In one of my first posts on this blog, I defined what I like to call “the confident home cook:” someone who, like me, has no professional training, but is nonetheless a good cook and moves about the kitchen with ease and – dare I say it? – joy. One of the defining features of the confident home cook is his or her ability to cook without a recipe. In the original post, I wrote: “A confident cook reads a recipe and understands the purpose of each ingredient and each step…. That way, if she does not have one or more of the ingredients called for in the recipe, she can choose an appropriate substitute, or decide that, in fact, she really needs to make something else. It is this skill that allows the confident cook to tailor cookbook recipes to her family’s tastes.”
In other words, a confident cook uses techniques and methodologies, but not always recipes. I think the ability to do this — to work without a recipe — is within everyone’s reach, but it takes some time and some practice. The most important thing is to understand why recipes have the steps that they do. If you understand the reasoning behind the instructions, you can then apply that same reasoning to other situations. (This kind of talk is what happens when lawyers cook, by the way.)
I had always struggled to find the perfect recipe for beef stew – one of my favorite cold weather dishes — because I never seemed to have the right ingredients in my kitchen when I felt like making a beef stew or because the recipes always called for some ingredient that my family didn’t eat, like bacon or mushrooms. (Yes, I know. How can we not eat bacon or mushrooms? Don’t get me started.) I am now finally at the point where I feel confident enough in my understanding of what it takes to make a good stew to make the beef stew the way I want to make it, with the ingredients I happen to have on hand. Thus, today, I am not going to give you a recipe for delicious, kid-friendly beef stew, but rather a method for it. And I encourage you to adapt this method to your family’s preferences.
Beef stew, like many stews, requires a long cooking time, but much of that time you can be doing something else, like playing a game with your kids, folding laundry, reading or even doing another project in the kitchen. So, this is a great meal to make on a Sunday afternoon when you are hanging around the house, and then, come dinner time, your family can all sit down to a delicious, hearty meal.
To make the beef stew, you will need the following:
- 1 to 1.5 lbs. of beef stew meat*
- Fat to brown the meat and vegetables, such as butter, bacon fat, or olive oil
- 1-2 cups of aromatic vegetables, such as onion, carrot, celery, or leeks, diced
- Liquid, such as beef broth, red wine, chicken broth, beer or water or a combination of these. (Beef stew is a great way to use up leftover red wine)
- Dried herbs, salt and pepper
- Stew vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, potatoes, or pearl onions (if you are a masochist), peeled (if necessary) and cut into bite-size chunks
*Figure around .5 lbs of meat per person. Beef stew meat is usually inexpensive because the pieces of meat are tough. To make them tender and tasty, they will need to be cooked for a long time in liquid.
To begin, heat several tablespoons of fat in a large, deep pot, such as a Dutch oven. Olive oil is fine for these purposes. A combination of olive oil and butter will give you a rich flavor and the butter will not scorch, which it may do, if you use butter alone. Some beef stew recipes begin with bacon fat, which I am sure tastes great.
While the fat is heating up, coat your beef stew meat in flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper. Environmentalists will write me hate mail for saying this, but I like to put maybe 1/2 to 1 cup of flour in a large plastic zipper bag, add the meat, close the bag and then shake to coat the meat. It’s effective and the clean-up is super-easy. If you love the Earth more than I do, pour your flour onto a plate and dredge the pieces of beef in the flour. (Then again, if you don’t want to use flour for some reason, like you have a kid with a wheat allergy, feel free NOT to coat the meat in flour before browning it.)
Brown the meat in batches — do not overcrowd the meat in the pot – until the pieces gets a bit of a crust on at least two sides. With larger pieces, you may want to turn them three or four times. The meat certainly won’t be cooked through at this point. Don’t worry about the brown bits on the bottom of the pan – you will scrape those up later and they will enrich the flavor of your stew. When the pieces of meat have been browned, remove them from the pot and put them on a plate.
When all the pieces of meat have been browned and removed from the pot, add the diced aromatic vegetables to the pot and stir to coat them with the fat in the pot. Turn the heat down to low or medium low and let the vegetables cook until they get nice and soft. While the vegetables are cooking, season them with salt and pepper and dried herbs, such as sage or thyme. Stir them every so often. These veggies will cook down a lot and become almost indistinguishable from one another during the long cooking. They are the base of the stew’s flavor. The larger vegetables that we add later will be more like the distinctive “bites” of the stew.
Once the veggies are soft, pour a little of the liquid you plan to use in your stew into the pot and with your wooden spoon, scrape up the brown bits stuck to the bottom on the pot. This is called “deglazing” the pot. Once you have done this, return the beef stew meat and any liquid that has collected on the plate to the pot. Add enough of your wine or broth just to cover the meat. Bring the liquid to a boil, and then turn down the heat and gently simmer the stew – with the lid off the pot – for anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. If the stew starts to get too thick, you can always add more liquid. But keep the heat low.
About 30 minutes before you want to eat, add the stew vegetables, such as the carrots and potatoes, to the pot. Feel free to add more liquid if you need to to cover the vegetables. (You don’t want to drown the vegetables, but do make sure that they are mostly covered.) Turn the heat up a bit and cover the pot. But if the stew starts boiling like mad, turn the heat back down. You want to simmer the stew until the chunky vegetables are tender, which could take 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. If you like peas in your beef stew, you can add them toward the end. To perk up the flavor of the stew, you can add a dash of red wine vinegar or even lemon juice right at the end.
Once the veggies are tender, serve the stew in shallow bowls with a crusty loaf of bread or homemade biscuits. Enjoy!
I hope that some of the less confident cooks out there find this non-recipe for beef stew helpful. Perhaps with practice you will find the confidence you need to cook without always relying on a recipe!