From humble origins, mighty stews grow
Special to The Union
Stew, be it beef, chicken, chowder, veggie, or some other configuration, is a deceptive dish. The ingredients are humble – meat that can’t be cooked any other way, root vegetables, herbs and whatever else is handy – yet it can satisfy the belly and warm the soul like no other meal. It’s also cheap, which is handy if a crowd is sitting down to dinner.
Many cultures have a tradition of the community pot – a meal that is tossed together using what is at hand. Everyone contributes a bit and everyone takes a bit. Stews have been part of human cuisine since shortly after we discovered fire.
The reference to stew in the Bible is found in Genesis when Esau traded his inheritance to his twin brother Jacob in exchange for a meal of lentil stew. Whether the stew was that good or the inheritance was that small is left up to the reader.
At any rate, this dish has survived through the ages for a reason: it’s good.
The wet weather is making me more inclined to cook dishes that take awhile and generate enough leftovers that I can spend my time hunkered down someplace warm rather than cooking. I also had half a bottle of red wine that required a dignified finish, so beef stew it is.
The key to beef stew is low and slow, this is not a dish to toss together when you want to eat in 20 minutes. This is something to put on around 4 p.m. when dinner is planned for 7 p.m. That gives you plenty of time to bake a loaf of bread or take a nap. Or both, if you’re an ambitious sort.
Because stews tend to improve overnight, this is a good dish to make extra and freeze portions for quick meals later when time is at more of a premium.
Stew should never boil, it should be kept at a low simmer. As with any dish of this sort, it should be seasoned in layers and fresh herbs should only be added at the end. Dried are tossed in at the beginning.
Personally, I find alcohol to be a really nice addition to this kind of dish, it adds an extra layer of flavor and helps tenderize the meat. I used the aforementioned red wine, but a bottle of beer works really well too.
The vegetables are up to the chef. Whatever is used, should be chopped small enough to cook through, yet not too small to dissolve into mush. There is a tradition in fine cooking that says that all the ingredients should be small enough to get a sample in each spoonful.
For something as rustic as beef stew, it’s preferable to go a little larger. If greens like kale or spinach are being used, they should go in at the end to avoid dissolving. Don’t use broccoli, it tends to turn bitter with this sort of cooking and throws off everything.
When everything has simmered, stewed and tenderized, serve over mashed potatoes or egg noodles. Or with a crusty bread. Enjoy in a warm place with someone you love.
Serves 4 to 6
2 tbl olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1-1 1/2 lbs stew meat, cubed
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 carrots, chopped into 1-inch chunks
6 red potatoes chopped into quarters
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 cups red wine OR 1 bottle of beer
3 cups beef or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 tsp fresh thyme or 1 tbl dried
1. In a deep saucepan or pot, heat the olive oil and add the onion. Sautee until soft, add the garlic and cook one minute, until soft and fragrant.
2. Add the stew meat. Stir until brown on all sides.
3. Add carrots, potatoes, celery and dried thyme if using. Stir to coat with juices.
4. Add wine or beer and stock. Stir. Add more stock if needed. Allow to simmer at low heat for an hour or so. Add fresh thyme, if using, and simmer another 20-30 minutes.
5. Serve over egg noodles or mashed potatoes or with bread.
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