When we were kids, my dad fancied himself a pretty good beef stew maker. I did not agree – he used big chunks of flank steak, which I suspect weren’t cooked quite long enough to break down in its tomato-ey sauce, because while it was certainly lean and healthy, it had the texture of chewy meat rope. (Sorry Dad – it’s not you, it’s me. And the meat rope.)
Fortunately, he’s so fantastic that it’s easy to overlook his stew.
But it’s funny how childhood food preferences stick with you – I keep thinking I don’t like beef stew, but really I do. (So long as the meat is cooked long enough.) Any tough cut of beef (or bison) makes a good stew – even those chunks of “stewing beef”; the trick is to simmer it first, giving the connective tissues time to melt and the gravy a chance to develop, before adding the potatoes and carrots, which you don’t want to break down to the point where chewing is unnecessary. These days, I make beef stew in the big red Le Creuset braiser I bought for myself, browning the meat first on the stovetop to create all those deep browned crusty bits that add so much flavour. (One day I made boeuf bourguignon for fifty, and browned so much beef that our kitchen was like a steamy meat sauna.)
Once I have that foundation of browned bits, I add the onion and celery to the pan to loosen them (and create even more), then some beef stock, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar (because: yum) and red wine and let the whole thing simmer for a good couple hours, until it looks something like this:
Then the potatoes (small, with their skins) and carrots (ditto), and even parsnips, if you’re into alternative root vegetables, get into the pool. Toss a handful of frozen peas in too, if you like.
They get the chance to cook in the dark, sticky gravy, leaving everything awesome and not at all watery; enough to stand up to these neverending cold-snowy-icy days.
Or for nights when you want to invite your dad over for dinner.
The Best Beef Stew
3-4 lb beef chuck or stewing beef, cut into 2-inch pieces
salt and pepper
canola oil, for cooking
1 large onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped (optional)
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
4 cups (1 L) beef stock
1/2 bottle red wine (about 2 cups)
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 lb. small, thin-skinned potatoes, halved
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1-2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (optional)
1/2 cup peas, thawed (optional)
Preheat oven to 300°F. Pat the beef dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Place a heavy, ovenproof pot over medium-high heat, add a generous drizzle of oil and cook the meat in batches, without crowding the pan, browning it well on all sides. Remove from the pot and add the onion and celery, if using. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until soft and starting to loosen the browned bits in the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the vinegar and cook for another minute.
Add the stock and red wine, cover and cook for 2 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender. Add the potatoes, carrots and parsnips, stir to coat everything well and return to the oven for 30-40 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. (If you’re adding peas, stir them in for the last 5 minutes.) Serve hot.