By Terry Harris
Now that cool weather is at least on the horizon, it’s time to bring out some old favorite comfort foods. And there’s just nothing like a hearty beef stew to warm up a crisp autumn day. In spite of any attempts to make preparation seem like a monumental task, it’s just not that difficult to make. In fact, it’s incredibly easy the way I do it – and that’s as simply as possible.
Now, don’t get me wrong – you can experiment and actually have fun making a beef stew. You can select and chop up special cuts of meat and exotic vegetables and call it “gourmet.” You can add anything from tomato paste to red wine to customize it to your own taste and budget. On the other end of the spectrum, you could just throw together a little of “this and that” and stir in pre-packaged seasonings from the grocery store. But for me? Well, after literally years of experimenting, I’ve come up with what I think is the perfect, tender, absolutely delicious beef stew, and that’s what I’m going to share today.
Is there a secret? Yes, there is! But first, let’s talk about the rest of the ingredients. I know many people make chunks of their own favorite cut of meat, but generally I just buy “stew meat” already cut up into bite-size pieces. It’s good, and it’s easy! I use peeled baby carrots (not the tiny ones) because they taste great and, honestly, I hate scraping carrots. But you certainly can go pioneer and scrape and cut up some “regular” ones if you like. As for potatoes, I’ve discovered that yellow potatoes are perfect because not only do you get a great flavor, but they don’t cook apart or get “mealy” when you cook them. Now, here’s the secret ingredient - an onion. Yep. I use one BIG, sweet onion – though a white one works just fine, too.
I know, I know – everybody uses onions in beef stew. But the secret is in what you do with that onion. Most recipes call for either tossing it in the pot whole or cutting it into big chunks to start cooking halfway through the cooking process - when you add the other vegetables. But if you dice that onion and sauté it in oil at the very beginning as you’re browning the meat, and then continue to cook it through the entirety of the cooking process – in other words, cook the onion the entire hour and forty five minutes you’re simmering your stew – you end up with the best beef stew I’ve ever tasted. Because by the time it’s finished cooking, that onion has pretty much disintegrated and turned into a natural thickener that’s absolutely delicious.
That’s the key to why the flavor and texture of this beef stew are special, but there are a few other little tips as well. First, do not use high heat while preparing it. Period. When you brown the meat, just toss it in with your pre-sauteed onions and never turn the heat above medium. Once the meat is brown, add your water and some salt and pepper, bring it to a boil, cover it, and simmer – now on low heat. Cook that for about 45 minutes and then add your other vegetables and continue to simmer everything for about another hour. When the vegetables are fork-tender and the onions have magically disappeared, all that’s left is to adjust your salt and pepper to taste, and TA DA! You’ve just made the tenderest, tastiest Beef Stew ever!
And that really is all there is to it! I sometimes add celery with the potatoes and carrots, and I’ve even been known to slice in some mushrooms (or add a drained can of mushrooms if I’m in a hurry, but let’s keep that to ourselves) near the end of the cooking time. And if the simple flavor is not exotic enough for you, you can add garlic, or the aforementioned tomato paste or red wine or some herbs or even Worcestershire sauce if you like. But I guarantee all the “meat and potatoes” folks you know will love it just as it is. And if you just remember 1) brown the meat, 2) no high heat, 3) plenty of onion cooked to oblivion and 4) just enough salt and pepper to bring out the natural flavors? That’s really all you need. Really! Now, who’s hungry? Enjoy!
Queenie-Style Beef Stew
1 ½ pounds beef stew meat, cut into bite-size pieces
3 Cups yellow potatoes, in bite-size pieces
1 Cup carrots, bite-size pieces
½ Cup Celery, diced or cut in large chunks (Optional)
1 Large onion, peeled and diced
3 Cups water
3 Tablespoons plain flour
3 Tablespoons cooking oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
In large skillet or Dutch oven, sauté chopped onion until translucent. Toss beef pieces in the flour until lightly coated on all sides. Add to beef to onions in pan, and sauté on no higher than medium heat until beef is nicely browned, but not hard. (Do not use high heat, or meat will be tough.)
Add water, bring to a boil, and immediately reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for about 45 minutes. Add vegetables and simmer, covered, for another hour or until vegetables are fork-tender and onion has disintegrated. If it’s not brown enough for your liking, you can add a teaspoon of Kitchen Bouquet. If it’s not as thick as you like, stir one tablespoonful of flour into 3 tablespoons of water until smooth and stir it into the still-cooking stew about 3 or 4 minutes before you’re ready to eat. Enjoy!
NOTES: You can vary amounts of meat or vegetables according to your preference. For gluten free cooking, use gluten free flour.