Beef Stew

This article is a recipe for beef stew.

No, seriously. I am not kidding.

Of course, there is a little bit of a backstory, too. You see, I can’t cook worth a damn. I grew up at a time when boys didn’t learn about cooking, because that was for girls. Even in the very liberated household of my parents, we were not yet at the point where boys needed cooking skills. No-one thought that boys would need to cook, unless they were out camping in the woods. There would always be some girl to cook for them. (Or, today, some restaurant to feed them.)

Besides, boys who cooked were probably gay, or at least weird. They probably tried out for the figure skating team as well. (My mother is reading this right now, saying “I don’t know him. He claims to be my son, but who can tell who he is with all that hair?”)

Anyway, society evolved. Indeed, some of it was directly the result of actions by my own generation. For most of my adult life, I have cooked some or all of my own food. Mostly bad food, but everyone who knows me realizes that I didn’t starve.

Part of my problem with cooking is that I’m a big picture, out-of-the-box thinking sort of person. Cooking may be like that at the upper levels, but at my level (pre-beginner, or maybe even more basic than that), it is about learning how to do things right, and following the rules.

Following the rules? Absolutely my strong suit.

Well, OK. (Now my son is whacking the back of my head, saying “You can’t just outright lie in your blog”, and adding an insulting name that I won’t repeat.)

The result is that my cooking is pretty consistently bad, except for Kraft Dinner (because if you can’t cook Kraft Dinner, you’re not a real man), and stew. My stew is universally judged to be, well, awesome.

That’s not just me saying that. My kids, now adults, have for years been telling me that I have to write out my process for making stew, so other people can learn from it. Everyone else who has tried it expresses admiration. (Technically, it is more like amazement, I suppose, but admiration has a certain ring to it.)

So here is my recipe for stew. I am not going to write it like a real recipe (ingredients, steps, and all that), because this recipe is for people like me (i.e. guys of a certain age). People like me can’t read real recipes. We need more of a narrative if it is going to be at all useful to us.

Before I start, there is a little history that is relevant.

I have been making various stews for about thirty or forty years. I didn’t start out making them the way I do today. In keeping with my personality, I started with no process at all, in fact no rules period.

My original stew went something like this.

First, look in the fridge and the freezer to see what meats and vegetables I have available.

The answer would usually be none, requiring a trip to the store. There, I would find some fresh meats and vegetables (and often fruits) that I like, and a few spices that I enjoyed in other dishes. No part of the selection process involved things that should be cooked together, or complementary flavours, or anything as mundane as that. Just buy a bunch of good stuff.

And by the way, always make sure you buy enough. You can never have too much good stuff, even if it is good stuff that goes bad in the fridge before the next time you find the time to make stew.

Second, home from the store, boil at least six litres of water (eight is even better still) in a large stew pot. As the water is boiling, throw in lots of salt, as well as all of the spices you bought at the store. Stew needs flavour.

At the same time, cut up all the stuff you bought into various sized pieces. Speed is of the essence. And not cutting yourself.

Finally, throw all of the ingredients into the boiling water, bring it back to a boil, stir a bit, and then cover the pot.

A few minutes later, run back to the kitchen to turn down the heat to medium-low, so that it stops boiling over. (I included this step for at least the first ten years.)

Go watch TV, or read a book, or mow the lawn. Stew needs to cook for a long time.

Remember a few hours later that stew is cooking. Go back and try to stir it again. If anything has burned on the bottom of the pot, try to scrape it off, because it will spoil the flavour.

Ladle big batches of the stew into bowls, making sure not to get too much liquid (which would make it soup, not stew). Wonder what to do with the leftover broth. (Usually, use it to make rice, but that’s an entirely separate article.)

My early stews were not really award winners. Every once in a while, one would be good (such as the famous apple-raisin-cinnamon stew), but the best you could say for most of them was that, aside from the salt, they were pretty healthy.

Today? Well, all that has changed. There is something to be said for trial and error; in my case years of trials, and an unreasonably large number of errors. Now I can hand down to posterity a stew that is still healthy, but will make you wonder how men were ever kept out of the kitchens of so many North American homes.

Now, you’re thinking, here comes the punch line. It will be a joke. No recipe is really coming.

Doubters! Sexists! O ye of little faith!

Here, in fact, is my recipe for beef stew. Take that!

First, get one pound of sliced white mushrooms (or slice them yourself, which will make you feel like a real chef, since it takes forever), and two large Spanish onions.

In the bottom of a large stewpot, melt at a high temperature two tablespoons (all of my measurements are after the fact guesses; I don’t actually measure anything, but don’t tell anyone) of butter or margarine. I prefer low salt Becel, because it’s healthier. Add a whack of oil, preferably sunflower, safflower, or canola oil. The oil should not be more than a millimetre or two thick at the bottom of the pot.

Throw in the mushrooms and stir them around to get them fully coated with melted Becel and oil. As soon as there is a small sizzle, turn the temperature down to about medium. Stir occasionally after that. I use a wooden spoon, which comes in handy later.

While the mushrooms are sautéing (yes, that’s what they are doing), cut up the two onions. I find that this is best accomplished by cutting off the two ends, removing the skin, and cutting them lengthwise once. The two halves can then be sliced lengthwise, each slice about a millimetre thick. It will seem like they are big pieces, but they will fall apart as they cook. In the end they will be long pieces of caramelized onion, which is what you want.

Once the mushrooms look like they are just about ready to eat (almost fully sautéed), throw in the onions and add another couple of tablespoons of oil. Mix thoroughly to ensure that the mushrooms and onions are interspersed, and also to start to break up the pieces of onion.

Second, while the onions and mushrooms are creating the flavour base of your stew, get two pounds of stewing beef and a pound of pork. You can use stewing pork, but pork steak or pork loin is also fine. (Pork sausages are spectacular.) The pork is to increase the flavour, so use a flavourful cut, i.e. not pork chops. If you don’t like pork, find another high flavour meat that you like. Chicken or veal doesn’t really do the trick, but turkey or lamb would be great. I once used rabbit, which produced an amazing flavour. One day, venison.

Chop up your meat. The pieces should be about an inch square (except sausages, which should be smaller). They don’t need to be exact, but size matters. Too small will make them tough, and too large will make them chewy.

Third, when the onions are completely soft, but not yet quite caramelized (that means they don’t taste very sweet yet), drain all the liquid you can from the stewpot into a small bowl. You might be able to get a third to a half a cup, which is a mixture of margarine, oil, and the juices from the mushrooms and onions. Don’t taste it. You need all of it.

Scoop the onions and mushrooms out of the pot and set them aside in a bowl. Put the liquid you drained off back in, bring the heat back up to medium-high, then add the meat you just cut up. You may have to add just a little more oil. Stir this lots, while you are adding spices.

Everyone has their own favourite spices. I use curry powder, ginger powder (not fresh – too strong), cinnamon, sage and rosemary. Sometimes I add hoisin sauce. Put in lots of each, because although it looks small now, the stew will eventually fill the pot. Anyone who sees me putting in the spices thinks I’m nuts, but the proof is in the result. (So there.)

Be careful of the cinnamon and the rosemary, though. Each one can be overwhelming if you use too much. (What do you mean, how do I know?)

It is also a good idea to add a little sea salt.

Wait, did I tell you to stop stirring? Don’t stop. Constant stirring. The meat will burn otherwise.

As soon as the outside of each piece of meat looks grey or brown, so that it is cooked on the outside, reduce the heat down to medium. This shouldn’t take very long.

Now you can stir a little less.

At this point, I am reminded by my daughter that I have to cite a source. The technique of cooking the meat first, to sear in the flavour, was taught to me by my son, who actually can cook, very well in fact. The use of the onion/mushroom juice to cook the meat was my idea; however, I suspect I did not invent this. (Wouldn’t that be cool. But no…)

All right, the final part of this step, after a couple more minutes, is to throw the mushrooms and onions back into the pot, and mix everything up very thoroughly.

Now you have the base of the stew: meat, with lots of flavour and spices. Keep it cooking on medium or medium low, stirring occasionally. You will want to eat it right away. Don’t. If you do, it is not stew, and you have failed to accomplish your goal. (OK, you can have a small taste, but no more.)

Add water. I use about eight cups, but you can use anywhere from six to twelve cups. The more water, the more it is like soup. Less water means it is more like stew. You decide. Bring up the heat to medium high, so that the water will boil.

Fourth, get your vegetables. (No, I don’t mean go to the store. You should have purchased all of the ingredients in advance. Do I have to tell you everything?)

For this stew, I use four medium potatoes, two large sweet potatoes, four stalks of celery, one large green pepper, a half cup of baby carrots, a cup of broccoli flowers, and the corn niblets from one or two ears of corn. (Full disclosure. I really use a can of Green Giant niblets.) If I have apples, two apples are a good addition.

Clean all of them, but don’t remove the skin from the apples, potatoes or sweet potatoes. The skin has lots of flavour.

Cut all into suitable chunks. For example, a medium potato can be cut in quarters lengthwise, then into six slices of about a centimetre or less each, for a total of 24/28/32 pieces from a potato.

Yes, yes, take the insides out of the apples and the green pepper.

Your vegetables, duly cut up, should fill a big bowl.

Once the water is boiling gently, throw in all of the vegetables at once (gently, or it will splash), and stir vigorously to get everything mixed together. This is where the wooden spoon comes in handy. You have to get the stuff up from the bottom to mix properly, and plastic just doesn’t cut it.

It will seem like too much vegetables. Don’t add more water. You’ll see.

Finally, once the water comes back to a boil, cover the pot, and turn the heat down to just below medium. It should be enough to keep it at a gentle boil, but no more. Stir a few more times. It will make you feel like a real chef.

Leave.

Come back in an hour. Taste a piece of meat to see if there is enough flavour. If you want more flavour, add more spices. Remember, lots is good.

Leave again.

Come back in another hour or two. The stew is ready. Serve in bowls, not plates.

As you are savouring this delicious and healthy meal, you can reflect that you don’t actually need to follow the rules to cook well. I didn’t. I was true to my personality. I followed my instincts, cooking stew spontaneously, no recipes, no rules. Look what I managed to produce.

And it only took me forty years.

There’s probably a lesson in this.

Jay Shepherd, October 18, 2015

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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