Really. I mean it. Don’t laugh. Sometimes you just really want something from your childhood that makes you warm and safe. I won’t call it what everyone else calls it, because I hate that term with the fire of a thousand suns. Yet there are things that really do it.
When we would go to Grandma’s house in Provo when I was little, she would serve up beef stew in those mug-bowls that have a long handle sticking out of them. I always thought she made the best beef stew in the world. A couple of years ago, after I’d been living in my Grandpa’s basement (Grandma died in ’89), he invited me and the fam up for dinner. He spooned up bowls of beef stew with that same aroma that I remember from when I was 8. I was so amazed that Grandpa had learned how to make the stew just like Grandma used to make.
I later found out that it was Grandpa making it all along. Apparently Grandma wasn’t much of a cook, and Grandpa was the resident chef. And Grandpa really likes beef. The two things I can think of that he has cooked for us, on many occasions since then, are roast beef and beef stew.
Grandpa’s beef stew is probably simpler that what most people would make. Since Grandpa can’t tolerate any onions, garlic, or any, and I mean ANY herbs or spices, his stew has beef, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and salt, with the occasional green bean. As a kid, that was all I needed. I didn’t care what was in it, I just knew that it was the best beef stew ever.
This week I’ve had a hankering for beef. This is rare. It’s even rarer that I would go out and purchase a chunk of flesh and actually prepare it, but I did. I wanted to make a roast, to pair with my perfect mashed potatoes, some perfect gravy, and maybe a little salad. Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about choosing a cut of cow. I bought a 2 1/2 pound piece of chuck and brought it home. I thought I’d save it for Sunday dinner (isn’t that quaint?). On Sunday, I started getting a little sore in the throat area, and by mid-afternoon, it was clear there would be no roasting going on.
Monday morning, I had the worst sore throat I have ever had, with excruciating pain upon swallowing. Ice cream for breakfast, though! I decided to go ahead with the roast that afternoon, but when I got out my 1000 Best Recipe, it advised against chuck as the roast, but referred me instead to the stew page. I trimmed the meat and cut it into chunks, then went back to the recipe, which said it would take about 2 1/2 hours of stewing. And it was, of course, too late to start it and have it ready in time for dinner at a reasonable hour for children. So I stuck the chunks in the fridge and made some prosciutto pockets. And the village people rejoiced, as they devoured every last morsel.
So today, I was ready to stew. I don’t have one of those fancy enamel dutch ovens that I’ve secretly been coveting these many years. Nor do I have any sort of oven-safe stew pot. I do have a Crock-Pot, though. You should think that’s funny, since I returned all 6 of the slow cookers we got as wedding presents. Because I’m snob enough to eschew any easy-way-out Americana short-cut casserole cream of chicken soup producing novelty. I gave back the bread maker too. I’ve even been known to brag about not knowing how to use a crock pot, because I only do “real cooking.” Yes, aren’t you glad you don’t know me in real life? Anyway, my mom had bought a crock pot, thinking she could find a use for it, but since she’s the older version of me, she couldn’t. She passed it along a couple of years ago, and I’ve decided I’ll use it.
Slow cooker Beef Stew
Total time: 7 hours with changes in temp. If you put all the stuff in the beginning, I’m pretty sure you can just leave it on low for about 8 hours, or high for about 5, and have it done without any fiddling. I just added stuff as I was passing through the kitchen to do the laundry.
1 T oil
2 1/2 pounds beef chuck, trimmed of fat and silver skin, and cut into cubes
1/2 C red wine
4 C chicken broth
1 onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
salt and pepper
1 bunch small carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch lengths, halved lengthwise
3 stalks of celery, chopped
3-4 T tomato paste
5 or 6 medium potatoes, cut into large chunks
3 T butter
4-5 T flour
Plug in the slow-cooker and turn it on high. Pour in wine and chicken broth to start warming. Add onion. In a hot skillet, heat the oil and sear the beef chunks in 3 batches, adding to the slow cooker as they get browned. Add bay leaf and thyme. After 1/2 hour or so, turn to low.
After 2 hours or so, add carrots, celery and potatoes and about 2 t kosher salt and a bunch of pepper. Add the tomato paste in blobs, and don’t worry about stirring them in. Make sure the vegetables are barely covered with liquid. Cover and turn back to high for 1/2 hour, then turn back to low.
After another 2 or 3 hours, check the potatoes with a fork. When they’re done, it’s time to thicken the stew. Melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add flour and whisk for a minute or two. Add hot broth right out of the crock pot to make a gravy. I added about 3 cups of broth, then added a little water, whisking all the while. When it’s thin or thick enough for you, pour it back into the crock pot and stir gently to mix. Check for blobs of tomato paste, and mash them up. Remove the bay leaf and thyme stems, and the onions, unless you like big, slimy onions in your stew. I guess you could chop the onions before you put them in, but I have kids that complain about onions, and the bigger they are, the easier to pick out.
This makes a very meaty stew. If you added more veggies, you could probably feed 20 people on it, instead of 8. I think you’d need another crock pot, though.