I never had beef stew growing up — or at least not the American kind you see on those Campbell's Chunky Soup labels. The closest thing my Ukrainian immigrant mother ever made was a flour-thickened sauce concoction she called goulash — though it barely resembled the Hungarian classic given the total absence of paprika. I learned how to make it myself when I was 16 and had to cook the family dinner for six months to earn my first pair of contact lenses — a sentence of culinary servitude that soured me on all the Eastern European fare I learned to cook.
Beef was a rarity during the 16 years that I spent in Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union — farmers who were poor under Communism became even poorer after its collapse. They didn't have the luxury of raising cattle to adulthood. Markets had no beef, and the abundance of free-range veal and pork gave no reason to stew anything. Tender meats toughen with long cooking.
So when relatives gave my husband and me some mutton from their Virginia sheep farm a few Christmases ago, the package of stew meat stumped me. Fortunately, they also included a stack of recipe cards, including one for Emeril Lagasse's Mutton Stew with Bacon and Beer. Beer adds an earthy, toasty flavor to savory dishes, and bacon can never hurt anything, so it sounded like a winner.
I made it on one of those cold winter nights perfect for hours of cooking. Following the instructions — brown the meat, sauté the vegetables, add liquid, and simmer for an hour and a half — gave fine results. But it bothered me that Emeril said to thicken the stew with flour at the end. Though a stewing newbie myself, I felt that it was cheating and too much like Goulash à la Mom. A good stew ought to thicken of its own natural goodness, and the only flour you need is a little bit to absorb moisture from the surface of the meat.
The next time I made stew, I substituted beef for the mutton. In my mind, "stew" means something that looks like the pictures on the Chunky Soup labels. But that doesn't mean you should use the stuff labeled "stew meat": its provenance is approximately that of sausage. Instead, look for chuck, bottom, rump or round on the label. These are from the butt or the shoulder, where there isn't a lot of fat but plenty of collagen that breaks down with slow cooking.
This time, after browning the meat, I added all the vegetable and liquid. But instead of thickening the stew with flour, I decided to cook it down. After two hours, all the vegetables disintegrated beautifully. Since I still wanted recognizable vegetable chunks, I added more carrots and potatoes. But by the time they were done, the beef had cooked for so long that it shrank into little nubbins.
That's when I hit on the three-stage process for cooking the thickest and most flavorful beef stew that has ever stuck to your ribs. Set aside the browned meat while the first-stage vegetables start cooking down. After an hour, add the meat. After another hour, the second-stage vegetables go in. By the time they are cooked, the meat will be fork-tender in a colorful and hearty sauce, with bite-size chunks of potatoes, carrots and peas. Serve it with crusty, buttered bread.
If you can, refrigerate it overnight before serving. The flavors will blend even more deeply and the fat will rise to the top so you can scoop it off if you'd like. Remove only as much refrigerated stew as you'll be eating and heat it slowly. I don't think the word leftover properly applies to stew, which remains good no matter how much time passes. However, it may dry out in the refrigerator after a few days, so add a tablespoon of water if needed.
Beef Stew with Bacon and Beer
Yield: 6 to 8 servings. Time: 3 1/2 to 4 hours, largely unattended
8 ounces bacon, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Emeril's Original Essence (or paprika, or smoked paprika)
Salt and black pepper
1 1/2 pound chuck or round beef, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons butter
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4 carrots, 2 grated and 2 cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 celery stalks, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 bay leaves
2 cups beef stock
1 cup Guinness or other beer2 cups canned chopped or diced tomatoes
1 large potato, cut 1/2-inch chunks
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
Put the bacon in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, the bacon is crispy and browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels.
Combine the flour, the Essence or paprika, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a plastic bag. Add the beef and shake to coat it evenly. Add the meat to the pot and cook, turning frequently, until brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the meat and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium, and add the butter to the pot. When it melts, add the onions, grated carrots and celery. Cook, stirring to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until the vegetables begin to soften and turn golden, about 5 minutes.
Add the parsley, garlic, rosemary (if desired), thyme, and bay leaves. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the stock, the beer, the tomatoes, and half of the potato. Stir well and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Return the beef and bacon to the pan; stir well and cook, covered, for another hour; stirring occasionally. (At this point, you can freeze the stew; thaw before proceeding.)
Add the chopped carrots and the remaining potato. Stir well and cook, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes. Add the peas and more salt and pepper to taste. Stir until the peas are heated through, about 5 minutes, and serve. (Store leftover stew in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.)