Beef Stew, Born out of Desperation, Hailed as a Triumph; or, I Won’t Make This Often, but It Would be So Good if I Did

The other day I was mulling grimly the possible options for our evening dinner hour: grimly, because there was a meeting I wanted to attend that was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., which would mean that whatever I was serving for dinner, it would have to be done before I left the house, and somehow kept warm for my husband and child to eat while I was at the meeting.

Contemplating  the raw materials in the fridge, I remembered that I had a lot of carrots and some celery. “If I bought some beef, and maybe some potatoes, I could set up a beef stew in the early afternoon and just leave it in the oven to cook all afternoon. And then I could just leave — “Dinner’s in the oven!” — with a clear conscience.”

So I popped off to the butcher counter, snagged a couple of pounds of beef cubes, and grabbed a loaf of ciabatta bread and some smoked Gouda while I was at it, and trotted home feeling like I had just solved a long-standing cold case. I got home, pulled down my biggest Dutch oven, and got to work immediately. It was almost 1 p.m.

I have a lot of experience making beef stews but it occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good idea if I did a quick Google search on the matter to see if anything in terms of technique jumped out at me as something I should try. The first thing I landed on was a discussion of a Cook’s Illustrated beef stew recipe. I skimmed the list of ingredients and realized that I in fact had everything necessary on hand (or I could fudge it). The things I don’t always have around that I happened to have right there? Several cups of chicken broth (taking up a lot of space in the fridge!); anchovy; carrots. Making this recipe would not only be a good idea in culinary terms, it would also free up space I desperately needed in the refrigerator. So I decided to go with that recipe. It was simple, if a little time consuming in terms of prep, but then, any beef stew involves a lot of prep work, if you’re putting in vegetables. So I set to it. I began by preheating the oven to 250°.

The real work began after that, and I was quite busy for about forty-five minutes. The first thing I did was dry the cubes of beef with paper towels. (This is one of the very few tasks in our household where I think paper towels are called for; we use a roll of paper towels a year, they are so seldom used. But for drying meat: just the thing.) Then I browned them, in small batches, in olive oil. I think it was three or four batches of beef I had to do — it was rather a lot of meat. I set the browned meat in the upturned pot lid so that I could work on the next batch. The cats circled my legs anxiously and hopefully while I did this.

When the meat was done, I deglazed the pan a bit with some sweet vermouth — maybe a quarter of a cupful. I let it cook away, rubbing the bottom of the pot with a wooden spatula.  I threw an anchovy (from a jar of oil-packed anchovies) into the pot. I peeled several fat cloves of garlic, sliced them in half, and browned them in the vermouthy-beefy sludge. I added half a very large onion, minced, and a bay leaf. I squeezed about three tablespoons of vegetable paste (a kind of concentrated form of V-8, like Ortolina, but made by Cento) into the pot, and stirred the sludge around. The anchovy melted in with the tomato-vegetable paste, and the sludge smelled good, but in danger of burning. Working quickly, I sprinkled in about 1/4 cup of white flour, and stirred that around for a moment, again worrying about burning, moving fast so that the flour didn’t have time to form wretched clots around the vegetables. I didn’t wait long before I slowly poured the chicken stock (probably about four cups, all told) into the flour and onions. I stirred it for a few minutes until the flour dissolved and something akin to a smooth brown sauce began to form. Once I was confident that I’d passed the dangerous phase of the cooking process — if you burn  the onions and flour, the whole project is going to be disgusting; if you don’t, then you’ll be fine — I put the beef back into the pot, added a bag of frozen pearl onions, stirred the slop around, covered the pot, and opened the oven.

It was 1.30 by the time the pot went into the oven. I then ignored the pot until 4.30. The time was filled up with washing prep dishes, picking up my daughter after school, giving her a snack, helping her with homework, paying bills, and realizing that I’d done two loads of laundry but I’d forgotten to fold them and put them away.

At 4.30 I added to the stew a pound of carrots, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks, two large stalks of celery, trimmed and cut into chunks, and five red potatoes, peeled and also cut into hefty chunks. Making sure that everything was mixed in, and not just a pile of naked vegetables sitting atop the beef stew (because I didn’t think they’d cook properly if I did that), I covered the pot again and shoved it back into the oven.

There was another frenzy of domestic activity between five and six — laundry folding, cleaning the countertops where I discovered a Jackson Pollack-worthy scattering of paw prints (doubtless the cats were trying to figure out if they could get at the beef stew) — but I checked the stew just before I left the house to go to the meeting. The potatoes and carrots were nicely cooked through, the beef was tender: everything was exactly as it should be. I handed off our daughter to my husband, saying, “There’s beef stew in the oven, and a loaf of nice bread and some cheese,” and then I ran off to my meeting.

When I got home two hours later, husband and child were curled up on the couch with one of the cats. Their dinner plates were on the floor (a revolting, uncool habit we are all guilty of falling into, letting the cats lick our plates). “Was the stew good?” I asked.

The opinion passed down was unanimous: this was the best beef stew ever prepared in our house. “Huh, good,” I said as I sat down to sample it myself. I could not offer dissent. The Cook’s Illustrated recipe — which I admittedly did not follow precisely, but which I certainly followed in spirit, and relatively accurately — really was fabulous. It wasn’t quick, and beef isn’t cheap, but it isn’t hard to do, and it’s clear that the payback on the effort is tremendous. “The best thing about this,” I said, “is that there’s enough that we can have it for Shabbat dinner tomorrow, too.” Everyone seemed pleased with that arrangement; and so, happily, at this juncture in the narrative, mid-day on Friday, I don’t have to worry about cooking dinner tonight. All I have to do is buy a challah and set the table, and we’ll be ready for Shabbat tonight.

Except, I’m thinking about making a coconut cake this afternoon.

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