crushed garlic (half a bulb--maybe 10 cloves). Do not sauté for long, to avoid turning the garlic bitter. Add in sliced organic carrots, roma tomatoes, Yukon Gold potatoes--your favorite veggies--in as large a quantity as you like. (See Embellish and Enjoy below for more add-in ideas.)
Wine and Then Dine
Add back in the beef to the pot and pour in at least half a bottle of dry red table wine. One bottle will reward you, but then again, who has an entire bottle of wine lying around just for cooking? I recommend Trader Joe's Two-buck Chuck (Charles Shaw) for this purpose, but any inexpensive and not sweet red wine will do.
An Herb and a Spice Are Oh-so-nice
Season with Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper. Bay leaves, culinary lavender, fresh rosemary, sage--these are all optional, depending on what you have handy. Fresh herbs are always better than dried.
Simmer Until It Smells Great
Simmer this intoxicating mixture--light bubbles, not heavy ones--until the beef is cooked through, the flavors are melded, and the veggies are cooked. You probably will not need to add flour to thicken the sauce as the flour from dredging the beef--plus the potatoes--will thicken the stew.
Total cooking time will likely be at least an hour.
Serve over jasmine rice or with bread.
Embellish and Enjoy
Add in what you love and what you have on hand:
- White or portobello mushrooms, cut in bite-sized pieces, and added 10 minutes before serving time
- Swiss chard, cut into strips, without the stem portion—again, added toward the end of cooking time
- Fresh fennel, in bite-sized pieces
- French green beans (haricot verts), in bite-sized pieces
- Fresh peas, added a few minutes before serving
- Sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips--whatever root veggies are handy. These need to cook longer, so add them at the beginning.
- You can make the same stew using lamb leg meat instead of beef. Shanks work well, too, although before serving you may--or may not--wish to cut the bones out. Lamb is incredibly delicious, but the disadvantage is that as leftovers, it doesn't last as long. (We enjoy eating our stew the next day as lunch.)