What a week! A family emergency took me into the country where my phone didn’t work much of the time and I had no Internet access. Helping to care for my ill relative left me with plenty of time for reading. But all I had with me were several boxes of books I had culled from my overflowing cookbook collection and stuffed in my car trunk, mostly biographies or books of essays I was planning to give to the Friends of the Library book sale. I read “The Devil in the Kitchen” by Marco Pierre White, “The Soul of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman and “Heat” by Bill Buford.
In White’s book, I read something that stopped me: a piece of beef stew wisdom. Or possibly heresy.
I am a fanatic on the subject of beef stew. For years, I put up with stews that were too thin, too tomatoey, too packed with extraneous ingredients that detracted from the flavor I craved. And what I craved was a stew that would answer for once and all the question, “Where’s the beef?” “It’s right here, baby.”
Finally, I began making the dish I had imagined. I call it Naked Stew. It’s naked because it contains nothing but beef, fat (preferably bacon drippings or lard), flour, broth and/or beef concentrate, potatoes, salt and pepper, a little onion and minced parsley.
I make plenty of cooking mistakes but I have to admit that I think my beef stew is exceptional. I’d put it up against anyone’s. And I’ve always believed the key was the rather unprettily named technique called dredging: tossing the beef in flour and frying it before it stewed. The flour sloughs off the beef and thickens the gravy when the broth is added.
I recall an otherwise unremarkable day when I was about six or seven. Grandma was browning beef for stew. It smelled so good I begged her for a bite. “It won’t taste like anything,” she said. “It’s not stew yet.” It may have been my first lesson in the value of long, slow cooking to layer and build flavors.
Then, last week, I read British bad boy chef Marco White’s rant on how heating dredged meat isn’t frying, it’s braising, simmering the beef in its own juices, and produces a mushier and less deeply flavored product. He suggested that beef should be browned naked, caramelized until almost crusty. For thickening, he would use a beurre manie, a paste of equal parts softened butter and flour.
Hmmm. Was this just some ego-driven drivel delivered by a guy who, if you say “white,” is going to say “black,” just because he can? I couldn’t wait to try it out.
Tomorrow: What I learned.