Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday Stew, Slow and Simple

It doesn’t take a particularly logical train of thought to get me started on a new cooking project. But, it is often a complicated path. Here’s a typical chain of events:

  • I’m sitting in a hotel in Middlebury, Vermont last weekend drinking coffee and watching Tyler Florence on the Food Network. He’s whipping up his “ultimate” version of coq au vin. He adds an entire bottle of red wine to chicken and pearl onions that is simmering in a glossy-red Dutch oven. I’m intrigued, but it’s only breakfast time.
  • On New Year’s Day, I note that I’ve still got a couple of coupons left for that department store whose name begins with an “M.” I check the web site and discover a kick-ass sale of kitchenware by the Doyenne of Domesticity – whose name begins with “M” – including fifty-percent-off a shiny, fire-engine red Dutch oven. Before the New Year is several hours old, I am the proud owner of a Dutch oven, and I’ve saved a bundle. Not a bad way to start off 2008.
  • On Thursday, I’m giving serious thought to how I will use that last remaining bottle of delicious Bordeaux from Christmas Day.
  • On Saturday morning, I’m lounging in bed. I think I’ve finally licked my chronic sleeping issues. All it took was a rather pricy purchase of a 1-inch thick foam mat that now sits atop my regular mattress. I’m feeling well-rested, and just a little lazy. Since I’m usually thinking about food, the question rolls through my head, “What shall I cook this weekend? Maybe something simple and slow in the Dutch oven? Something easy that cooks on its own?” I wonder where I might research more about braising and stew and I remember “The Art of Simple Food” by Alice Waters, which sits in the kitchen, but I’ve not had a chance to read. Sure enough, there is a section on braising and stews and an inviting recipe for Beef Stew. One week into this journey, it’s beginning to feel like destiny.

  • About half of the morning is spent at Whole Foods, shopping for the best ingredients I can find. I think I blow a week’s worth of grocery money, but the chunks of boneless beef chuck look good enough to grace the cover of Saveur magazine. I season the beef with salt and pepper and put it into the refrigerator, ready to hit the ground running on Sunday, creating a classic beef stew.

    Sounds simple, right?
Along the way, I’ve hit a slight snag. The truth is, I’m a bit of a novice with Dutch ovens, and the optimal cooking techniques. Braise or stew? Which is it?

“The Elements of Cooking” by Michael Ruhlman offers some basics on braising. He calls it a “combination cooking method” of dry heat, in which meat is seared in very hot fat, followed by moist heat, where the meat is simmered in liquid at a very low temperature, but never a boil. Braising works well with cuts of meat that that contain connective tissue, which breaks down during the cooking process and thickens the sauce. Stew, on the other hand, is primarily the moist heat method, but the meat is cut into smaller pieces, a greater amount of liquid is used, and you don’t always sear the meat, although it will boost the flavor if you do. The Dutch oven is constructed of cast iron, so it conducts heat evenly and the tight-fitting lid keeps steam from escaping so the long, slow cooking method results in tender meat and luscious thick sauce.
There appears to be some controversy over techniques. Harold McGee is on record that the optimal braise starts at a temperature of 200 degrees F and is increased to 250 degrees F after two hours. Other’s suggest higher temperatures.

This is all becoming complicated, so I stick to Alice Waters’ directions. The beef stew recipe looks a bit like a cross between a braise and a stew. She recommends beef chuck because the connective tissue and fat offers more flavor.

First, bacon is browned in a pan. Then, the chunks of beef are browned in the bacon fat.

Aromatic vegetables – onions, carrots, and thyme, savory and parsley – are then browned just slightly before being added to the meat in the Dutch oven. The pan drippings are deglazed with brandy and the Bordeaux. Organic fire-roasted tomatoes, chopped garlic and beef stock are added to the pot along with the wine reduction.

Essentially what I’ve done is layered one flavor on top of another. The mixture is topped with a long strip of orange zest. I particularly like the fact that I can cover the pot and place it untouched and unattended in a 325 degree F oven for three hours.

The method is sheer simplicity, and the aroma is sheer torture. I keep glancing at the clock to see how soon it is until dinner. The house is fragrant with savory meat, rich wine, herbs, garlic and citrus. I’m about to loose my mind, and my appetite is on a rampage.

Time is up, and I open the lid. The odyssey of braising, stews and a lip-stick red Dutch oven in search of a home is complete. Simple, however, is a misnomer.

The mahogany sauce looks like satin, and the onions have practically melted. The beef is succulent and smoky, the carrots tender, and the orange zest adds a sweet, fresh note. The stew … uh, braise … is served atop toasted bread rubbed with garlic. Who needs fussy, complicated cuisine?

The best part is the leftovers. I can almost bet the beef stew will taste even better tomorrow, and I won’t have to cook for several days.

What could be simpler?

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia said...

Congratulations on your new Dutch oven! You'll wonder now how you ever lived without one. Not only is it great for stews, but you can join the ranks of the no-knead bread fanatics who've discovered yet another great use for these heavy-duty pots. I've got the Alice Waters cookbook sitting in my pile of new arrivals. Now I can't wait to work my way through it.

Kathy said...

You stew looks delicious and the beef also looks well worth the splurge. I've never tried serving stew over the slices of toasted bread. I'm also envious of your pretty new red dutch oven!

Veron said...

We must have had the same idea this weekend as I made a pot roast yesterday. I used the all-clad but I'm sure the cast iron ones are better. I braise at 300 F based on a cooks illustrated study a few years ago. I do kepp Harold McGee's recommendations at the back of my mind though :).

Bradley said...

That looks fantastic, and not to over state the obvious but browning any thing in bacon fat is the way to go!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

The addition of the orange zest is so inspired. I've never thought to do it, but I certainly will now. Thanks, T.W.!

Maryann said...

Hi TW!
Oh yes, the stew is always better the next day. I made beef stew this weekend also. Love it! Love yours!Looks as good as any beef stew I've ever seen :)

T.W. Barritt said...

Lydia, I'd forgotten about the no-knead bread! Now you've got me started on next weekend's project!

Kathy - I thought the beef tasted great - flavor is worth the extra money.

Veron - At some point, I plan to test McGee's recommendations just to see the results. Will you be posting on your pot roast?

Bradley - Yes, BACON RULES!

Susan - I went slightly overboard and "zested" the whole orange, but I thought the flavor was so fresh, and a nice contrast to the richness of the beef and wine.

Maryann - I can now confirm that the stew was even better the next day!

Veron said...

I've made that pot roast before on my blog, it was one of my earlier posts...

Helene said...

That looks great. I love my 'Le Creuset'. Anything is good in it.

T.W. Barritt said...

Hi Helene - welcome and thanks for visiting! I have continued to experiment and recently made a wonderful dish of braised chicken thighs with honey and almonds - delicious and so easy!