The first encounter I recall with beef stew is eating a bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. It was a cherished childhood memory. Why make Beef Stew when it was just so handy to open a can? Well, my husband and I tried of night a childhood favorites. Let’s just say, Chef Boyardee Ravioli and Dinty Moore Beef Stew don’t taste as good as I remember. There’s a reason I moved away from processed foods.
There are many recipes for beef stew in older cookbooks, although most refer to stewing a large piece of meat, usually studded or slitted with seasoning. Around the mid to late 1800, “stew” seems to begin to resemble something of its modern day incarnation in various recipe books.
In reviewing many of the recipes, the one that stuck out most to me was Fannie Farmer’s from her Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. While it lacked any sort of spice ingredients, it had an interesting twist. Modern stews call for the addition of stock or wine as the deglazing and liquid source for the stew. In other words, it can be a two step process of making a stock, then making a stew. Fannie’s method is more economical as she throws the bones in during cooking and removes them prior to thickening the sauce. In other words, she makes the stock, while cooking the stew. To me, this was genius! I always have too much or too little stock. Then there’s the problem of stock storage. Sure, I freeze stock that I make, but that takes up space and has to be thawed. Fannie’s method is economical and much less work and clean up! So, I took bits of her recipe and bits of the recipe from The Lady’s Receipt Book by Eliza Leslie in 1847 with the modern addition of mushrooms to create a very simple beef stew. With a small amount of up front time, the stew mostly sat in the oven for cooking, leaving me plenty of time to do other things on a lazy Sunday.
2 pounds stew meat, cubed
Flour sufficient for dredging meat
1/4 leftover bacon grease or any high heat tolerant oil/fat (lard, canola, etc.)
1 cup carrots, sliced thin
1/2 onion, small dice
2 celery stalks, sliced thin
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon thyme
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
Beef bones ( I used 4 bones of about 3 inch diameter)
4 cups potatoes, diced.
I know these ingredients don’t really look like much, but this is a really simple recipe and you don’t need to measure much. Pat the beef dry. Sprinkle beef with flour, salt and pepper. You want the beef to be covered with flour. For the salt and pepper, there really shouldn’t be more than a teaspoon of each needed. The salt and pepper are included at this point to really to flavor the liquid of the stew and can be adjusted later.
Heat fat or oil in dutch oven (I used a 5 quart one) over medium high heat. Saute beef until browned and leaving bits of browned flour on the pan.
Remove from pan and add carrots, onion and celery.
Cook until partially softened. Add mushrooms, nutmeg and thyme. Cook until pan is deglazed. You may need to add a bit of salt to help the process along if the vegetables are not releasing their liquid. Once the pan is deglazed, return meat to the pan and add water sufficient to cover. Stir to distribute the flour that is on the meat throughout the liquid. The liquid should start to turn brown and slightly thicken. Add bones and additional water if needed to mostly cover the ingredients. Seal tightly with lid and cook at 350 degrees until the meat is tender. The amount of time varies depending on what the butcher thought was “beef stew” meat and whether the meat was pastured or not. 2-3 hours would be a good guess.
Allow enough time prior to the finishing of the stew to parboil the potatoes (about 5 minutes). After removing the bones, add the partially cooked potatoes to the stew for 15 minutes of cooking with the stew.
Now, I didn’t feel the need to thicken the stew at the end of cooking, but if you want to, you can add 1/4 cup flour (slurried with some water to prevent lumps) and cook until thickened.
I didn’t think I would like the nutmeg, but honestly, it kind of worked. Mace was the other ingredient suggested for stew in the older cookbooks. I couldn’t find any, but now I’m curious to see if I can and try it!