We’re having a heat wave in Los Angeles. So why was my oven working overtime yesterday, slow-cooking beef stew, a dish best enjoyed in cold weather?
Because my daughter asked me to. And my niece chimed in. And now that both girls are on their own, I do whatever I can to encourage them to visit, including making my washer and dryer available to them — and serving them dinners I know they will like.
Believe it or not, there was a time when cooking was my main creative outlet. I was never a great cook – but am able to follow a recipe. And I used to spend my evenings poring over cookbooks and magazines, planning meals that involved complicated dishes with tons of different ingredients. Serving a dinner that one might get at a nice restaurant felt like an accomplishment, and I enjoyed it.
That period of my life ended after my daughter was born. I used to joke that she never outgrew her toddler’s palate: she liked the plainest of foods and could not handle anything with a little spice to it. She turned her nose up at so many of my favorite dishes that I became convinced I wasn’t such a good cook, after all.
But there was one person who could please that child’s picky palate on a regular basis: My sister-in-law in Wales, who I have to admit is a magician in the kitchen. So after one of our visits there, I decided to try my hand at the traditional British fare my kid liked so much. I marched down to Borders (remember Borders?) and bought a Jamie Oliver cookbook. One of the first things I tried to make was this beef stew — and the rest is history.
This is the dish my kid and her cousin browbeat me into making yesterday — and aside from the heat in the kitchen, I don’t really mind. For one thing, I’ve made Jamie Oliver’s beef stew so many times over the years that I’ve got it down to a system. It takes me about 15 minutes to prep on a Sunday afternoon and then dinner is done.
Step by Step to Beef Stew
1. Gather Your Ingredients
The beauty about making a stew is how forgiving it is. My family isn’t crazy about the butternut squash, parsnips, or Jerusalem artichokes the recipe calls for, so I’ve reduced that to just one potato and three carrots. You can throw in just about any vegetable you like. I sometimes forget to buy fresh sage or the tomato paste. You can substitute dried sage and omit the tomato paste and it will still taste fine, although with a little less body and flavor.
I’ve also learned to increase the stew meat to at least 1 1/2 pounds — otherwise, the leftovers tend to have very little beef left. And I do like the leftovers, as it tastes even better the next day.
2. Saute the Onion and Sage
The original recipe calls for using a mix of butter and oil, without specifying how much to use. I used to saute the onion and sage in 1 Tbsp of each, but it works just as well with either. Lately, I use a tablespoon of butter only and saute on medium heat.
3. Add the Vegetables and Beef
Once the onion and sage are done, add in your chopped vegetables. Then the cubed beef that you’ve dusted with seasoned flour. What’s nice about this recipe is that you don’t have to brown the beef first – just dump it into the pot.
4. Add Beef Broth/Stock and Wine to Cover
You can probably make it without the red wine, although I’ve never tried that — in my opinion, it’s the flavor of the wine that gives this stew its robust flavor, and the better the wine, the better the dish will turn out. That can pose a dilemma, because I hate to waste a good bottle of drinking wine. Most of the time, I look for a Cabernet in the $5-$10 range and save the good stuff for sipping. You can also go with Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and blends.
Increasing the amount of meat to a couple of pounds means you need more liquid in your pot or Dutch oven to cover it, so these days I tend to throw in the entire bottle of wine. The liquid will reduce by about 1/4 over the 3-4 hour course of cooking, and the concentrated result is delicious.
5. The Tomato Paste
The last bit you stir into the pot is the tomato paste, which gives the stew an oomph of flavor. You only need two tablespoons, which I’ve found is pretty typical of just about every recipe I’ve read that uses tomato paste. This used to really bother me, because I would always end up wasting nearly half the can. But several years ago, I discovered these tubes of concentrated tomato paste from companies like Cento, Amore, San Marzano, and Mutti, which enable you to extract the small amount you need, recap the tube and keep in the fridge for up to 45 days. So now I always keep one in the fridge and a fresh one in the pantry, so I never run out.
6. Bring to a Boil and Cook for 3-4 Hours.
Once you’ve added the liquid and tomato paste, bring the whole thing to a boil, and then cover the pot and pop it into your preheated oven (just 300 degrees) for a nice, slow cook (3-4 hours). This is especially nice to do on a cold day — and crazy when the temperature gets to 90, as they are predicting for today. You know you’re done when the beef is easy to mash with a fork or spoon.
At any rate, you’re now free to go about your business. If this is going to be dinner on a typical Sunday, putting the thing in the oven is my cue to fire up an old movie to watch on TV.
7. The End Result
So here’s what it looks like when you’re all done. You can see all that beautiful beef and how much that liquid reduced during the cooking time. What you can’t see is how good it tastes – you’ll have to take my word for it (and that of my daughter and niece, who requested it in the first place). There were not a lot of leftovers this time around, which is a shame. I like to bake up a bit of puff pastry and stick it on top of the reheated stew so it becomes an approximation of a beef pot pie.
I guess it will be a while before I do that, because I told my family they’re not likely to see this dish again until winter. But there may be ways to satisfy a stew craving during the summer. I’ve tried making it in the Instant Pot and it came out OK, but lacked the body and intense flavor of the oven-cooked version. I may give the slow cooker a shot at this recipe and report back later. If that works, Stew Sunday may be an event we can all enjoy year-round.