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Beef and White Bean Stew with Gremolata and Stew 101

Okay, it's winter. I give. There is finally a bit of snow on the ground, I had to dig out The Kid's boots today and it's really cold out there. Really, the only part of winter that make life worth living, to me, are the soups and stews that we don't really eat during the warmer months. The two things that tend to show up on the menu on a weekly basis are some sort of stew and some sort of pulled pork crock pot dish. Last week we had a lamb stew with truffle mash and a sort of pork paprikash made with my weekly pork butt and this week, I made this yummy beef stew to officially welcome the stupid winter since it insists on coming.

I also want to talk about stew, in general. I am always surprised when I hear that people don't really make stew or feel like they can't just wing a stew and need a recipe every time because, to me, this is the ultimate cooking for dummies. You follow a few small rules, you throw a bunch of stuff in the pot along with nicely browned meat, you cook it low and slow for a long time and you end up with something hearty and delicious pretty much every single time. 

A traditional stew might mean beef, herbs like rosemary and thyme, some red wine,  celery, potatoes and carrots. You can kind of go in an Italian direction with beef (or lamb), chopped fennel in place of celery, a can of tomatoes, a heavy red wine like a barolo, white beans, some pancetta, maybe some dried porcini mushrooms using the soaking liquid as a part of your "stock". If you like the flavour of chili, make a stew with those flavours using beer, tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, black beans, some bell pepper, some sweet potato. You can even use this formula to add preserved lemons and go Moroccan or  some curry inspired flavours for an Indian flair. Try a Spanish dealio by using smoked paprika, some sliced, cured Spanish chorizo and olives along with your classic vegetable additions. The sky is really the limit here. 

As far as cooking methods, my favourite is to make it in a pot in the oven (make sure it's an oven proof pot like an enamelled cast iron, cast iron etc) low and slow. You can always cook it on the stovetop in a pot but that requires too much checking and stirring and I like to leave it and kind of walk away for an hour at a time. You can totally use a crockpot but if you do, you really must do the whole browning of the meat, deglazing of the pan etc right up to the point where I tell you to put it in the oven but just pour everything into the crockpot instead, scraping the bottom and the pot to make sure you don't leave behind any good stuff that might be clinging to the bottom. If you are home all day, add the veg halfway through the cook time if you can and if you aren't, just cut the chunks of root veg and potato a bit bigger than you would like so they don't cook down to nothing by the end of the day.

This beef with white bean dish is a simple classic example of a more traditional stew. I like to add beans to stretch the dish out and to cut down on the amount of meat. We are total flesh eaters but I do try to cut down on the actual volume of meat eaten in one sitting and adding beans gives that addition of meatless protein and bulk without really affecting the flavour of the end dish. You can add beans or lentils to do the same thing or you can leave that part out altogether.  As far as adding a gremolata garnish goes, you don't have to do this at all but with red meat dishes like this, the brightness added by that hit of intense citrus really elevates the flavour of what can be a very heavy dish.

One note, if you are going to add any vegetables that are going to turn to mush with the long cooking time, don't add those until the last hour - zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper etc will retain their shape and texture if you wait until the final hour of cooking time to add them into the pot.

Beef and White Bean Stew with Gremolata

makes about 6 big portions

800g or just over 1 1/2 lbs of beef stew meat
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tbls tomato paste
1 tbls worchestershire sauce
1 1/2 tbls flour
1/2 cup of dark beer, red wine or port (it's up to you - its all good)
2 cups chicken stock
1 big sprig rosemary
a couple sprigs thyme
1 large bay leaf
1 cup chopped carrot
1 cup chopped parsnips
6 small new potatoes in bite sized chunks
1 540ml can navy beans, drained
(secret ingredient that is not a must but it's nice if you have some - 1 tsp PC taste#5 umami paste they call it a flavour bomb and it just adds a little something something)

1 lemon
1 clove garlic
1 big handful italian parsely
drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil
pinch kosher salt
tiny squeeze of lemon juice

Chop the parsely as finely as possible
using a microplane, grate in the zest of 1 lemon and the garlic clove as well.  If you don't have a microplane, you can just mince the lemon zest and garlic with a knife but it's soooo much easy with a microplane so you might want to invest in one if you don't have one - one of my favourite kitchen tools. Stir it all together  with a pinch of salt, a small drizzle of olive oil and a week squeeze of lemon juice and set aside until serving time (store, covered, in the fridge).

preheat oven to 300F

Heat an oven safe pot over med high heat. Pour in a glug of olive oil, so it just coats the bottom.Brown the meat in batches so that you aren't crowding the pan. If you try to jam too much meat in there, the meat ends up steaming instead of searing and you don't want that. Salt and pepper each batch as you add it in. This is the hard part- DON'T TOUCH THE MEAT FOR A GOOD 4-5 MINUTES. I know you want to but just leave it. After a food 4 or 5 minutes, pry the meat up and stir it around for another 4 or 5 minutes to brown the rest of the meat as well. If it looks like the yummy stuff stuck on the bottom (the fond is what you call that and fond is french for "bottom" - now you can sound super savvy ) is going to start to burn, throw in a couple of tbls of water and use a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan and pour the water and the gooey fond goodness over the meat that you have removed to a bowl. Add a bit more oil and throw in the second batch of meat, salt and pepper generously and do the same thing until all the meat is browned and waiting off to the side in a big bowl.

Now, add another tbls or two of olive oil, turn the heat down to med and cook the onions until very soft which should take about 7 or 8 minutes, stirring often. After 5 minutes, add the garlic. When the onions are nice and soft, add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and another pinch of salt and stir that around for a minute and then sprinkle the flour over the top. Stir it around until the flour makes a wet paste over the vegetables and pour in your beer/wine or port. Stir it so that you deglaze the pan and the liquid starts to thicken and you can't see any lumps of flour at all. Add the meat and all the drippings in the bowl, the chicken stock, the rosemary, thyme and a bay leaf. Cover the pot and put that in the oven and set the time for one hour.

At the one hour point, remove the pot from the oven, add in the potato, parsnips, carrots and navy beans and check the seasonings and the liquid level. If it looks like it's not going to be enough liquid, you can add another 1/4 cup of chicken stock or water, put the cover back on and put it back in the oven for another couple of hours. Keep checking the meat and the vegetables until they are perfectly tender. It could take anywhere from 2 to 4 hrs depending on the cut of stew beef, the size of the chunks etc. which is why I like to make it earlier in the afternoon and then just reheat it at dinner time so I don't stress out.

Add a spoonful of gremolata to the top of each bowl.

You can serve it right away but we all know that stew just gets better in the days after you make it. It keeps in the fridge for up to four days and it will just keep getting better. You might have to add a slurp of stock or water when you reheat it.

Okay, now lets break it down:

Stew 101

800g or just over 1 1/2 lbs of beef stew meat (okay, any meat will do. Lamb, pork, venison)
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 onion, roughly chopped (feel free to add celery, fennel bulb, change onion to leek, pearl onions or shallot)

1 clove garlic, chopped (you can leave it out or add more)
1 tbls tomato paste
1 tbls worchestershire sauce (leave out if you are changing the flavours to something more Mexican, Indian or anything that is not really a traditional flavour combo)

1 1/2 tbls flour
1/2 cup of dark beer, red wine or port ( try beer or white wine with pork- it's up to you and you can leave booze out and use more stock to deglaze if you aren't into adding alcohol - its all good)

2 cups chicken stock (you can use veg stock or beef stock, veal stock - I like chicken for everything but any flavourful stock will work. You may need a bit more stock if you add a higher volume of vegetables. Play it by ear)

1 big sprig rosemary and a couple sprigs thyme (leave anything out if you don't like it, change the herbs to something you like better just make sure whatever herbs you choose match the meat flavours and go together)

1 large bay leaf

1 cup chopped carrot (you can add to or change the root veg. Turnip is good, celeriac, sunchoke, some type of squash)
1 cup chopped parsnips

6 small new potatoes in bite sized chunks (you can use more, you can use less, you can use a different kind of potato, you can use a sweet potato instead, or a combo but I like to always include some sort of potato because the starch helps thicken the sauce and it adds some bulk)

1 540ml can navy beans, drained (You can use dry, soaked beans, another type of beans or no beans at all. I like to add a hearty white bean that holds its shape to make it more filling and stretch the dish out and adds a meatless hit of protein so we aren't just eating a big bowl of meat. If you do use pre soaked dry beans, add them in with the beef and stock right at the start of cook time instead of waiting an hour like you do with canned beans)

(secret ingredient that is not a must but it's nice if you have some - 1 tsp PC taste#5 umami paste they call it a flavour bomb and it just adds a little something something) (totally not a must have )

The instructions for making the stew don't really change, just the ingredients.

You can also add a can of crushed tomatoes for another variation but if you do, cut down on the stock and they would be added when you add the stock.

You can easily double the recipe to feed a crowd or to make enough to freeze as well. The amounts are really not set in stone so if you use this as a guide, you are going to end up with about 6 or 7 meal sized servings with the original recipe but it could feed more if you fill it out with some more vegetables and a bit more liquid.

If you follow this loose formula, you can't really end up with anything that isn't a tasty stew. Mix lamb with white beans, rosemary and parsnips, pork with beer, green chilis, potato and replace the fresh herbs with cumin and cilantro. Try venison with white wine,  acorn squash, thyme and leeks. Leave the gremolata out or try a gremolata using different citrus. A lime/cilantro/garlic combo would be great on the green chili pork stew, for example. Experiment and have fun with it, knowing that it is almost impossible to mess up.

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