It's a chilly 75 degrees today in South Miami, making beef stew the logical choice of recipes to test from Alice Waters' cookbook, The Art of Simple Food. This was the best beef stew I have ever tasted. It's also the first time I took the time to do it right, and I was surprised at how well that paid off!
Season generously, a day ahead if possible, 3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes with fresh ground pepper and salt.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a heavy-bottomed pan (I used my cast-iron skillet) over medium-high heat. Add 3 slices of bacon cut into 1/2 inch pieces. Cook until lightly brown but not crisp. Remove the bacon. Add the meat, browning well on all sides- do not overcrowd the pan, do as many batches as necessary (I did 4 or 5).
Put the browned meat into a heavy pot. Pour off most of the fat, lower the heat, and add:
2 onions, peeled and cut into quarters (I found fresh pearl onions at the market and used those)
2 cloves (stick them into onions)
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks (I used baby carrots)
2 sprigs each of thyme, savory and parsley (I couldn't find savory so I left it out)
1 bay leaf
A few peppercorns
Cook until slightly browned and add to the beef in the pot.
Return pan to the stove and raise the heat. Pour in 3 tablespoons brandy. This step is optional, but I never miss an opportunity to add liquor to my food). Add 1 3/4 cups red wine. Cook that until it has reduced by 2/3, making sure to scrape up all of the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour this over the beef and vegetables. Add:
3 diced tomatoes, fresh or canned (I used canned)
1 small head of garlic, separated into cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 thin strip of orange zest
2 cups beef stock (or chicken broth)
Check the level of the liquid; it should be at least 3/4 of the way up the cubes of beef. Add more if necessary. Cover the pot tightly and cook at a bare simmer on the stovetop, or in a 325 degree oven for 2-3 hours, until the meat is tender. Turn off the heat and let the stew settle for a few minutes and skim any fat off the top. Discard the bay leaf, cloves and peppercorns (or just caution your dinner companion as I did since I was unable to find the spices). Taste and adjust for seasoning. Waters suggests to serve the stew sprinkled with a mixture of 1 tablespoon chopped parsley with 1 or 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine. I didn't use a garnish.
Now, my favorite part of her recipes.... the variations! Here are Waters' suggested variations for Beef Stew:
A good tip: Thicken a thin sauce with a mixture of one part flour stirred together with one part soft butter. Whisk this into the boiling sauce bit by bit, cooking each addition for a minute before going on to the next; you want just enough to give the sauce a little body.
As this stew cooks, you won't believe the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen. When it's finally time to eat, sit down, dig in and enjoy. If it's the best beef stew you have ever tasted, I'll try not to say I told you so...and the eggs.