I know I am not the only one out there experiencing fierce post-Thanksgiving blues. We dutifully ate various incarnations of the smallest turkey I could find for four days, and there is still a hefty package sequestered in the freezer and a huge pot of turkey stock cooling off on the stove. This morning at the store I closed my eyes tightly and quickened my pace as I passed the poultry section on my way to dairy products. Not even the sight of beautiful duck breast I bought at Lazy Acres Market a while ago perching on my freezer shelf seductively could make me excited.
It was time to get the animal protein that did not have feathers, and when I saw rosy fresh, halal beef at our local Persian store, I knew what I wanted to make: a beef stew with pearl onions, chestnuts, and baby Dutch potatoes. I don’t need sub-zero temperatures and ice storms to put me in the mood to braise and simmer; there was just enough chill in the air to wear long sleeves and in my book that’s as perfect as it can get for an ordinary fall day in southern California.
I am not the next Food Network Star by any means. I remember the days in my late twenties when I was convinced I did not inherited one single culinary gene from Mother and my two grandmothers. Every time I attempted to make a one-pot meal meal I despaired upon seeing dark bits and pieces sticking to the bottom of my pan thinking that I burned it and ruined it forever. I had no clue that those unseemly little plies were the essence that would permeate the dish, thicken the sauce, and carry through the depth of its flavor. When Mother was behind the stove stirring, it seemed like magic, easy, effortless and smooth. I almost suspected that she omitted a step or two in the recipe she wrote in the little black book I took with me to my junior year in college.
But I became confident, not because I channeled my Volfgang Puck over night, but because these dishes are very forgiving and versatile. They let you experiment and play; they encourage you to be creative and build the layers of flavor with layering of the ingredients. They are going to taste slightly different every time as you vary your choices of meat, vegetables, liquids, and seasonings. The more you play, the better you’ll get. All you need to know are a few basic steps; the rest is your call.
Meat: The obvious choice is beef, something lean and not suitable for grilling, but you can opt for chicken, pork, lamb shanks, beef shanks, even ox tail. The time of the dish will vary as they all cook differently, but you are there to monitor and taste.
Vegetables: Onion is necessary; the rest is up to you and the yield of your pantry and fridge: carrots, celery, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, even apples, pears, or prunes (or in my case, earthy chestnuts and sweet pearl onions).
Liquids: I prefer to use wine (red for beef and lamb, white for chicken and pork) and stock, but you can use all stock, beer and stock, tomato juice and stock, or even a little cider along with the stock.
Herbs: Thyme and rosemary are my favorites, but bay leaf certainly holds its own, as well as tarragon (preferably with chicken and if there are mushrooms involved)
Carbs: Potatoes are easy, as they cook right in the stew. But you can also add barley, or homemade dumplings. You can serve it on top of buttery egg noodles, mashed potatoes, or creamy, cheesy polenta.
So go ahead and tinker, switch and swipe, be spontaneous and impulsive and enjoy the variety of the results. You will always end up with a cozy, comforting dish that will make your heart sing and melt even the imaginary snow.
BEEF STEW WITH PEARL ONIONS, CHESTNUTS, AND DUTCH BABY POTATOES
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 Tbsp sunflower oil
- ½ tsp coarse salt
- ¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 lb lean beef (chuck, top round, or bottom round), cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 1 bell pepper (I prefer red, orange, or yellow, as green bell peppers tend to be slightly bitter), diced
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- ½ cup red wine
- 1 – 2 cups beef stock (start with 1 cup and add as needed)
- 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, minced
- 1 sprig of fresh thyme, minced
- 6 oz pearl onions, peeled
- 6 oz peeled and cooked chestnuts
- 1 lb baby Dutch potatoes
- coarse salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter and oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pour the flour into a plastic zip bag. Season the meat with salt and pepper and add to the bag with flour. Close the bag and shake vigorously to evenly distribute the flour.
When the butter and oil are hot, add meat and brown on all sides for 8-10 minutes. If necessary, divide the meat into two batches to avoid the overcrowding, which would prevent the meat from getting crispy on the outside. Take the beef out, lower the temperature to medium, and add onions and peppers.
Sautee for 6-8 minutes until soft and stir in the tomato paste for 1 minute. Add the wine and deglaze the bottom, making sure that you scrape all the delicious bits and pieces that stick to it.
Stir until wine evaporates, add herbs and water, raise the temperature to medium high and cook until it boils. Lower the temperature to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour. Add pearl onions, chestnuts, and potatoes, cover and continue cooking until the meat is fork-tender and potatoes soft and buttery, for another 30-45 minutes.Taste and adjust the seasonings. Let it rest for a few minutes and serve with a green salad, crusty country bread, and a glass of red.