Monday, November 3, 2014

Beef Stew

When the Patriots are playing in the snow and a Nor'easter is blowing into to town and you finally capitulate to winter and turn on the heat, it's time to do some serious thinkin' about beef stew. It's always good, but a bit of a chore browning all that beef. Now, thanks to America's Test Kitchen, it's a little easier. This is an adaptation of their Guinness Beef Stew recipe, with some commentary.

Ingredients, in order of appearance:
  • 3-4 lbs chuck eye roast
  • 2 tblsp olive oil
  • 2 good sized yellow onions
  • rib of celery
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1-2 tblsp tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup AP flour
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 3 cups apple cider
  • 1 lg russet potato
  • fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 lbs yukon gold potatoes
  • 1 lb carrots
Don't buy so-called "stew meat". Get a good chuck roast and cut it up into 1 1/2 inch chunks yourself. It's like, what, two minutes? You can trim some fat but don't go crazy. It'll render given time. This makes sure you're chuck, which is what you want for stew, and not--as Mr. Kimball believes--floor scraps.

Dice your onions and celery and then fry them, with the barest dash of salt, until they are deep, deep brown. Julie Sahni discusses this technique at length, probably in most of her Indian cookbooks. Essentially, it's a long process (20 minutes) with increasing focus on stirring to keep them from burning. I think of this technique as the Indian equivalent of making a roux. She calls it, I think, "brown-frying" and it's really not as hard as a roux if you pay attention.

At the very end of that process, add the garlic and tomato paste and begin salting. Get that nice rust color going. Then add the flour. The pot is going to look very dry and crusty and wrong, but stir stir stir. When you just can't stand how wrong it looks, gradually add the chicken stock, stirring and deglazing the pan. Once the lumps are out, add the cider, the beef and a diced russet potato.

I like a nice thick gravy in my beef stew. I used to cut my potatoes into wedges, so some of the edge would go into the sauce, but now I just sacrifice one whole potato to that task. Dice that puppy into 1/4" or less and a couple of hours later that starchy goodness will be liquid. Add a bundle of three-four sprigs of fresh thyme, because stews need thyme.

Here's the real ATK trick: pop that uncovered pot into a 325˚F oven for at least 3.5 hours. The meat that's exposed will brown in the oven, and the subsequent stirs while cooking will get that flavor into the sauce.

As for the veggies, ATK wants you to add them the last hour of cooking. Twice through with this variation, and I think that's a little al dente for me. Next time, I'll add them after the first hour. I've also found that an extra 30-45 minutes gets it to the right place for me in terms of texture. But it's a great trick, since it gets rid of what for me is at least an hour of prep.

Seasoning is a very personal thing. I tend to salt very lightly in the beginning, but continually through the process, so I don't overdo it. I usually dose the pepper once, with the meat. Pepper is the only think that I'm liberal with...

Did this Sunday without cider and it was still good. I did replace with homemade chicken broth, though. Sometimes I wonder what the difference would be if I browned the onions in bacon drippings...