Stormy Beef Stew

#RecipeUpTop (details below):

  • 1 large chuck roast;
  • 4 waxy potatoes;
  • 4 carrots;
  • 2 ribs of celery;
  • 1 medium yellow onion;
  • 2 TBS veg oil;
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth;
  • Salt (to taste);
  • Black pepper (to taste);
  • Cornstarch slurry (to taste – see note)

Method: Cut the chuck roast into bite-sized cubes, and brown in the bottom of a heavy pot, then remove. In the same pot, sweat a diced onion, the diced celery, and one (1) diced carrot. Once soft, deglaze with the vermouth, return the beef to the pot, cover with water and simmer until the beef is tender, roughly three (3) to four (4) hours. Add chopped potatoes and remaining carrots, cook until tender, then adjust for seasoning. Thicken to desired consistency with cornstarch slurry, and serve with crusty bread.

The Details

As I’ve mentioned in my other posts, rural Maine get its fair share of heady weather, and as a result, my childhood sometimes seems like one big power outage.

In the early days, when the winter storms would roll in and the lights would go out, we would light the kerosene heater (this was in the days before products liability and, evidently, common sense which would dictate you probably don’t want a scalding hot metal tube of ignited petroleum in your living room, but I digress) and open some canned goods to heat up for dinner.

In retrospect, there is certainly a campy nostalgia to those memories, but even at the time it was the source of some excitement because it usually meant one thing: Dinty Moore Beef Stew.

To be clear, I despise canned soup for myriad reasons, some of which are rational and understandable. But, even in my deranged loathing, I still adore Dinty Moore Beef Stew. It does everything right. It’s savory without being salty. Everything is cooked to tender but not mush. The broth is thick and hearty, and invites sopping from a dinner roll or some crusty bread. It’s cheap.

THAT SAID, I am also a semi-normal, functioning adult who understands the consequences of eating that sort of thing more than once every half-decade or so.

And so, on this windy and wet December day in Maine, a craving stirs and the memories flood back. We can build this better; we have the technology. It’s time for beef stew.

Step one: Cut down your chuck roast. I’ve gone on and on about this, but chuck roast is the most versatile, underappreciated, valuable cut in the modern supermarket. The fat content makes it perfect for everything from pot roast to chili to grinding for burgers and Asian dumplings. It smokes up like a brisket, and is available everywhere, all the time, for cheap. I have ten (10) in my chest freezer at any given point.

This is what it looks like whole, and you can see it almost has a road map for how to break it down into three (3) pieces. NOTE: some of these will be different depending on what part of the bigger primal they were cut from, but they’re always really easy to break down.

Looking a little closer, you can understand why I’m so zealous about this cut. That marbling is magic:

This whole roast was about ten dollars ($10.00). It makes me giggle a little bit every time.

Anyway, from here we’re going for slightly-bigger-than-bite-size pieces, as they’ll shrink a bit in the cooking process as they give up that delicious goodness:

Step two: brown your chunks. Get out a big, heavy pot, add a little oil over medium-high heat, and brown off the meat. Importantly here: work in batches. You want maximum color, which means even heat. Crowding the pot will drop the temp (and also release a lot of liquid), and everything will steam instead of brown. That’s bad.

Move your browned beef to a holding bowl, and kill the heat on your pot:

Remember: you’re not cooking the meat through here, just getting some color that will flavor our broth later.

Step three: dice your aromatics. We are going classic mirepoix here: celery, onion, and carrot. That said, I’m holding back on the carrot here a little because we’re also using bigger chunks of carrots later as part of the final stew. This is just for a little shot of flavor.

That’s a candle in the top of the frame, not a glass of milk. I don’t know why I felt the need to clarify that, but I did.

Get these into the pot over low heat with some salt, and sweat until they are soft and have given up their moisture. There should be plenty of fat left in the pot from the beef, so no need for extra oil.

Once you’re nearing the end of the sweat, deploy your vermouth. Is this really necessary? YES. You may have noticed this looks a lot like our traditional pot roast recipe up to this point, and like we mentioned in that post, the vermouth is doing a LOT of work as a flavor solvent, pulling some really incredible things out of the veggies and the remaining beef fond. Obviously, if you have religious, dietary, or other objections to alcohol, of course substitute water. But if you’re on the fence because you don’t want to be bothered with getting some vermouth, GET SOME VERMOUTH.

Let it sweat for a few more minutes to give the booze time to work its magic, then return the beef to the pot, cover with water, and simmer until the beef is almost falling apart. NOTE: if you want to use some mushrooms, add them here, but that’s really a personal choice.

So, here’s the deal. In a traditional pot, this is going to take three (3) to four (4) hours, depending. You’ll need to watch the water level, and add more several times as it evaporates. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it makes your house smell incredible. Also, you don’t need to watch this like a hawk, and can actually go do other stuff while it cooks, so it’s a handy thing to throw on and, say, go shovel the driveway or whatever.

BUT… if you want to really crash the gates here, you can use a pressure cooker, which has become my preferred method. It cuts this part of the cooking time down to twenty (20) minutes at full pressure, which is about forty (40) total minutes if you factor in the run-up and cool-down. Still, if you’re in a pinch, or just find yourself with an hour to bang this out, you can get it done and the stew will hold just fine for as long as you need.

Anyway, once the meat is just about to fall apart, chop and add your potatoes and the rest of the carrots:

The important part of this process is to use waxy potatoes (i.e. red, or Maine), which will hold up in the stew. Russets (or mealy) potatoes will disintegrate, so you’ve been warned. Simmer until they are fork tender, roughly fifteen (15) minutes.

TASTE THE BROTH AND ADJUST FOR SALT AND PEPPER.

Step four: The crossroads. Here is where this stew can go wrong FAST. We’re going to thicken the broth with a cornstarch slurry, and you need to be really careful this doesn’t race past “hearty” and dead-end into “gloop.”

We’ve done cornstarch slurry before in our lemon-fennel glazed chicken, but the basics are: dissolve some cornstarch in the smallest amount of cold water possible. You want a consistency that looks like whole milk.

This is not enough for a full pot of stew, but you get the idea

How much? Well, that depends on a lot of different moving targets. How much fat is in the broth from the meat? How much water is in the slurry? How much starch did the potatoes give off during their cooking process? How much overall broth is there?

My method is usually to dump a hearty dose of cornstarch into a pint glass, dissolve it in water, then add it slowly to whatever I’m thickening until I’m happy. The rest goes down the drain, and I don’t have to worry about all of of those variables I just mentioned.

The fun part here is the thickening process is heat activated, so crank up your stew to a robust simmer, and start adding your slurry. Stir, and give it a few minutes before the next addition. My only other advice is to stop JUST BEFORE you’re happy with the consistency, as it will thicken a little bit more as it cools from boiling to tongue-friendly temperatures.

And that’s it. Serve with some dinner rolls or great French bread, a glass of red wine, and your favorite movie.

Or, go out to the garage and get a good whiff of kerosene. For old time’s sake.

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