As 2014 barrels to a close, I find myself pondering leaps of faith…and making beef stew.
The past few months have brought some major, and for the most part self-initiated, life changes. I’m beginning to settle in, but have yet to really find my new rhythm. Or, rather, just when I think I have, the song changes. I’ve been impressed by my brain’s capacity to synthesize and adapt to new information (and have been killing the Times crossword puzzle as of late). But I’d be lying if I said these changes aren’t physically and mentally exhausting.
Early in adulthood I was faced with a major decision. A mentor and dear friend, noting my distress, observed that there were no right or wrong choices, merely different paths. I have shared this advice with countless people over the years and have taken great comfort in it myself. But, deep down, I’m still convinced that, with enough effort, I can analyze my way into the right choice.
There was a distinct moment in my late 20s when I realized that there was no answer key to life and that everyone is just making it up as they go along. Being an adult doesn’t mean knowing what to do in every situation. We learn from trial and error. We get better at selecting those we ask for advice. We learn to accept that things may not turn out as hoped. We also learn that things continue to evolve and, at some point, it’s bound to get better.
As hard as I am working to make the right choices, there are moments when I realize that what I’ve set in motion involves forces well beyond my control. Try as we might to reason our way through, our life choices are, ultimately, leaps of faith.
Stew, too, is an act of faith. You take a cheap cut of meat, sear it in some fat, and then braise it in liquid. About an hour into this process, the meat will be alarmingly tough and the surrounding gravy won’t taste like much. But keep the faith. Let it go another hour or two (each pot of stew having its own internal timeline) and you will find yourself with a tender and savory dish. It may not always be quite what you set out to make, but it will be good and nourishing. And it will get better with age; consider making your stew the day before, chilling overnight, and then reheating.
Beef, Shiitake & Celeriac Stew
- 3 tablespoons beef fat (or butter)
- 2 pounds beef stew meat (chuck, sirloin or whatever else the butcher recommends)
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large onions
- 4 large carrots
- 1 baseball-sized bulb celeriac
- 1 pound shiitake (pr plain old button) mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 8 anchovies in oil
- 2/3 bottle red wine
- 1 quart beef stock
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 1 sprigs rosemary
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- salt and pepper
- Melt fat or butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Toss meat with flour and a healthy pinch of salt. Brown meat in batches so as not to crowd the pan, allowing a nice dark crust to form. Set aside.
- If your fat is all gone, add the olive oil. Add the sliced onions and cook, stirring frequently, scraping up the dark bits at the bottom of the pan with the juices released by the onions. When the onions are soft and browned, add the carrots, celeriac, mushrooms and red pepper flakes. Cook until the vegetables begin to soften. Clear a spot in the pot and add the tomato paste and anchovies. Cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Deglaze the pan with a bit of the red wine, then add the rest of the wine plus the beef stock, herbs and sugar.
- Bring the stew up to a boil, pop a lid on, and turn the heat down low. You’re aiming for a slow simmer. Now is a fine time to take your compost to the farmers’ market. You may purchase a hot apple cider for the walk home but do no under any circumstances buy more vegetables given that you are leaving town in four days and still have the bulk of last week’s CSA share stashed in your refrigerator.
- After about an hour of cooking, remove the lid so that your sauce begins to thicken. Add a healthy dose of salt and pepper. Continue to simmer for one to two additional hours until your meat is fork-tender (but not complete mush) and the surrounding liquid is the consistency of a hearty gravy.
Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?