A Special Thank You Stew

I owe you, dear friends.  Over the past week you have sent me 29, count ’em, 29, beautiful and comforting recipes.  But I know they weren’t meant just for me, and if you personally haven’t checked them out yet, click here and read the Comments section to see the warm and wonderfully creative kitchen work of French Letters readers.

And now it’s payback time.  Even though I was out in the garden in a sweater today, I know that lots of you are under piles of snow or buckets of icy rain. And so here’s a little something from me to warm up your day, and hopefully your heart, just as you’ve warmed mine.

The key to making a really good beef stew is, of course, starting with really good beef.  Beef stew is not a dish for which you want lean meat, so ask your butcher for a well-marbled cut.  And if you don’t have a butcher, I suggest buying a chuck roast and cutting it up yourself, since often what’s sold as stew beef is very lean and stringy.

The next good thing you need is a bottle of red wine that doesn’t taste of wood, nor of jam, nor of tannins that will make you suck your teeth all night. I like to use Côtes du Rhône because it’s none of the above.  It’s your choice, given what’s available to you, but use a good bottle and think of it as an investment in the success of your stew.

And to preserve the flavors of your beef and wine and lighten the finished dish, I suggest not flouring the beef before you brown it.  The sauce will become thick and rich by reduction, so there’s no need to introduce that murky quality you get from added flour.

Then there are the shiitake mushrooms, one of the world’s great umami-adding ingredients.  It’s true that a pound of fresh shiitakes is likely to set you back about $14 dollars, but you’ll be using every bit of them to make your stew brilliant.  There are slices in the stew itself, slices that are crispy and crunchy to top the dish with*, and you’ll use the stems in the marinade.  You should never throw away shiitake stems, by the way, as they’re full of flavor and make a great add-in to soups and stews.

Finally, I’ve used sun dried tomatoes to give the stew a bright, hopeful, spring-is-coming sort of flavor.  Also, you’ll notice that I finish the dish with butter, and I’m sure that half of you will want to omit said butter.  So let me admonish you here and now on that point: butter and beef are delicious together, and it’s the butter added at the very end that brings the whole thing together, smoothing it into a lush reminder of why we love winter food.

Light and Bright Beef Stew with Shiitake Crisps
For The Stew:
1 bottle red wine, preferably Côtes du Rhône
1 cup beef broth
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons dried bouquet garni herb mix
1 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 large carrot, finely diced
6 ounces guanciale or pancetta, cubed
3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
2 pounds cubed well-marbled beef, preferably chuck
1 cup sundried tomatoes in oil
3 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste
For The Shiitake Crisps:
half of the sliced shiitakes from making the stew
2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Pour the entire bottle of wine into a heavy pot, the one in which you will cook the stew.  Add the beef broth, onion, garlic, and carrot.

Remove the stems from the shiitakes and set the mushroom caps aside.  Place the stems on a square of cheesecloth, add the bouquet garni, and tie into a tight bundle with kitchen twine.  Place the bundle in the pot with the wine, bring to a boil, then let simmer gently for 10 minutes.  Turn off the heat under the pot.  Salt and pepper the beef liberally.

In a heavy skillet, heat 1 T of the olive oil, add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté until golden.  Remove from skillet and drop the meat into the pot containing the wine mixture.  Using the remaining 2 T olive oil as necessary, brown the beef in batches, being careful not to crowd the meat in the pan.  You want the beef to be really brown on all sides, almost chocolate-colored – for best results don’t use a nonstick pan.  As each cube of beef is browned remove it from the skillet and drop it into the pot containing the wine mixture.  When all the beef is soaking in the wine, cover the pot and let it all marinate for 1 hour (no heat at this point!).

Slice the shiitake caps into 1/4″ slices.  Half of the slices will go into the stew, the other half will be for making the shiitake crisps.

To make the crisps, heat the oven to 375°.  Place a Silpat on a cookie sheet, or use a nonstick sheet pan.  Drizzle the shiitake slices with 2 T olive oil, and sprinkle them with the salt and thyme.  With your hands, toss it all together to thoroughly coat the mushroom slices.  Place in the hot oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, tossing and turning them occasionally, until they are crisp and brown.  Set aside on paper towels to drain and dry.

After the beef has marinated for 1 hour, remove the cheesecloth bundle, squeezing it well into the pot to extract all of the mushroom juices.  Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to a steady simmer.  Cover and simmer for 1 hour.  Add the other half of the shiitake slices and the sundried tomatoes and simmer for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until fork tender.  Just before serving add the butter and stir well until the butter is melted and the sauce is shiny.  Taste for salt and pepper and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Serve with mashed potatoes or polenta, and a dark green vegetable like spinach or kale.

*The idea for the shiitake crisps comes from Fine Cooking magazine, although I’ve tweaked their recipe.  The article says that the crisps will taste like bacon, and yes they do.  Don’t ask me how it’s possible, but they really do.  For that reason these would make a great garnish for a vegetarian dish as well.  The idea for a hot cooked wine marinade comes from Paula Wolfert and Michael Ruhlman and, if I remember correctly, even Thomas Keller.

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2 Comments on “A Special Thank You Stew”

  1. charity Says:

    mmm. Merci. I have never done the marinading before. For sure, I will try it.

  2. Steve Roth Says:

    On wine for beef stew, and for cooking in general: there’s a book to be written on choosing the right wine for a given recipe. (Abra??)

    I always thought askance at the advice you’re forever hearing: “Use the best wine you can afford.” (Finger twirling in cheek.) What in the hell is that supposed to mean? I could afford Latour if I traded in on a cheaper car. And it says *nothing* about what types of wines (and specific wines) are good for particular recipes.

    In general I kind of disagree with your implicit dissing of new-world wine for cooking. In fact Jesse and I have taken to buying cheap new-world reds explicitly for that purpose. Especially when making reductions, I find that many old-world wines–especially the kind I like to drink, notably Rhones–have too much acid (and as you mention, tannin), so sauces and such come out really sour. I’ve tried various ameliorants, but I’m liking your idea of sun-dried tomatoes–that could be the ticket.

    But in general I stock up on nice <$8 bottles of American merlot and the like (think Trader Joe's)–medium bodied and red-fruity–and sauces and stews come out really nicely. The cheaper bottles often have the advantage of not being too woody. (CNP is a wonderful alternative, but I'd rather *drink* that, thank you.)

    As Jesse and I like to say: Sure, new-world wine is great stuff…for cooking.

    Why would anybody hesitate to finish with butter? It's probably the most calorie-effective flavor-enhancer this side of salt. Make veal marsala and eat it. Now instead, make veal marsala and finish with even one single *tea*spoon of butter, and it tastes twice as good. Sheesh. And besides, we all know–or should know–that increasing the percentage of saturated fats in your diet does *not* increase your chances of coronary heart disease. If you concentrate on unsaturated and non-trans fats, increasing the percentage of total fats in your diet *reduces* your chance of CHD. (Probably because a bit of fat fills you up nicely, so you eat less calorie-laden carbs.) Sheesh some more.

    Another cheap trick for beef stew btw: pour in a can of Campbells beef consommé, undiluted. Makes the stew pretty darned delicous, actually too rich to eat much of. (Hence saving calories…)

    Happy Sunday over there…


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