Enjoy hearty stew on cold winter days

Ingredients in a traditional beef stew include cubed beef round, carrots, potatoes, leeks, onions and garlic. BY JACK CLEMONS
February 11, 2013

When snow started falling last week, I automatically started thinking about stew. We needed steaming bowls of savory stew on the dinner table that cold winter evening. As I assembled the ingredients, I wondered about the origins of this dish. Why was the name of the food the same as the word to describe the cooking method?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, stew (the noun) comes to us from an old French word for cauldron or heated container. On the other hand, stew (the verb) comes from the Greek tuphos, meaning smoked or steamed, and the Germanic word for stove. With all the similarities in definition, origins and ultimate pronunciation, it’s probably no surprise that stew can be the food or the process required to make it.

While the written records about stew are several hundred years old, the archaeological records tell us stew has been around for thousands of years. Before the discovery of metals that could be shaped into cooking vessels, people would use whatever was on hand. Many researchers have found turtle shells and large clamshells served as cooking pots. In light of that practice, I’m very grateful for my Le Creuset Dutch oven.

What ingredients go into stew? The list is short for the most basic versions: sturdy vegetables (not leafy greens), cooking liquid (wine, beer or stock) and an unglamorous piece of meat. Since the stew pot will simmer for hours over a very low heat, you’ll want to select the least tender cuts. Marbling and connective tissue will help transform the meat into tender and juicy morsels.

The selection of vegetables will help define the stew’s flavor profile, e.g., carrots add sweetness, and onions contribute caramel hints. Cooking liquid should be carefully considered: red wine adds depth, beer adds nuttiness, stock adds richness, water is always the last choice, and you need only minimal moisture. How do you make a good stew? Two simple keys: brown the meat first, then cook low and slow. If you do things right, you won’t need to add anything else (like flour or cornstarch) to thicken the sauce.

I’ve included recipes for two well-known stews. The first, Boeuf Bourguignon, is a French dish made famous in this country by Julia Child. In this ruddy stew, rendered bacon seasons beef cubes, which are then simmered in a Burgundy red wine (not too dry but not too sweet). The traditional version adds pearl onions at the same time as the mushrooms, but onions are added at the start here.

The second stew is a Belgian favorite called Carbonnade Flamande. The key to success here is to purchase authentic Belgian ale in which to simmer the thinly sliced onions and browned beef cubes. The final step is to stir in a mixture of mustard, brown sugar and vinegar to create the signature sweet-sharp flavor.

Either of these stews may be served over thin egg noodles or potatoes - just be sure to serve the same wine or ale you cooked with when you sit down to eat.

Boeuf Bourguignon

1/2 lb bacon, cubed
1 sliced onion
1 sliced carrot
2 minced garlic cloves
3 lbs cubed stew beef
1/2 C flour
1 C beef stock
3 C red wine
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs fresh thyme
salt and pepper
1 lb sliced mushrooms

Sauté bacon in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and carrot; cook until barely browned, stirring often. Add garlic and cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove contents from the pan with a with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add beef to the fat in the pan; raise heat to medium high and brown well on all sides. Sprinkle browned beef with flour and stir until browned. Pour in stock, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Return the bacon, onions, carrot and garlic to the pan. Add wine, bay leaf and thyme; season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer over very low heat for 2 hours. Add the mushrooms and cook an additional 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf and thyme sprigs; add salt and pepper to taste.

Carbonnade Flamande

3 lbs stew beef, cubed
salt and pepper
3 onions, thinly sliced
1/2 C flour
4 T butter
1 T olive oil
12 oz dark Belgian ale
2 C beef stock
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 t brown sugar
1 T dijon mustard
1 T cider vinegar

Pat meat dry with paper towels; season with salt and pepper. Melt 1 T butter with olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Working in batches, lightly dredge the beef cubes with flour, shake off excess and add meat to the pot. Cook until browned on all sides, then remove to a plate with a slotted spoon. (Add another 1 T of butter if needed during this step.) Once all the beef has been browned, melt the remaining butter and add the sliced onions. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring often to make sure they don’t brown, but simply until softened and beginning to caramelize. Pour in the beer and scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return the beef to the pot, and add enough stock to barely cover the meat. Add thyme and bay leaves; cover and simmer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Five minutes prior to serving, combine mustard, vinegar and brown sugar in a small bowl and mix it into the stew. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

Note: The best beer to use for this dish is a Belgian ale called Chimay Blue, or you can try to find another with a similar flavor.

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