We’ve had our first big snowfall of the season. While I love looking at fresh snow from the comforts of my couch, I have to admit I’m not much of a snow bunny: I don’t practice winter sports (I’m so clumsy, skiing would probably kill me), so to me winter mostly means cold feet, wet hair, and freezing ears.
Well, OK… It also means soft scarves and pretty hats, which I do like – I’m not much of a fashionista, but I do enjoy accessorizing. And winter also means Christmas, which I’m still un-cynical enough to enjoy.
But more important, winter means stews. It’s stew season, baby! Time to whip out the ol’ Dutch oven (or, in my case, painfully lift up the enormous, beautifully heavy monster I keep under the counter) and fill the house with the scents of slow-cooking!
I’ve made this beef stew several times. I saw the recipe by Eric Akis in The Gazette a while back, and have adapted it since then (the original recipe called for much fewer vegetables, among other things). Carrots and leeks are a fixture in stews, but they blend especially well with the Guinness beer, which gives this stew a deep, slightly tangy flavour. You can use any kind of mustard you wish, but I’m having trouble imagining a better fit than whole-grain moutarde à l’ancienne; it also adds to the stew’s visual aspect.
The recipe recommended serving this stew with mashed potatoes, but since I add potatoes to the stew itself, I usually serve it with buttery couscous, for the ultimate comfort meal.
One more thing, though, before moving on to the recipe: what kind of meat to use. I had often been told that stews were a healthy and economic meal, because simmering the meat for hours meant that you could use the toughest, cheapest, leanest cuts of meat available, and still have a tasty dish. So, being both health- and budget-conscious, I used to buy extra-lean beef cubes, which were marked “for stewing.” However, I always found myself having to simmer the meat for much longer than indicated in the recipes, and it was never quite as tender as, say, veal osso bucco, or lamb shanks. But I figured it was because beef was inevitably tougher than other meats.
Then, one day, the butcher at my supermarket saw me browsing the meat aisle and asked me what I was looking for. When I told him I was making beef stew, he immediately steered me away from the extra-lean section. He came from France, and upon learning that I was from Belgium, he confided in me:
“People in North America are so afraid of fat. But you need a little fat in your meat, even for stews. Otherwise, your meat will be dry, there’s no getting around it. You can add all the juices and sauces you want, it’s still going to be dry. You want a nice, marbled cut of meat, like chuck. And don’t buy those pre-cubed packages, because the pieces tend to com from various cuts of meat that’ll cook differently.”
And so I bought a big, fat, marbled piece of chuck, which the butcher kindly cubed for me. And I have never looked back. The improvement was blatant: the meat was much more tender and tasty than the extra-lean beef had ever been, and with less cooking time. Really, there was just no comparison.
But if you still want to cut back on the fat, you can always do this: make the stew a day ahead and refrigerate it. Any excess fat will float up to the surface and congeal, making it easier to remove it. You’ll lose some flavour in the sauce, but your meat will already be nice and tender.
Beef Stew with Guinness and Leeks
Adapted from a recipe by Eric Akis
900g (32 oz) cubed stewing beef, such as chuck
3 tbsp vegetable oil
2 large leeks, white part only
5 celery ribs
5 large potatoes
3 garlic cloves
4 tbsp flour
2 tbsp tomato paste
500 ml (2 cups) beef stock
440 ml (2 3/4 cups) Guinness beer
2 tbsp whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 160ºC (325ºF).
Slice the leeks lengthwise in two, clean them and cut them cross-wise in 1/2-inch slices. Peel the carrots and cut them into 1/2-inch slices. Peel the potatoes and dice them into 3/4-inch cubes. Slice the celery into 1/2-inch pieces. Slice the onions. Mince the garlic cloves.
Season the beef with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown the meat on all sides, in batches, and set aside in a bowl.
Add the onions, garlic, leeks, celery and carrots to the pot and cook for a few minutes. Stir in the flour and tomato paste and cook for 3 more minutes. Slowly stir in the beef stock, then the beer. Add the potatoes. Stir in the mustard and rosemary. Return the beef to the pot and bring to a simmer. Cover, place the pot in the oven and cook for 90 minutes to 2 hours, until the meat is very tender.