Before I tell you how my beef stew experiment came out, a few words about my approach to the dish. As I noted yesterday, my stew is very plain: beef, potatoes, that’s about it.
Occasionally, I’ll get fancy and use another starch besides potatoes: chayote (what we called pipinellas in my Portuguese household), chunks of squash or pumpkin (again, a Portuguese thing) or even sweet potato. Peas, particularly fresh peas, which I could get when I lived in Washington state, are nice if added at the last minute. But never, never, never carrot or celery or bell pepper or handfuls of herbs or spices.
For me, in beef stew, these ingredients are just wrong. Carrots taste bitter, not sweet as I prefer them (they’re also just a cheap filler in most stews, cut too large and often mushy). Celery gets slimy. Bell pepper, herbs and spices take over from the dish’s central ingredient, beef.
Also important: Sweat the small stuff. Cut the beef stew meat into small, even chunks, about 1 1/4 inch square. Ditto the potatoes or other starches. Don’t use too much fat; just a couple of teaspoons. To fry rather than braise, use a large, heavy, open pot, such as a Dutch oven, not a steep-sided soup pot. (Steep sides trap moisture; a wide open pot allows moisture to cook off.) Don’t crowd the meat when frying; work in batches and tend it carefully to prevent burning. Blend the beurre manie in a small bowl with a fork (2 tablespoons softened butter, 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour). To avoid lumps, whisk about 1/2 cup of the hot beef stock into the bowl, then add it to the stew.
Don’t be fooled by muddle-headed recipe writers who suggest that making stock is just a matter of throwing leftover bits of this and that into a pot of water. A stock will taste of its ingredients — do you really want to eat potato peels or woody carrot ends? (This is not to say such ingredients can’t be used, but they must be balanced by fresh and sweet foods and, if you’re not a vegetarian, meaty bones.) When I can find soup bones — it’s getting harder to do, as with any bone-in meat these days — I roast them at 450 degrees until they’re well browned and the fat and marrow begin to melt. I place these in a soup pot with leeks, a handful of parsley, half an onion, perhaps a wedge of lemon, chopped tomatoes if I have some that are about to go over. But not too much of anything so that the primary flavor, in the end, is fragrant, light beef broth.
And so, did frying the beef plain instead of dredging it work? Yes, it did. At first, I was worried because the meat released a lot of juices as it cooked and I thought it might become stringy and tough, but long, slow cooking tenderized it and the final result was as beefy as even I could wish. One advantage of not dredging was that I didn’t have to worry about the flour burning. Flour-dredged meats quickly absorb the fat in which they’re cooked, and can begin to burn in the blink of an eye. I actually ended up using less fat with the uncoated beef; fried it in three batches (it was about 2 pounds) with just a tablespoon of fat total (okay, I know that’s not exactly light but it’s not bad for a stew that could serve 4-6).