December 28, 2009

The Big Time

My college roommate, bless his heart, more than once made the comment that I was a very atypical college student. While he delighted in Bud Light, Jack's Pizza, and Star Wars (again, bless his heart), I would lean towards Earl Grey, homemade bread, and Julia Child Netflix DVDs. I will be the first to tell you that the steam on our apartment windows was from nothing other than cooking. Recently, I've been able to justify my unorthodox behavior. The many single-nights I spent in college cooking have paid off and I can now say that I somewhat successfully feed more than myself.

Sure, nothing puts off writing an essay like watching your yeast bread puff up like a balloon on the counter. But, I was unknowingly undergoing a self-education of other sorts.

Just as entire evenings spent in the library preparing for an exam can make you feel armed and ready, unexpected and unanticipated questions are surely to come up, no matter how much you prepare. So it's been for me in the kitchen, as well. I've got a meat-eater nipping at my heels these days, and 'Meat Cookery 101' was a course I completely neglected to explore. The following explanation is no excuse, but may explain why.

As a young girl growing up in my parents' grocery store I remember watching my father grind meat for the 'Big Ron' Burgers they sold in their cafe, which was adjacent to the store. These pink, wormy threads of beef squealed out of the grinder at an amazing rate. My dad took pleasure in this ritual activity. And maybe for the pinch-sized bite of raw beef he rewarded himself with afterwards. A meat-lover to the extreme, if a steak was completely cooked through, it was as good as leather to him. This man has standards when it comes to meat. To this day, when Friday night rolls along, he's cooking his own steak - by choice. So, I was never in the habit to even think about preparing meat.

Then there was that crazy summer spent at an organic vegetable farm (where this thing all started) that amplified my knowledge in vegetables, squeezing out any area in my skillet-shaped brain to learn about meat. (Now my boyfriend is paying the price.) He's even gone to bed hungry the first few times I attempted red meat. That, in my mind, is the worst thing a gal could do to her boyfriend. Especially, ESPECIALLY, if she is a crazy-foodie. So, for both our sakes, I've attempted to embark on what I call 'Big Time' cooking.

We've all heard it said, 'The 3rd time's a charm.' Well this charm came to us in the form of a little red French pot filled to the brim with piping hot beef stew. And, boy, was she a welcomed presence. It's a coming-of-age story in the kitchen, and now that essays and term papers are done - I'm onto conquering beef stew.

It's the big time.

Here's my recent take on the classic beef stew - a la Nigella Lawson. If you've got her book How to Eat and turn to page 100, you'll notice I've left some things out. Mostly due to the lack of their presence in the kitchen. I'm sure they'd be lovely to throw in the mix. She suggests not mentioning the anchovies to a crowd and that even anchovy haters are known to love this stew. Also, those shapely matchstick sized pieces and finely sliced celery stalks were nowhere to be found in my stew. They were equally-sized rough chops. Precision has its place, but not in stew.

Nigella suggests a horseradish-yogurt sauce to go with this. But I suggest an arugula salad wrapped in a thin dijon cream blanket, to go alongside. There's something about a stew's rich color that needs to be withheld.

Additionally, I only have a 2 3/4 quart Le Creuset pot for making stew (I know, this needs to change soon, especially since another mouth will be slurping from its bounty), so I halved this recipe. I advise, DO NOT DO THIS. Yes, everything turned out perfectly, but the few bowlfuls we got were an absolute tease. Go whole-hog (or cow!) on this one.

Beef Stew with Anchovies and Thyme
'How to Eat' Nigella Lawson

3 Tbs olive oil, plus more, if needed
3.5 lbs beef stew meat, cut into chunky strips about 1.5 by 2.5 inches
1 large onion, halved lengthwise and finely sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut in fat matchstick-sized pieces
4 inner stalks celery, finely sliced
6 anchovy fillets, well drained and minced
2 Tbs dried thyme or 1.5 Tbs fresh
2 cups robust red wine
1.25 cups beef stock
2 heaping Tbs all-purpose flour
1 Tbs tomato paste
Freshly milled black pepper
Salt, if necessary

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Put a casserole on the stove with oil. Heat and then brown the meat briskly in batches; do not overcrowd the casserole or the meat will steam rather than sear. Remove the meat to a plate and then, first adding more oil if necessary, toss in the vegetables, anchovies, and thyme. Cook, turning frequently, on medium heat for about 10 minutes or until the mixture is beginning to soften. While this is going on, heat the wine and stock in a saucepan and remove when it reaches boiling point.

Return the beef to the pan and then stir in the flour. After a couple of minutes or so, pour in the wine mixture and stir well, then stir in the tomato paste and add some pepper. Taste and add salt, if you want.

Put on a lid and then cook in the preheated oven for 3 hours. Remove, cool, and then keep in the fridge until needed. Reheats again nicely on the stove. Serves 6-8.