My husband loves nothing better than a bowl of rich, steaming beef stew, ladled over a generous portion of creamy mashed potatoes. He starts talking about it in late summer, when our carrots are plumping up and looking like they might need pulling soon. He walks out to our backyard and surveys the lacy green carrot tops. He puts his hands on his hips, grins and cuts me a sideways glance that means, “I’m about to ask you for something.”
“You know what I like?” he says, as though I haven’t been married to him for 27 years and don’t know exactly what he does and doesn’t like. (Likes: crusty white bread, dark chocolate, merlot, apple pie, licorice, Marmite on toast, sharp cheddar cheese, fish and chips, bread pudding and a good cup of tea. Dislikes: yogurt, corn, pork, cherries, radishes, pickles, Gorgonzola, any nut besides peanuts and cashews, and anything spicy.) I know what he’s going to say. He likes beef stew. He likes a hearty, thick stew packed with tender beef chunks, carrots, parsnips, onions and mushrooms. And he likes me to make it for him.
Before you cluck your tongue in dismay at our antiquated spousal roles, consider this: I love making beef stew and I’m happy to do it. It requires no special technique. There’s nothing tricky or mysterious about it. You just throw the ingredients in a pot and simmer until you’re ready to eat. It does, however, require you to spend time chopping vegetables, which is exactly what I love about it. The act of washing, slicing and dicing forces me to slow down and, at extreme risk of sounding earnestly New Age, be in the moment. It’s just me, my knife and a pile of veggies.
As I make my way through the pile, one chop at a time, I let my mind wander (not too far from my fingers, of course, as they’re in such close proximity to the blade) and settle aimlessly on this thought or that. Sometimes I worry and sometimes I think about the next article I need to write and sometimes I feel a great contentment wash over me. I’m at home, in my kitchen, chopping vegetables for a delicious stew. In a couple of hours, the two people I love most in the world will sit down at the table with me and enjoy what I’ve prepared. It’s a little Norman Rockwell, but there you have it.
I usually make my first stew of the season in October, so we’re right on schedule. I waited for a mostly cloudy day when temperatures dropped, at least for a while, below the 80s. When I saw fog on the hillside behind our house, I knew it was time. I gathered the ingredients — 1 pound of beef stew meat; 1 extra-large parsnip, 3 carrots plus one carrot top, 1 8-ounce box of sliced cremini mushrooms, 1 large white onion and 1 can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. I don’t put potatoes in the stew; instead, I boil and mash them with butter and milk to make a creamy cushion for the beef stew to recline upon.
Start by searing the beef. I’m not convinced that this makes the slightest difference in flavor, but some folks swear by it. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil, along with salt and pepper, in the bottom of a large stew pot on a hot burner and brown the meat by letting chunks sizzle on each side for just a second or two. This involves some poking and maneuvering, since each piece is a slightly different size and shape and browns at a different rate. When everything looks mostly uniform, turn the heat to low and add 1 whole diced onion, 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary and 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh sage. (If this stew has a “secret ingredient,” it would have to be fresh sage, because nothing compares to the fragrant punch of these soft, green leaves.) You can also add a couple of cloves of garlic, if you like. Some people prefer to let the onion flavor shine in beef stew and some folks would never dream of making a stew without a bit of garlic. I’m on the fence. Sometimes I add garlic and sometimes I don’t. I like to surprise myself.
Add 2 cups beef or vegetable stock or 2 cups water with 2 beef bouillon cubes. If you have any leftover drippings from a roast chicken or other savory dish, stew is a great way to use it up. While everything is coming to a slow boil, wash and dice the parsnip and all the carrots. It’s not necessary to peel these root vegetables because it won’t make a difference once they’re in the stew; they’re more nutritious with the peels on. If you have carrots with the tops on, take one carrot top and cut the stems off, then finely mince the leaves and toss them into the pot along with the carrots and the parsnip. Wash the mushrooms and dump them in the pot, too. Finally, open that cream of mushroom soup and use a spatula to scrape every last drop into the pot. Set the stew on the lowest setting and let it simmer for at least an hour.
While the stew is simmering, peel and chop 5 russet potatoes. These don’t have to be the humongous baking variety, just five regular-sized potatoes. You can use Yukon gold or red potatoes as well, whatever strikes your fancy, although you’ll likely need to use more since those varieties are smaller. Basically, you want a big pot of mashed potatoes, made however you like them, peels on or off. I boil my potatoes in salty water, then drain and add a quarter-stick of butter plus a few dashes of salt and pepper and enough milk to make them smooth. Sometimes I add sour cream, yogurt or cream cheese for that extra je ne sais quoi. Just make sure the potatoes aren’t too milky because they need enough heft and starchy stickiness to hold up to the stew.
While the potatoes are boiling, sample the stew. Make sure the meat is tender and the vegetables are soft. Add more salt, if necessary. To thicken the stew, take some hot liquid from the pot and add it to 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour in a separate bowl or pan to make a loose paste, then pour that into the stew. This prevents lumps from forming.
When the stew has thickened and the potatoes are mashed and buttered, call everyone to the table. Fill bowls with fluffy white potatoes and smother them in ladles full of hearty stew. Garnish with fresh sage and serve with crusty bread and merlot. For dessert, serve apple pie and a good cup of tea. Hide the cherries, yogurt and corn.