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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Classic Beef Stew

Maybe because I only make a couple of beef stews a year, but I find them a special treat.

Particularly more satisfying as a warming balm against the days' inevitable transition to the colder and darker tinges of fall and winter.

Indeed, few things are as filling, hearty, and just plain contenting, as a piping hot bowl of stew on a brisk Autumn day.

Well, this one is my first stew of the season.  I might make more, I might not, we'll see.  And, because we don't eat as much meat as we used to, I can feel good about splurging on some good organic chuck pieces, and just pulling out all the stops for a "treat" stew.

This is one of the few dishes that I still remember being taught how to make by my mom, and the recipe and technique are still relatively faithful to this time-honoured recipe.  I mean, it's stew, so it's not overly complicated, but my point is that it feels really rustic.  In the sense of being old and simple.

Of course, I've tweaked it a bit here and there over the years, but for the most part this is a very easy, and classic, beef stew.

So, first things first.

The beef.

The best cuts of beef for stewing are the really lean (and traditionally poor-ish) cuts with lots of that sinewy connective tissue to break down over really long, slow, heat.

It's actually not a great idea to use cuts with much fat on them.  Even marbling, which is oh-so-often used as an indicator for a great steak, is really bad for slow cooking.  The reason is the fat will all just melt away, and you'll be left with a tough chunk of chewy meat.

Myself, I like chuck.  Other good choices are anything from the shoulder or rump.

The good thing about chuck and similarly lean cuts like it, is all the collagen inside.  Connective tissue.  It breaks down very well over a long slow cook, and what you're left with is meat that literally pulls apart at the mere touch of a fork.


Anyway, I splurged on some really nice looking organic chuck this go around; I was excited for this stew, and it was my first one of the season, so I felt justified.

And there was lots of it, too.

So, there are different schools of thought on the whole beef prep thing, but I fall firmly under the dredge and sear category.

It's all about that delicious Maillard reaction, people.

For those not interested in the science lesson, we're talking about browning.

Oh that gorgeous, delicious, browning.  Almost all of the rich, dark, beefy flavour you expect from a good stew comes from this first, very simple but wholly crucial step.

So, searing is a must.  However, the dredging part doesn't necessarily need to happen.  The beef will still sear and brown nicely without any flour, however many people believe that dredging the pieces in a flour mixture first, can help accentuate this browning.  Others simply believe that it starts the roux process early and is more a matter of convenience.

In any case, you must brown your beef beforehand, no matter what.  Whether you dredge them in flour before browning, or simply add the flour in a later step, that's less important.

However, myself, I like to dredge and sear.  I think it does make a difference to the browning, plus it makes a delightful beefy crust to the pot which I love, love, love to deglaze.  

The french call it the fond, which literally just means the bottom, but of course with most French, there are also more, subtler, meanings. Fond also has some metaphorical and slightly esoteric meanings, including 'deep' (like in a profound way, which interestingly enough I think we get from the word profond), or (my favourite for this usage) 'heart' as in the quintessence of something.   

So, it makes sense, because this sticky residue really is the heart of the beefiness to any stew.  Damn if there isn't a crap-tonne of flavour in there and it should go without saying that this absolutely needs to be reincorporated into the stew.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.  We'll get to that when we deglaze.

For now, we just want to make sure we get a really big stock pot, and preheat it over medium-high heat.

Then, try to make sure your beef pieces are all roughly the same size, just because you want them to cook uniformly and for the same amount of time.

Then mix up a flour mixture in a large bowl.

Myself, I used some fresh thyme leaves, and a pinch of sea salt, and coarsely ground black peppercorns.

Mix that all up in about a cup of flour, and then lightly toss your beef chunks in, making sure all sides are coated thinly.

Then, heat up some oil in the pan, enough to cover the entire bottom surface up to about a centimetre.

Try to avoid using olive oil or butter or something else with a low smoke point.  Myself, I like canola.  It has a pretty mild taste, and a decently high smoke point.

And then brown the beef on medium-high heat, in batches. Removing them once browned and setting them aside for now.

This takes a few minutes, depending on how much you have, but eventually you'll be left with a pile of delicious looking but super rare beef cubes:

mmmm... if you look closely, you can see itty bitty thyme leaves stuck in there!

AND, a delightfully messy pot:

You can see, I'm already starting the deglazing.  I've added a large pat of butter because it was pretty dry, and to that I will add a generous amount of red wine and beef stock.

If you don't know what deglazing is... you should learn.  It has always been my wont to never let any good flavour bits go to waste, and what I affectionately refer to as 'gribblies' are almost always reincorporated into my dishes in some fashion or another.

So, here we have the addition of some liquid, the butter, some wine, and beef stock, to reabsorb all of the delightful brown bits from searing the beef.

But... I'm going to do it a little differently this time.

J'aimerais faire une roux de cette fond.

Yup, I'm going to make a roux deglaze.  That's what the butter is for.  

So after scraping the bottom and sides quite vigourously, using the butter as lubricant, it started to thicken nicely, and form essentially a dirty-ish gravy.

Now... hear me out... I also needed to saute some onion.  A lot of onion.  

If you know me, you will know that it is NEVER my opinion or style to be lazy with, or to combine, steps of a technique.  I almost always believe in painstaking attention and time-consuming detail to my cooking.

However, I honestly couldn't think of a reason why I1 couldn't add my onion at this stage.

So, we had an onion-roux-deglaze happening.

And it worked quite well, if I do say so myself.  The onions actually helped move things around in there, and of course, added an awesome onion-y flavour to it. 

You can see it's thickening a little bit, but I'm going to add all of the flour mixture leftover from the dredging.

I turned that around for a few minutes like I would make a roux, and sure enough, it got nicely dark and pasty.  It just also had onions in it.

And, now comes the liquid stage.

A whole carton of beef broth, and about a quarter of a third of a bottle (about a cup) of red wine.  In this case, a cheap cabernet franc.  Which actually was fairly decent.

Doesn't that look lovely?  Really glossy and brown, the way a roux-based sauce should be!

As you can see, at this time I also added an additional, and generous, dash of fresh thyme leaves.


I'm not the hugest fan of thyme, but paired with the right flavours, it can be exquisite.

So, now we just plunk everything back in, starting with the beef, and then all the veggies.

Now, many people like to delay adding the veggies, and instead put them in closer to when the stew will be done.  There's nothing wrong with that.  In fact, unless you want all your veggies to be really mushy and all have the same consistency, then you really should do this.  An hour or two before the meat would be done stewing, throw in your more delicate veggies, and they'll still have a little bit of life to them.

Myself, however, I'm actually a fan of the mushy veggies.  I like the smooth uniformity of all the constituents having the same texture.

So, I add everything at the same time.

Plus, I like the idea that the nutrients from the veggies will have time to seep into everything else.  It makes it a big batch of heartiness.

But, it's totally your call on this.  Of course the beef has to go in as soon as possible, but I might also recommend adding at least the harder of the root veggies, like potatoes or parsnips and such... if you're using those.

For my veggies for this stew, I chose (in relative order of concentration) potatoes, onion, celery, carrot, peas, and green onion.

Here are pics, in no particular order:

I did something I normally have not done in previous stews, and I deliberately left the potatoes in large chunks.  In the past, I have had problems with them just disintegrating because they've been too delicate.

No issues this time though.

All of the peels, stalks, nibs, leaves, and bits and bobs leftover from all of this vegetable prep, I saved:

And I used it as a base for a large bouquet garni.  I just added copious bay leaves, black tellicherry peppercorns, and any partially-used thyme sprigs.


Remember what I was talking about not wanting to let any nutrients go to waste?  Plus... all that flavour!  Not to mention starch too, from the potato skins (would help with thickening).

Anyway, I thought about using my nut milk bag... it is re-usable and sturdy... but in the end I opted for cheesecloth because I didn't want my nut bag to take on a permanent brown hue.

Wrap that up neatly, and tie it with a bow! 

 Voila!  Bouquet Garni!

In that goes, and then I tried to squeeze out as much air as possible, so it didn't just float at the top the whole time.

Before cooking, I added a few last touches.

Most notably some peas (just some frozen ones I had), and another pile o' thyme.

Then the lid gets put on it, and I popped the whole thing in the oven.

Before you ask, or if you were wondering... YES, I DO HAVE A SLOW-COOKER.

But... this was a massive amount of stew, and the bottom line is that my slow cooker is just not big enough sometimes.


There is nothing wrong with putting a stew in the oven.  The heat is a little down-sided, but relatively uniform still, and I can keep the temperature nice and controlled at an even 200° F.

Yes, that low.  I had nothing but time today, so I cooked it low and slow for about 6 or 7 hours.  If you have less time, of course you can crank that heat up to something closer to 300° F... but I like to put the LOW in sLOW cooking.  Heh heh heh heh.

Anyhoo... that's it.

She sits in there all afternoon.

When she comes out, I give her a thorough stirring.

And remove the bouquet garni.

Which looks disgusting, sure... but it did its job well.

Then, it's plating time.

Or 'bowling' time, I suppose.



So hot and hearty and filling!

Perfect for a cold Autumn evening.