Friday, March 23, 2012

Beef Stew

I love beef stew.
I love meals that cook in one pot.
I love slow cooked meats.
I love meals of slow cooked meat that cook in one pot so you can clean up the kitchen while it's cooking and then eat way too much because it's just so good and then fall asleep on the couch watching a zombie movie because the kitchen is already cleaned up and then wake up sweaty from your totally scary zombie dream and go have more ste. . . . TMI?

I love this recipe. . .

It's kind of hard to wax poetic about beef stew because, as I write, it is totes sunny out today. Birds are chirping, breeze is blowing and it's Spring. Or is it? Forecast says were due for a rainy weekend and what's better on a rainy weekend that a hearty pot of beef stew. And this dear readers is one of the best darn beef (or pork, or elk, or venison) stew recipes around. The ingredients are simple and inexpensive and the steps uncomplicated. It's all about the cooking order, developing the individual flavors and then gently melding them all together. Seriously, don't skip any steps, no shortcuts. This is serious stew fixin'!

And no potatoes. "What?" you say. "Beef stew without potatoes?", "Sacrilege!" OK, now hear me out. I love potatoes, oh mama, how I love potatoes. But not in stew. They get all mushy, mealy and fall apart. The "stewing" robs all their flavor and they end up gritty globs of bland tasteless starch, completely ruining the silky texture of the stew. 

But. . . you can always serve it over mashed potatoes. Mmmmm, good!

But. . . as much as I love mashed potatoes, oh mama, how I love mashed potatoes, my preference is to serve the stew over creamy cheddar polenta (recipe below). 
Seriously, you've got to try it.

Start by dicing up some bacon and crisping it up in the bottom of a large ovenproof pot. Be sure to choose a pot that also has an oven safe lid. Cook the bacon over medium heat until it's really crispy. Remove to a paper towel lined plate. Use tongs or a fork so that you leave most of the drippings behind in the pot. You're gonna need that flavor.

While the bacon is getting crispy, season some flour with salt and pepper.

Take about 2 pounds or so of your favorite cut of beef and cut into 1-inch cubes. Then toss the beef chunks around in the flour until they're well coated.

After removing the bacon from the pot, turn the heat up to high. You may need to add a bit of olive oil so you have a good, even 1/8-inch or so of fat in the bottom of the pot. Sear the beef chunks on all sides. It only takes a minute or so. You're not trying to cook the meat, just get a nice crispy caramelized crust on it. Crispy caramelized crust equals mega flavor. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside.

Get a couple of carrots, a couple of stalks of celery and a few nice looking shallots and dice 'em up. Medium to small dice on the carrots and celery and a fine dice on the shallots. You could also dice up an onion here, that would be nice, but my husband hates onions so, alas, I must do with out. Don't worry about peeling the carrots. Just give 'em a good scrubbing. This is a rustic dish, no need to get fancy.

Add more olive oil to the pot if needed and saute your vegetables. Add the carrots, celery and onion (if you're lucky enough to use one.) first and saute for 2-3 minutes. Just enough to start getting some color on them. Then toss in the shallots and saute just a minute or two more. If you add the shallots with the other veggies they tend to burn and stick to the bottom.

Next add in two cups of red wine and scrape up the "stuck on" bits from the bottom of the pot. Ok, this is going to start really smelling good. Reduce the heat to medium.

Then add 2 cups of beef broth*, the beef chunks, some seasonings (thyme and rosemary are nice.) and if you are feeling randy, the bacon. (I always add the bacon.) Bring the whole thing to a simmer, stirring gently. Give it a taste and add salt if needed. But, go easy. As it cooks down it will get "saltier". Once it's simmering, put the lid on and put the whole thing in a 350°F oven for at least 2 hours.

*Beef broth comes in 14.5 oz. cans, which is just 1.5 oz. shy of 2 cups. Since I didn't want to open another can I just made up the difference with more red wine. You could also use water or any liquid. You just need 4 cups total of liquid. Red wine, white wine, beer, beef broth, chicken broth, whatever. You could even use water but it would be pretty bland. Use what you have.

After cooking for 2 hours, check to see if the stew is done. The beef chunks should fall apart easily when pulled with a fork. If not, put the lid back on, reduce your oven to 325°F and cook for another 20-30 minutes then check again. Let the stew rest for a while and serve over mashed potatoes or creamy polenta. Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, good!

Beef Stew
4-6 servings
1/4 C. flour
2 lbs. beef, any cut, cut into 1-inch chunks
6 slices bacon, diced
2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
4 celery stalks, diced
2 shallots, finely diced
2 C. red wine
2 C. beef stock
1/2 t. thyme
1/2 t. rosemary

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°F

Place the beef in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss around. Add flour and toss to coat. Set aside.

In a large, lidded, oven safe, dutch oven, cook bacon over medium heat until crispy. Remove from pan, do not discard fat. Add olive oil, if necessary, for a good coating of fat on the bottom of the pan. Turn heat up to high and brown beef on all sides, about 45 seconds a side. Remove beef from pan and set aside.

Add onion, carrots and celery and saute about two minutes, just to get a bit of color. Add shallots and saute 1 minute more. Pour in wine and scrape up the bits from the bottom of the pan. Add beef broth, thyme and rosemary. Stir. Add beef and bacon back in and stir. Bring to a simmer.

Cover pot and set on middle rack in oven set at 350°F. Cook for 2 hours. Stew is done when beef falls apart easily with a fork and is tender. If meat is not done after 2 hours, reduce heat to 325°F and cook for 30 minutes more. Let stew set 10-15 minutes before serving.

Cheddar Cheese Polenta
1 C. yellow cornmeal
1 t. salt
2 T. butter
4 oz. shredded medium to sharp cheddar cheese

Bring 4-1/2 cups water to a boil.
Add cornmeal in a thin stream, whisking vigorously to prevent lumps.
Add salt and simmer for 15 minutes until thick and creamy. If mixture seems too thick, whisk in more water, a tablespoon at a time.
Add butter and whisk it in.
Remove from heat and add cheese, stirring until cheese is melted and fully incorporated.