Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beef Stew

There's nothing particularly fancy about beef stew.  It's not all the rage.  It's not gourmet.  I'm pretty sure it's what peasants used to eat.  But it is simple, hearty, and it makes a chilly day feel a little warmer.  So every winter beef stew is on my list of of winter foods to make.

Recently I was looking through some Cook's Illustrated recipes and I came across one entitled "Best Beef Stew."  The writer of the article was raving about how deep the flavors were and how beefy this stew was.  I was intrigued.  Usually when I make beef stew I start with pre-packaged beef stew meat, turn to a handy-dandy packet of beef stew seasonings, and follow their directions.  It is always good, but not knock-your-socks-off delicious.  Could beef stew made from scratch be that much better?  There's only one way to find out!
So I prepared beef stew a la Cook's Illustrated.  I followed the script for the most part, making substitutions mainly for things I didn't have on hand and/or couldn't find at my small town grocery store.  The results?  Holy cow!  No pun intended.  This blew my previous beef stews completely out of the water.  I'm not one who particularly loves meat.  But I loved the meat in this stew.  It was tender, flavorful, and downright amazing.  My husband said it was some of the best soups he has ever had.  Thanks to this recipe, I will never buy a packet of beef stew seasonings again!

To make your own delicious stew start by mixing together minced garlic, tomato paste, and fish sauce.  The original recipe called for anchovies, but I wasn't about to buy anchovies.  I was thinking about what to use instead when I noticed a bottle of fish sauce in my pantry.  How convenient that it is made with anchovies!  I found fish sauce in the Asian section of my grocery store.

Cut up a 4 pound chuck roast and trim it of as much fat as you can.  The roast I used was well marbled, which is the politically correct way of saying it came from a bootylicious cow.
To get some bonus flavor from your meat, brown the it in some oil in a Dutch oven.  Do half at a time so that you don't crowd the pot. 
Add some chopped carrots and sliced onions and cook them until they are soft, about a minute.
Now add some flour and cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly (except to take a picture!)
Stir in the fish sauce mixture and wine.  Cook for about 2 minutes, until it's starting to thicken.
Add soy sauce, water, thyme, and bay leaves.  The original recipe called for chicken broth.  I used soy sauce and water instead for 2 reasons.  #1: I didn't have any chicken broth.  #2: I have read in other Cook's Illustrated articles about how soy sauce can enhance beef flavor.  So I thought I could use it in this recipe.  All's well that ends well.  Bring your liquid to a boil and transfer to a 300 degree oven.  Let it hang out there for 1 1/2 hours.
When the time is up, remove from the oven (carefully!) and stir in chopped potatoes.  Put the pot back in the oven for about 45 minutes, until the potatoes are almost tender.
Remove the pot from the oven and skim off the excess fat.  Place on the stove top and cook about 15 more minutes, until potatoes are fully cooked.  While that is cooking, sprinkle gelatin over water in a small bowl and let it soften for 5 minutes.  This will help thicken the stew.  Stir the gelatin into the soup along with the peas.
Simmer about 3 minutes, until the gelatin is dissolved.  Season with salt and pepper before serving.  Prepare yourself for what I feel comfortable calling the "Best" Beef Stew!

Beef Stew
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 boneless beef chuck-eye roast (about 4 pounds), trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large onion , halved and cut from pole to pole into 1/8-inch-thick slices (about 2 cups)
4 medium carrots , peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups red wine
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 3/4 cups water
2 bay leaves
2 tsp dried thyme
1 pound potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin (about 1 packet)
1/2 cup water
1 cup frozen peas , thawed
Table salt and ground black pepper
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine garlic and fish sauce in small bowl.  Stir in tomato paste and set mixture aside.
Pat meat dry with paper towels. Do not season. Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over high heat until just starting to smoke. Add half of beef and cook until well browned on all sides, about 8 minutes total, reducing heat if oil begins to smoke or fond begins to burn. Transfer beef to large plate. Repeat with remaining beef and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, leaving second batch of meat in pot after browning.
Reduce heat to medium and return first batch of beef to pot. Add onion and carrots to Dutch oven and stir to combine with beef. Cook, scraping bottom of pan to loosen any browned bits, until onion is softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add garlic mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until no dry flour remains, about 30 seconds.
Slowly add wine, scraping bottom of pan to loosen any browned bits. Increase heat to high and allow wine to simmer until thickened and slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Stir in soy sauce, water, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to simmer, cover, transfer to oven, and cook for 1 1/2 hours.
Remove pot from oven; remove and discard bay leaves. Stir in potatoes, cover, return to oven, and cook until potatoes are almost tender, about 45 minutes.
Using large spoon, skim any excess fat from surface of stew. Cook over medium heat until potatoes are cooked through and meat offers little resistance when poked with fork (meat should not be falling apart), about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle gelatin over water in small bowl and allow to soften for 5 minutes.
Increase heat to high, stir in softened gelatin mixture and peas; simmer until gelatin is fully dissolved and stew is thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste; serve. 

Recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated, January 2010

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