I have a few favorite dishes in this category, and today's post presents one near the top of the list. This Old-Fashioned Beef Stew is adapted from a recipe in my beloved The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It is one of a dozen or so recipes from that book that I consider a core part of my repertoire. Naturally I've tweaked it a bit over the years, but the central idea is the same: A rich, somewhat thick broth studded with chunks of tender beef, potato, carrot, and onion. The beef is given a long, slow simmer to tenderize and develop the flavor of the broth, while the vegetables are added toward the end of cooking so that they don't get mushy.
Beef stew is one of those dishes that is subject to endless variation, and each major variation has a loyal following. Questions such as whether or not to include tomato, mushrooms, or even peas or other vegetables can divide households. Whether or not the broth is thickened is another schism. When I think of beef stew, though, this recipe is my platonic ideal. It is not trendy or gourmet, it's just good-quality home cooking at its best.
A few tips for success:
- I buy a whole chuck roast and cut it up. I don't use beef packaged as "stew meat" because the pieces are usually either too big or too small, and it's not always clear what cut of meat was used. It takes a little more time to cut it yourself, but the cost is usually the same and you have more control over the end product.
- The initial cooking process goes rather quickly, so I've rewritten the original recipe to provide some detailed instructions on the prep work on the front end. By having everything ready and close to hand, you can work through the first stage more quickly.
- Don't boil the stew. You'll bring it up to the boiling point a couple of times, but at no time should it cook at a rolling boil. Boiling meat toughens it; simmering is what's called for here.
Old-Fashioned Beef StewAdapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
1 large (not giant) onion
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp table salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 to 2-1/4 pound chuck roast
2 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups boiling water
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp allspice
2 bay leaves
4 small boiling onions
1/2 lb to 2/3 lb carrots
4 to 6 small red potatoes or other "waxy" potatoes (not Russets)
Peel the large onion, trim off the ends, and cut it in half lengthwise (pole to pole). Put each half on the cutting board cut side down and slice lengthwise, then separate the layers of the slices. You want to end up with about 2 cups of loosely piled onion slivers.
You may wind up with some chunks of fat or or other trimming that still has a little meat on it. That's OK. Also, different roasts will have different amounts of this excess; with some you'll have a lot, with some very little.
Put 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven and swirl to coat the bottom. Put the pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add all of the fat and trimmings. Let them cook, stirring occasionally, until all sides are browned. Remove the cooked trimmings and discard, or save for your pets.
What's left in the pot is rendered beef fat and probably some browned bits. For the next step you should have at least 4 Tbsp of fat, so if there's not that much from the initial Tbsp of oil and the rendered fat, add more vegetable oil.
Add about 1/3 of the beef cubes to the bag with the flour mixture. Shake the bag until all the beef pieces are coated in flour. Remove the cubes from the bag, shaking off excess flour. You don't want a lot of flour caked on the pieces. When the fat is hot again, place a layer of beef cubes in pot. Leave a little room around each one -- don't crowd the pan. If they are crowded together the meat will steam, not brown, and you want it to brown to give a nice deep flavor. When the beef is browned on one side, use tongs to turn each piece over and brown on at least one more side. Remove the browned beef to a dish or pan and repeat with more beef. Repeat the process until all the beef has been browned. Work quickly, and don't let the heat get too high. Some of the flour will fall off of the meat and will brown in the bottom of the pot. That's fine -- this browned flour will give your stew flavor and provide thickening. However, you don't want it to burn. If it seems in danger of burning, scrape the browned flour out of the pot and put it with the browned meat, then add a little more oil to the pot to continue with cooking the rest of the beef.
When all of the beef has been browned and removed, put the water on to boil. Add the sliced onion to the Dutch oven. Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened and just a little browned. Add the beef and any accumulated juices back to the pot. Add the boiling water (be careful, it might splatter), balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, allspice, and bay leaves. The liquid should begin to boil pretty quickly. When that happens, lower the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours or until the meat is tender. At the end of this cooking time, the meat will have started to shred, but you'll still have plenty of toothsome chunks.
Meanwhile, cut the carrots into bite-size chunks. If I'm making the stew just for myself I usually just scrub them well, but if I'm cooking for company I peel them before cutting.
Cut the potatoes into chunks of similar size. I leave the skin on.
Peel the onions and trim off the ends, but leave the root end as intact as possible. Cut each onion in half through that root. This will help hold the halves together to some degree. (The original recipe calls for whole pearl onions - I usually don't use them because they are more expensive and require more prep work.)
At the end of the 2 hours of simmering, add the vegetables. Increase the heat to medium-high to get the stew to the boiling point again, then lower the heat back to the simmer and cover. Cook for 10 minutes, then remove the lid and continue to cook another 10 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Gently stir the stew occasionally while cooking if needed to prevent sticking.
Remove from the heat and allow the stew to rest for 15 minutes or so. Ladle into bowls - watching for the bay leaves, which should be removed - and serve!
Variation: Omit the vinegar and substitute 2 cups of red wine for 2 cups of the water.