Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chuck Wagon Stew

Chuck Wagon Stew

From Better Homes and Gardens Famous Foods from Famous Places: Specialty-of-the-house recipes from America's leading restaurants cookbook (1964, Meredith Press). Recipe from the chapter on the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, Jackson.

2 pounds beef chuck, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fat
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tomatoes, quartered
1 green pepper, cut in coarse pieces
1 cup beef stock, or 1 can condensed beef broth
1 cup water
6 small potatoes, pared and halved
6 small carrots, halved
6 small whole onions
3 or 4 stalks green celery, cut in large slices
1 cup fresh peas

Dust meat lightly with flour; thoroughly brown on all sides in hot fat, turning often. Add next 10 ingredients. Cover; simmer over low heat till meat is almost tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking. Add potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery. Cover; cook 30 minutes longer. Add peas; cook 15 minutes more or till vegetables are done. Serves 6 to 8.

Personal Note: This, like the choucroute recipe, reminds me to wonder why I even bother posting exact recipes...we deviate so much from this it's funny. Timing is always approximate; you have to respond to your specific pot and how it's doing on any given day to get the stew's components cooked and the flavors blended to your liking. So yeah. Time's approximate like always. Just keep an eye out.

For the fat component, we use butter. We omit the flour coating step.

The most important thing about stew is browning the meat correctly; it's what gives stew its essential "stewy" flavor. You heat the butter and then turn up the burner way high (and also flip on the exhaust!). Don't add meat until the butter begins to really burn a bit--you want the bottom of the pan brown. For real. Then you add the meat in parts, making sure the pieces aren't overcrowded in the pot. Brown the hell out of one side of each piece 'til it's very dark--heat needs to be high so you achieve this quickly (instead of overcooking the meat at a lukewarm temperature, thus resulting in undesirable mushy grey chunks). Then do the same to the opposite side (I use long-handled tongs to flip meat, but a wooden scraper would do too). Do some of the other sides briefly and then scrape all of the pieces around a bit, to coat them in the developing dark fond collecting at the bottom. Quickly pluck out these pieces and set them aside on a platter and repeat the process with the next small batch.

This part is the most important, and it'll be crazy steamy and hot for a bit, and you need to watch what you're doing. But it doesn't take much time, and the stew meat will be gorgeous. The gravy too. Really, this makes all the difference.

Once the meat's all browned, keep the fond at the bottom of the pan!! Turn heat down or off, but right away before the fond cools add some red wine (no, this isn't listed in the original recipe, but it helps develop your gravy's strong base flavors). It should boil and you should be able to see the alcohol rise up in steam. Now add the liquid (the stock and the water). Let it cool to a simmer, then add the spices and things mentioned in the middle list of the ingredients.

When you add the third part of the ingredients list--the vegetables--make sure you have enough liquid in the pot to cover or nearly cover them. If you don't, add more stock and water (or water plus some good brand--Le Gout, for example--beef base if you've run out of fresh stock).

Check your stew every once in a while as it simmers and cooks. If at any time you notice a component--the potatoes and the onions in particular--is getting too soft/disintegrating into the stew, consider removing it and putting it aside as the rest cooks. You can then add it back to the pot when you're ready to eat. This of course is for if you're the kind of person who likes a stew with chunky discernible components. If you don't care if you get a recognizable whole albeit softened small onion in your bowl, by all means leave it in to let it fall apart; the flavor will be in there either way.

If towards the end you find the broth too watery for your tastes as a result of having to add liquid to cover the cooking vegetables, add a little corn starch to the pot and bring the stew back up to heat. The thickening agent will turn it to gravy quite quickly.

This time around, we didn't have green peppers so we used poblanos. I was worried it'd taste off, like it was stew trying to be chili, but it didn't--it lent a nice glow without overtaking the basic stew flavor.

I always seem to make way more than it calls for--I like a stew to have lots of potatoes and onions, so I usually throw in more than they ask. I also add more of the flavor components like the chili powder and bay leaves just out a knee jerk habit I have of doing so with everything (I like strong flavors).

Also, we never use fresh peas or celery, just because they're rarely in the house this time of year and we don't bother to obtain them for the stew. And obviously you could add other vegetables you like, especially other root veggies like rutabegas, parsnips, or turnips.

If you don't like the curled up skins from the tomatoes or peppers, peel the skins off before adding them.

This is one of the first cookbooks my parents acquired as a married couple, and it's still one of their trusty favorites. It's where a bunch of our tried-and-true recipes come from, including the grasshopper pie one. It even has a section on the Watergate Hotel I believe. Ha.

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