“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.” -Julia Child
We’re enjoying a cooler, later entree to Spring this year. Ok, I lied. I don’t know if we’re enjoying it as much as we’re tolerating it. Last year, this time, I was busy nursing the sunburn I gained during the Mansfield, TX Pickle Parade on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. This year, we were layered in sweats and our favorite Ugg Tasman slippers. Come August, many will be begging for the 50s and 60s we’re riding out now. If you’re taking notes, yes. Texans wear sweats when the temps dip into the 50s. In that vein, due to the reduced degrees, stew – rather any variety of hearty comfort fare – is very much still en vogue. Even piping hot coffee is welcome if not necessary in the early mornings, whereas iced or cold brew is naturally de rigueur this time of year. Stews are generally reserved for frigid Fall or Winter evenings, but we loved having something to chase away the Spring chill!
One of my favorite beef stew recipes is none other than my girl, Julia Child‘s recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon. The depth of flavor she achieves by the long-simmering and laminating of her ingredients is rarely matched. One doesn’t always have the time to devote to this process, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a delicious beef stew in less time. It won’t be Julia, but it can still be very satisfying. You do not have to spend hours-upon-hours babysitting your Le Creuset dutch oven on the stove top to make decent beef stew. You can make it in a $15 soup pot or even a crockpot for that matter. You just need to remember that herbs and spices are your friends. Do not skimp on them. They will help you create more nuances of flavor than you would if you only used plain beef broth or simple salt and pepper. They will take your dish from boring to brava!
Beef stew was created as a way to make cheaper, tougher cuts of meat more tender, more edible by long-cooking. Waste not. Want not. It’s the long-cooking that breaks down the tough connective tissue of the meat producing tender, succulent, falling-apart goodness. Like the Christmas brisket. Don’t cook it long enough and you’ll be chewing it for days. But cook it just long enough and you’ve got a cut that’ll be tender enough to cut with a fork. A dish meant to provide basic nourishment in ages past, doesn’t have to be dull. Even its humble origins likely saw the inclusion of a variety of vegetables and wild or garden-cultivated herbs. I think we often get this idea that humble beginnings necessarily equates to bland, tasteless fare, but nothing could be farther from the truth. If you think herbs don’t make a difference, you may as well just eat a plain hamburger steak and unseasoned cooked potatoes if you’re not going to put even a little effort into it. Do that and tell me you don’t taste a difference. Herbs and seasonings are meant to add subtle, yet distinct flavors and intrigue the palate. Dried is acceptable; fresh is preferable.
Many home cooks just assume herbs, spices, and other flavor-enhancing ingredients are superfluous or at least mildly irrelevant. In reality, they’re included in recipes for a very intentional reason. You can skip them, sure, but you would be completely missing the point. Trust me, you want to invest the time and a little bit of bread (see what I did there?) in basic spices and/or seasoning blends for your pantry. If you’re not sure about which spices to buy to start rounding out your dishes, one of my favorite publications, Bon Appetit, has a great list of The Essential Spices Every Home Cook Needs. You don’t have to load up on them all at once, just grab a jar or two every time you do your normal grocery shopping. Oh, and skip the $1 – read “bargain” – spices. They provide very weak, if any, flavor at all and you’ll just end up using the whole container just trying to taste it. Spend a little more and blow your taste buds away. When in doubt, buying fresh is also a stellar idea. In this instance, you wouldn’t be left with a bunch of dried herbs gathering dust out in your pantry that you won’t use.
The Spring rains that have been bringing cooler-than-average temps are of course welcome. Last Summer was so hot here in Texas, I didn’t get one usable tomato from my vines. Not one. It was too hot for the vines to flower and too dry for them to flesh out any fruit. As much as I tried to stay on top of watering, my day job hindered a more concerted effort to extract any produce from my garden. I even planted my pumpkins too late to get anything worth eating. The only way we got jalapenos was by bringing the potted plant indoors during the day and putting it out like a cat at night. My cold-loving kale on the other hand is still going like gang busters. Can you guess one of the only home-grown things I will be using in my next stew?
Julia Child uses a hearty glug of red wine in her version. If you’re not a drinker, I have had success with Holland House cooking wines. They’re cheaper, sold on regular supermarket shelves, and definitely not worth drinking. What exactly can you expect from a 16 ounce bottle of wine sold for roughly $4 at Walmart? However it will be the closest proximity to Child’s. If you absolutely have a personal prohibition against or don’t like the taste of wine, substituting the same amount called for in the recipe with beef broth is one substitution. Some say you can use water. I don’t. And I don’t recommend it. It’s bland, simply put. You could even use a cup of coffee if you’re so inclined.
Beef stew is typically served with some sort of comfort-bearing carb such as wide egg noodles or hot, cooked white potatoes or even rice. Dinner rolls do nicely to sop up all the jus when you’re finished even. These are all just fine. Even Julia served hers with potatoes, Nothing wrong with that. However, finding a new pillow to nestle the succulent, stewed beef and veg is welcome too. Enter Better Homes and Gardens‘ recipe for Polenta Beef Stew. Polenta is a personal favorite in our house. The Northern Italian grits-like dish is usually made by whisking cornmeal into boiling water to make a corn porridge. However, in this instance, the polenta is cooked in hot milk. The result was revolutionary. To me that is. Have I been making polenta wrong this whole time?! I don’t think so. Mine always turns out perfectly creamy. This cooking polenta in milk idea though may be my go-to for all future polentas.
The result was a much more Jean Harlow version of what one is accustomed to seeing. It was a silky platinum vs a rich honey-blonde ordinarily seen. You can enjoy the polenta as-is, or wait until it’s completely cooled to slice it into cakes for frying later. I’ve always enjoyed it in a looser, porridge-like consistency myself. Many do enjoy it firmly fried in neat rectangles (or thick coins) sprinkled with salty parmigiano reggiano. Neither is absolute nor incorrect. I fully expect to only make polenta with whole milk from now on. I would add a brick of cream cheese, but I think we’d be delving into Southern-style grits at that point.
Even if it’s not entirely traditional. Food is art. Create your own interpretations. I’m a firm believer that everyone should find their niche. Their hobby that removes them from their day-to-day. Everyone can’t be an intense, workaholic-type Tom Cruise creating their art. Not many can in fact. So find the thing that stretches and excites you in a way that your everyday life won’t or can’t. At the end of the day (literally), getting into my humble kitchen to make dinner is the way I unwind. It relaxes me in a way few other things do. It is my form of art. Have you found yours?
Currently Reading: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
Currently Watching: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Question: What are your standard stew ingredients?
Scripture of the Day: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” -Genesis 1:29