Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Comfort Food

Comfort food. Most people’s definition of this word is mac and cheese, cornbread, fried chicken. For me, it is a bowl of leftover beef stew. My dad and I had a tradition growing up; when my mom went out of town, we would go “camping” in the basement. We’d set up a tent during the afternoon and spend the day cooking beef stew that was inspired from the book “stone soup”. If you haven’t read that book before, it is a classic in my mind. It is incredible to me that they could make a soup that’s base is made of hot water and stones sound absolutely, mouth-watering, delicious. My dad got a big, cast iron pot that we would fill with fresh carrots, mushrooms, celery, and potatoes. We’d cook it all day with big chunks of beef shortribs until it simmered into a belly-warming soup you could smell down the street. We’d build a fire and eat the soup, then go to Baskin and Robbins (I would call it Batman and Robins) for dessert. We’d then go back to our tent and tell ghost stories. But the best part was the next day. After the stew had settled for a night and been refrigerated, we would reheat it, and somehow, it would taste even better than the night before. Maybe all the juices and flavorings are able to fully develop over night. Whatever the case, whenever I make my dad’s stew, I always make extra and put it in jars that I freeze. When I have had a bad day, or Kyle and I don’t feel like cooking, we will pull out a jar, heat it up, and instantly have a meal that satisfies and…comforts.

Here is the recipe, straight from my Dad:

  • 2 lbs (or more) beef chuck roast Optional: 1 or 2 lbs beef short ribs, shanks or oxtails. These can be combined with the chuck or substituted for it, in appropriate quantity.
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 large round onion, large dice 3 or 4 carrots, cut into ½" thick diagonals
  • 1 dozen crimini mushrooms, cut in half or thirds
  • 3 stalks celery, ½" chop
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced, sliced or chopped
  • Red Wine
  • Beef stock or broth (in a box, from the soup shelves of the store)
  • Salt, pepper, fresh or dried Italian-style herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, etc.; any combination)
  • 5 dried bay leaves
  • 3 large potatoes
  • Nina brand canned Italian tomatoes

Cut the chuck into large chunks (up to 2" cubed). Do the same with shanks. Toss the meat chunks with salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with flour and toss again so that all the chunks are coated with seasoning and flour. Heat oil, enough to just cover that bottom of a large pot. When the oil begins to smoke, toss in enough meat almost to cover the bottom of the pot. Let the meat brown undisturbed. After a few minutes, try to lift a chunk with a large spoon. If it doesn’t stick, then the browning is done on that side. Turn the chunks to brown on the other side to the same degree. Remove the browned meat, then repeat the browning of the rest of the meat in batches. Do not crowd them in the pot. Remove the batches as you proceed. When all the meat has been browned and removed, dump the onion in the hot pot and oil. Stir and cook until it’s limp. Add the celery and carrots. Stir. Add the mushrooms and stir. When all the vegetables are coated with oil (add oil if necessary) and have had a chance to cook a little, return the meat to the pot. Lift and stir.

Do this carefully: pour or splash brandy (for example, E & J Brandy) onto the meat. You can flame the brandy if you wish. Pour a cup or more of red wine onto the meat. Flame. Now pour enough beef stock into the pot to just cover the ingredients. Bring to a boil. Add five dried bay leaves. Simmer until meat is tender but not yet falling apart (about 1.5 hours). Cut potatoes into large chunks. (I use Russet potatoes, but red skinned potatoes are supposedly better because they hold their shape better, whereas Russets tend to melt). Slide potato chunks into the pot and submerge them. In a mixing bowl, pour the canned tomatoes, liquid and all, and crush the tomatoes with your hand. Pour this into the stew pot. If using dried herbs, then you can add them when you add the bay leaves. If using fresh herbs, add them here, closer to the end of cooking. Stir or paddle everything gently. Taste and season. At the end, mix ¼ to ½ cup of flour with enough water to make a slurry, then swirl it into the stew. Stir to make the stew thicken evenly. This makes a very large pot. Cut the recipe roughly in half or two-thirds if you need to try it in smaller quantity.

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