Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Homemade Beef Stew

I don't cater to sissies at my house.

If you're going to stick around for a while, you better be tough, adaptable, and ready for anything.

That goes for my shoes, the couches, the kids and yes, even my recipes.

Take this beef stew, for example. I've been making it for decades, and every time, I do something different. Switch around the ingredients, re-order the steps, adjust the cooking time - you name it, I've changed it - and always it comes out delicious.

This, my friends, is one flexible and easy-going recipe.

The ingredients list is entirely forgiving:

^ Start with some beef. Sirloin or round steak, whatever I can afford and lay my hands on. I get enough for however many people I need to feed, and I always plan for some leftovers.

Cut the beef into cubes. Big or small, perfect or irregular, it doesn't matter a lick. I usually opt for rustic, uneven chunks that are slightly bigger than bite size, since they will shrink a bit as they cook.

^ When I'm about halfway through the chopping process, I interrupt myself to toss a big pot onto high heat, and drizzle in plenty of olive oil. That way, when I finish my cubes, I'll have a blazing hot pan all ready and raring to go. Wasting time is for sissies.

And if my pan isn't perfectly clean, that's fine. Perfection is also for sissies.

^ Once the beef cubes have been browned, they will look all pretty like this. See all the brown stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan? Not a problem at all.

At this point, some cooks like to add flour to the pan, and toss the browning cubes until they are coated. That's fine. But usually, I thicken my stews just before serving. Two reasons for that: first, during the long cook time, flourless stew is less likely to scorch. And secondly, since the thickness will change as the stew cooks down, I don't want to fuss over it twice. Better just to wait till the end, and get it right the first time

 ^ While the meat is browning away, it's vegetable chopping time. Depending on who has requested this dish, what's in the house, and how I'm feeling, the ingredients at this stage may vary widely.

Almost always I use carrots and potatoes. But the specific type and cut varies with the wind. Today I was cooking to suit my own whims, and I found a handful of leftover tiny red and gold potatoes, one big yellow onion, and a full bag of regular carrots. I wandered out to my winter herb garden - no sissies allowed out there, either - and chose a few sprigs of sage.

There are no hard and fast rules about how much of each to use. Strict rules about vegetables, as you may have guessed, are also for sissies.

^ As with the beef, I cut the veggies to suit my own fancy. Preferring irregular and fairly large chunks, I  to keep the veggies proportional to each other. For example, the carrot bits may be different shapes, but they are all roughly the same mass, so they will cook at a similar pace. And since I cut the carrots nice and big, I want the potatoes, who cook about the same speed, to be a similar size. Since these guys are already cute and tiny, I decided to leave them whole.  

My goal is to get everyone to finish up at about the same time. But I'm not about to fuss, ya know?

^ I love to put freshly cut veggies in matching white bowls. It's totally unnecessary, but I am crazy for the way it looks. Making things look pretty is perfectly acceptable and non-sissy-ish. Trust me.

^ The meat is still browning, the veggies are chopped so now I'm ready to consider my liquid possibilities. I'm going to need at least three or four cups, but I can combine several different choices. After raiding my fridge and pantry, I found some leftover white wine, a fresh can of beef consomme, half a box of beef broth, and straight up water.

Since I'm never sure exactly how much I'll need, I keep all my options handy until the moment of truth.

^ Which is now. 

On top of the browned beef, I ceremoniously add the veggies and the herbs from their crisp white bowls, and top with a generous sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper. 

Around the sides of that lovely heap, I pour my liquids, in whatever order I like.

Today, I added the wine first. It sizzled and foamed in the hot pan, and a sweet smell blossomed up into my face. Uh oh. I experienced a brief moment of panic as I checked the label. Bubbly sweet white wine. Not exactly the best choice for cooking.

Oh well. It's too late to worry about that.

So with hope in my heart and complete confidence in my fail-safe recipe, I dumped in the half-box of beef broth and glass of water, then put the consomme back in the pantry for another day.

I stirred up the pot and checked my proportions.

^ The top of veggie heap was still a bit high and dry, so I added a second glass of water, stirred again, and this is how it looked.

That, my friends, is an agreeable batch of beef stew.

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{I didn't get any photos of this last step because Ranger realized we were overdue for his afternoon walk and threw a little tantrum. He's no sissy, but his ear-piercing notification barks can be a bit of a distraction.}

After about an hour on a low simmer, I mixed maybe a half cup of flour in a little bowl with enough water to make it all slooshy. Then I turned up the heat to a medium, dribbled most but not all of the flour mixture into the stew, stirred it up, and watched to see what happened. 

The stew thickened. Bless its heart.

At this stage of the game, it's a simple matter to fine tune the consistency of the stew by adding a tich more flour or pouring in additional water. Remember also that the liquids will thicken a bit as they cool, so if the broth is a wee smidge on the liquidy side while it's hot in the pot, that will be perfect. 

After five more minutes of medium low heat, I pulled the stew off the burner, covered it and left it to rest while I walked my very happy and excited dog

^ This batch of beef stew turned out to be tender, juicy and well seasoned. And thanks to that bubbly wine, the flavor had a sweet edge, definitely unlike any version of this recipe that I've made before but entirely delicious.

Which proves, once again, that my recipe for beef stew is no sissy.

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Ready for more stories about my most dearly beloved, tried-and-true homemade meals?

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