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TODAY

Sunday, October 13

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When you wake on a bleary Sunday morning and look out the window at the melting snow and the rain and the puddles and think about how you don't want to go outside, you know you've the got the perfect day to make beef stew.

I hated it as a child. I hated the cooked tomatoes and the mushy carrots and tough beef and would often say, "When I'm an adult, I'm never eating this." Funny that it would be something I crave on a regular basis now that I'm a full-fledged adult. Especially on days like this past Sunday.

It's one of those wonderful recipes that can be assembled, thrown in the Crock Pot, and then left to cook all day while you're at work. The joy of walking into your home on a cold and dreary day and knowing there is a warm and hearty meal waiting for you is indefinable.

Or you can wake up on a Sunday morning (or afternoon) get the recipe started and then wander into the kitchen during commercial breaks and stir and taste and smell until you decide that you can't wait any longer. It's also a fairly inexpensive meal to make and you only need a pan large enough to hold all the ingredients at the same time. I think the wonderful cast-iron Dutch oven my mother gave me is the best thing for this dish, but any large pot that holds at least four quarts of water will work.

The main ingredient is the beef and I highly recommend that you look for beef chuck. It's a cut from the shoulder, which is a muscle that gets used a lot so it's considered a tough cut, but it cooks incredibly well in long, slow-cooked dishes that involve a lot of liquid. If you see a package of beef stew meat, it's probably chuck. If you see lots of intra-muscular fat you know you've got a package that will work well for this recipe. You could also get a thick chuck steak and cut it into two-inch cubes.

Of course the best thing to go with beef stew are homemade biscuits. Sure those things that come in the odd metal container that pops when you take the paper off will work, but making homemade biscuits that you can dip into the beef broth is so much better.

Hearty Beef Stew
2-4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 1/2 pounds of beef chuck that has been cut into two-inch cubes
Salt and black pepper, preferably freshly ground
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
2 medium onions that have been cut into bite-sized pieces
5 cloves of crushed garlic
1 tablespoon of tomato paste (Try a tube of tomato paste instead of a can for less waste.)
1/3 cup of all-purpose flour
10 cups of cold water, chicken or beef broth, (or three cans, look for a low-sodium variety)
6 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon of dried
2 bay leaves
1 1/4 pounds medium red potatoes that have been cut into quarters
4 medium carrots that have been cut into two-inch pieces
2 celery stalks that have been cut into two-inch pieces
1 can of whole, peeled tomatoes
2 to 3 teaspoons vinegar. (2 tablespoons of balsamic and 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, but any combination will work.)

Pour in about two tablespoons of oil to the pan you'll be cooking the stew in and turn the burner to medium-high. (If using a Crock Pot, you can do this step in a skillet). You can add more oil to the pan if the beef starts to stick. Season the beef generously with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Sauté half the meat without a lid and stirring only a few times until all sides of the beef are well browned. This should take about eight minutes.

Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the beef to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the beef and add that to the first batch of beef. You'll need about two tablespoons of oil to cook the onion in, if there is enough oil left over from the beef you can use that. To add flavor to the stew you can either supplement the oil and drippings with butter or you can substitute all butter.

Add the onion and cook over medium-high heat and stir constantly until it's lightly browned which should take about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook while stirring constantly for about a minute. Add the tomato paste and cook until the paste starts to turn lightly brown which should take about a minute more. Add the beef and scatter the flour over the vegetable and beef mixture. You don't want to bury the ingredients in flour, but you do want everything to look dusted. Cook while stirring until the flour is a light toast color.

Add the water or broth and bring to a simmer. Throw in the thyme and the bay leaves. Add about two teaspoons of salt. You'll taste later to make sure there is enough salt added. Cover and turn your heat to low. Cook the meat just until it's tender, which should take about an hour and a half. If you have a Dutch oven you can bake this in the oven at 325 degrees.

Here's what you do if you're using a Crock Pot: Put the browned beef in the Crock Pot. After you add the water or broth to the skillet pour the ingredients into the Crock Pot, add your herbs, salt, and the remaining ingredients and set it on low for at least six to eight hours. Taste and re-season with salt and pepper if necessary.

Remove pot from the heat. Skim the fat off the top of the cooking liquid with a spoon or ladle. Add the potatoes, carrots, celery, and the tomatoes, and return to a simmer on top of the stove. Cook this uncovered and stir occasionally until the liquid thickens and the vegetables are tender when poked with a fork. This should take about 1 hour. Remove and throw away the bay leaves. Add in the vinegar and taste. Season with salt and pepper if necessary. Ladle into bowls and serve. This should feed four to six people.

Homemade Biscuits
2 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of baking powder
3/4 tablespoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
10 tablespoons of butter that has been cut into half-inch cubes and returned to the refrigerator
1 cup of buttermilk
2 tablespoons of milk

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and stir with a fork. Add the butter pieces into the mix and stir until the mixture has the texture of breadcrumbs. Now add the buttermilk and stir lightly just until the dry ingredients are wet. It's better to understir than overstir. Stirring too much will cause the biscuits to have the texture of bricks.

Put the dough onto a board that has been sprinkled with flour and knead it briefly to make sure the ingredients are just blended. With a rolling pin (or a thick drinking glass if you don't have a rolling pin), roll the dough into a rectangle until it is an inch thick. Flour a round cutter (or a juice glass), and then cut out the biscuits and transfer them to a sheet pan or cake pan.

Cover the pan with plastic wrap and put the biscuits in the fridge for at least an hour and up to 24 hours. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F about 20 minutes before you're going to put the biscuits into the oven. Brush the tops of the biscuits with milk. Bake the biscuits for about 30 minutes or until they're lightly golden on top. Makes 10-12 biscuits that are two to three inches across.

Stew is in the same category as chili, spaghetti sauce, and lasagna -- they all taste better the next day. Don't fear those leftovers, they'll freeze just fine for up to a month which means that you'll have at least a few nights over the next several weeks where you don't have to cook and you don't have to eat all the preservatives that are in those frozen dinners.

The leftover biscuits will last for a couple of days if stored in a zipper bag in the refrigerator. One of my favorite breakfast treats is a leftover biscuit that has been cut in half and placed cut side up on a plate. Place a small pat of butter and a little drizzle of honey and microwave it until it is just warm. With a huge mug of hot chocolate it's a wonderful morning meal.

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