Thursday, November 15, 2007

Special Request Beef Stew Cuts the Mustard*

There are some recipes and techniques that are just down in one’s bones. For me it is making pot roast and by extension beef stew. Now I have pot roast memories and stories that would take about as long to tell as it takes the dish to simmer. I have a pretty good story about lamb stew, too. The only anecdote I have for beef stew, though, is straight forward and quick. I once saw a television show on France and French cooking that highlighted the dishes of Dijon. Not surprisingly folks there use mustard to thicken their beef stews. Next time I made a stew I tried it, liked it and made it part of the process.

This recipe is called Special Request Beef Stew because a friend who had it requested the recipe. I hadn’t intended to blog about the dish so I “just” made it without recording steps, ingredients and amounts, so this is an approximation based on my usual technique.

The recipe takes some time, but it really is relatively easy and produces a superlative beef stew. I do advise making it ahead (see A Note about the Beef below).

A Note about the Beef: I tried some beef stew meat from Niman Ranch in this recipe. The beef was lean, grass fed, antibiotic-free and took almost five hours to become truly tender and soft, a good two-three hours longer than regular commercial beef does. I think it was because it was so lean. The first night the beef tasted fine, the sauce was great but the beef did not meld with the sauce. The next day the stew was terrific, even outstanding, the flavors and textures marrying well. It was not at all greasy. All in all, I would really recommend using such a natural product, but only if you can prepare it ahead of time so the dish has a chance to pull itself together and be the best beef stew it can be.

Special Request Beef Stew
Serves 6-8

2 Tbs. grape seed or other vegetable oil
2 pounds of lean, natural beef for stew (chuck roast or steak), cut in 1" cubes (see note above)
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
Red pepper flakes
2 medium carrots, cut into ¾” pieces
1 large red pepper, seeded and cored, cut into ¾ inch chunks
2 stalks of celery, cut into ½” pieces
1 pound of crimini (brown) or white mushrooms, stemmed and cut into halves or quarters depending on size
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon ground or crushed Herbes de Provence (use a mix of fennel, basil, rosemary, thyme if you don’t have this French Provencal seasoning on hand, but you really should have it, it is very versatile and I use it as a quick base seasoning for many dishes from fish soup to pizza. Here is a link to the brand of Herbes de Provence I prefer.)
4 cups of beef broth or stock
8 oz of red wine
1-6 oz can of tomato paste
1 pound small or new potatoes, cut into halves or quarters to make approx. 1” chunks
1 ½ Tbsp of prepared Dijon mustard (the better the brand and the closer to Dijon it is produced the better)

Heat oil over medium high heat in a large, deep pot. Brown beef cubes on all sides, working in batches if needed so as not to crowd them. Remove and set aside. Sauté onions until beginning to soften, add garlic, sauté until just beginning to color, add a pinch or more of red pepper flakes to taste. Sauté a minute and add carrots, red peppers and celery. Sauté vegetable mixture for five to 10 minutes, until onions are beginning to brown. Add mushrooms and sauté until just beginning to soften. Add beef stock and red wine. Stir well, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom on the pot. Bring liquid to a simmer. Add tomato paste, stirring well until mixed in. Bring liquid back to simmer. Taste the liquid. If needed, add in ½ teaspoon of salt or to taste. (Note: Some commercial stocks and broths can be salty, so be sure to check.) Add in ½ teaspoon of the ground or crushed Provencal herbs, about ½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper and the beef cubes.

Cover and bring to simmer and cook over low heat for an hour. Add in mustard. Stir well to combine with the rest of the ingredients. Replace cover and return to simmer over a low heat for a half hour. Add in the potatoes, stirring well to make sure the beef and potatoes are covered in the sauce.

Simmer, covered, until the potatoes are cooked through and the meat is so soft you could cut it with a fork. (The potatoes will probably be ready before the meat, but that’s okay.) The timing will depend on the meat, it may take one or several more hours before the meat is truly, wonderfully tender. Don’t give up hope, just keep simmering away, as long as I start with the right cut of meat (chuck in this case) I’ve never had stew I couldn’t simmer into submission. When the meat practically melts in your mouth, uncover the pot. Taste and correct the seasonings. Leave the cover off the pot, increase heat to medium and let the stew cook a bit longer to thicken the sauce. (The sauce will continue to thicken as the stew sits overnight.) Transfer the stew to a container suitable for the refrigerator. Reheat the next day and serve topped with chopped fresh parsley if desired.
*Want to know more about the phrase "cut the mustard" or its variant "doesn't cut the mustard"? Click here.

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