Monday, December 12, 2011

The Taming of the Stew

Stew is a weathervane.  Stew means Winter’s finally here. We ate stew a lot during our formative years, because Winter is long and dark in our corner of New England. Stew is warm and comforting for any cold time. If chicken soup is my cure for flu, stew is my cure for cold. Mom’s Spicy Beef Stew is one of those epic recipes that can simmer all day (or not), and will always leave the house smelling wonderfully rich.

Stew beef, on the other hand, is not particularly rich nor is it particularly expensive. I stock up when I see it marked down at the grocery, because it takes up a small space in the freezer for the satisfaction it brings at table. It’s a fair quality meat available in small pieces, the leftover bits from a larger cut. Cook it slow, with lots and lots of liquid, just as you would with chicken bones to make stock. An all-day slow simmer will make it tender and cause it to release its juices into a deep broth. Add veggies, potatoes, onions and spice. Thicken it slightly. A peasant meal, cooked all day, together, getting happy in a pot on the stove. Or at least for an hour or so.
Mom’s version (origin unknown) stews the beef in a decadent sauce of onion and spices, with Worcestershire sauce and paprika to give it strength and lemon juice to brighten it up a little. Browning the beef bits first in hot oil caramelizes the outside of the meat, adding additional depth of flavor.

It took me a long time to get this part right: the oil has to be hot, hot, HOT (think wok hot) to sear the meat and keep the moisture in while creating that delicious outside. I had a tendency to brown the beef at lower heat (to cut down on the spattering of hot oil all over my stovetop) and wound up with gray meat in a puddle of murky juices. Now I crank up the heat under my deepest pot, sear half of the meat at a time, and use a spatter screen to cover the pot during the volcanic eruption. I still have to clean up some of the oily splash, but the quality of the stew is far superior.

Brown the meat. Add the entire “first column” to the pot (in our hand-written recipe card days), including 4 c. hot water, and simmer an hour. Add the vegetables, simmer ‘til done (another half-hour or so). Mix flour with cold water, add to the pot, and cook a few minutes to thicken. Serve in bowls, always with hot biscuits.

Truth be told, I do know a little bit about making biscuits, despite my Northern heritage (and penchant for using this as a point for self-deprecating north-vs-south humor). We ate biscuits during our youth, but hardly ever for breakfast (unless they were English Muffins!), almost usually with stew. Ours were always Bakewell Cream baking powder biscuits: high and light, made with shortening (not butter) and never, ever sweet.

Fast forward to today. Allow me to introduce my particularly pesky southwest Virginia family. DH loves the stew, detests the biscuits. Dear Offspring detest the stew, love the biscuits. I crave these comfort foods on a cold winter day like today, particularly craving the process of making the stew and the biscuits. This is a way I nourish my family and demonstrate my love for them.

Can we fix it? Yes we can! It’s interesting that the fix came from ‘way up North, at Mom’s Welcome Back Again Inn, when I was visiting last year for a significant high school reunion. Mom’s now making the beef mixture (with less liquid), steaming the carrots, and mashing the potatoes. One look at this meal on my plate and I was thinking, “THIS my family will eat.”

I’m still learning to make biscuits. I have the best results, I’m ashamed to say, with the pre-made ones found in the frozen foods section of the grocery. I’m trying, though. I try half butter, half shortening and add a little sugar to the mix. I gave up on the Bakewell Cream version; can’t find it here, and DH didn’t like the strong taste. The best homemade biscuits emerge when there’s buttermilk in the house. Last weekend I made a double-batch (by mistake) and put half in the freezer for later. I’ll let you know tonight how that worked.

When we get home (again) from the swim meet.

DD’s Facebook status today: “If you only have one day to live, go to a swim meet. They last FOREVER.” Particularly a big meet, one with heats and finals, in which your Dear Offspring swim unusual events on the last day. FOREVER, with a LONG intermission.

Fortunately, this pool is only 30 miles from home. When we were done at 10AM, we went home, returning about 4:30PM for the finals. In the meantime, we did lots of laundry, cleaned the kitchen (again!), and made most of tonight’s not-stew, hoping DH will take on the finish-cheffing while we’re trekking home.

I peeled and chopped carrots. They’re in the micro-cooker with a little water, waiting. I peeled and chunked potatoes. They’re in salted water on the stovetop, ready to be boiled, smashed, and whipped with butter, milk, and a little sour cream (shh… don’t tell DS). The beef is browned deliciously, simmered an hour with onions, spices, and 2 c. liquid (remember that reserved sun-dried tomato liquid from the other day? This is where it found a place in life beyond the refrigerator). Ready to heat, finish with some flour and cold water. Biscuits are in the freezer, waiting for the nod.

We’re all on deck. Take your mark. The bell rings on the last lap and we’re done when the last whistle blows and DD is out of the locker room.

Mom’s Spicy Beef Stew (origin beyond that unknown)

Serves 6-8.

2# beef chuck (1 ½” cubes)
2 T. vegetable oil
1 lg. onion, sliced
4 c. boiling water
1 T. salt
1 T. lemon juice
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. paprika
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp. sugar

Brown beef in oil. Add remaining ingredients above to pot. Simmer 1 hour.

6 carrots, sliced
6 medium potatoes, cubed
1 # small onions
(pearl onions are my favorite, but impossible to find here, so I leave them out)

Simmer until done (about ½ hr).

¼ c. flour in ½ c. cold water

Add to stew, cook about 5 minutes to thicken.

PS. One substitution: We’ve cleaned out the lemon juice. I used lime juice.

The Verdict:  Everyone's happy, and stuffed.  Biscuits were perfect (crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside).  DH thought the gravy was a little rich - probably the tomato juice was a bit much.  Slathering it over the mashed potatoes in the two lunch portions left should take care of it.  Two lunch portions left.  Perfect!

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