Sunday, February 7, 2010

Beef Stew, Rosemary Ciabatta

So I mentioned last time that I was feeling quite fortunate to not be working during the upcoming snow storm.

Did you know that in a state of emergency, healthcare workers are not allowed to go home? I've been a nurse for a few years, and I somehow didn't know that.

Luckily, I was not held captive on Friday morning, because the state of emergency was not called until the afternoon. Even though it wasn't snowing at that point, either.

I had initially planned to go to the store when I woke up on Friday afternoon, but luckily I realized that that was a stupid idea for several reasons.

(It was like a black and white world out there.)

Instead, I joined the masses standing outside the doors of Whole Foods at 8 a.m. on Friday morning. I have got to tell you that I have never seen anything like Whole Foods was that morning. I'm glad I had decided to go with simple, old school favorites, because searching out obscure ingredients would have been a bad idea. A Braise recipe will just have to happen another time.

So on Friday night, was had shrimp fajitas, and on Saturday night, we had our neighbor friends over and had old-school beef stew. It's been a while since I've made a beef stew-like dish that didn't include red wine, bacon, or other Frenchy accouterments, so it was kind of nice to have what Nick called good old American beef stew.

Not that there's anything wrong with Frenchy beef stews. I made Thomas Keller's Boeuf Bourguignon this past winter, and it was one of the most amazing things I've ever eaten. That recipe is hard core. It's expensive, time-consuming, and all-around intense, but it's worth it.

Sometimes simplicity is a beautiful thing, though, and this beef stew is child's play in comparison to the French Laundry recipe. I'll include the recipe, as it's one I made up myself many years ago. Not that that's an impressive feat, as it's a very simple recipe, but it's pretty darn good.

Leah's Beef Stew

-About 2 pounds of beef stew chunks
-1 large onion, diced
-3 celery stalks, diced
-About 6 medium carrots, preferably organic, diced
-Fresh rosemary
-Fresh parsley
-About 6 peppercorns
-1 can tomato paste, preferable Miur Glenn
-About 8 cups organic beef stock
-2 largish red potatoes, cubed
-One largish white potato, peeled if it's a Russet, left unpeeled if it has soft skin, cubed

Optional but yummy: Rosemary bread for serving

If the beef pieces are on the large side, trim them so that they're about 1 inch square, and thoroughly dry them, as the beef will not brown well if it is wet.

Salt and pepper the beef, and over medium-high heat, heat about a tablespoon of oil in a dutch oven until it shimmers. Working in batches, brown the beef cubes. If they are overcrowded, they will steam rather than brown. You might even need to do 3 batches, so just add more oil as needed.

Remove the beef cubes to a paper towel-lined plate or baking sheet.

Add the onion, carrots, and celery to the dutch oven, as well as more oil if necessary. The quantities above are approximate, as vegetables vary greatly in size. Basically, though, you should have 2 parts onion, one part celery, and one part carrot, which makes a miropoix. I like to go a little heavy on the carrots, actually, but that's just me.

Make a bouquet garni by tying up about 3 sprigs of rosemary with about 3 sprigs of parsley and a few peppercorns in a piece of cheesecloth. Add salt, and saute the vegetables and the bouquet garni until the vegetables are soft; they do not need to take on color, so medium heat should work.

When the vegetables are soft, add the can of tomato paste and cook for another minute or two. I suggest using Muir Glenn, because Cook's Illustrated did a taste test, and Muir Glenn was the winner.

Remove the veggies to a bowl. Add the beef back to the pot, add the beef stock and the bouquet garni, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, partially cover and reduce to a fast simmer and simmer for about an hour.

At this point, add the vegetables and simmer for at least 2 more hours, still partially covered. Add more finely chopped rosemary if necessary.

This might seem like way too long to cook a beef stew, and it probably is, but Nick and I like it when the stew has been cooked for so long its components are just demolished and the broth is very thick. We like it when the potatoes are disintegrating, and the beef cubes are falling apart into little stringy bits, and that takes at least 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

You pretty much can't overcook this stew. Adjust to taste with salt and lots of pepper. We like our stew to be very peppery, and very heavy on the rosemary.

Speaking of rosemary, I noted above that this stew is delicious when served with rosemary bread. We used to buy the rosemary sourdough bread from Whole Foods, but I didn't think that bread bought on Friday was going to be much good on Saturday, and I certainly wasn't going to be making a trip to the store on Saturday.

In case you don't live in the Baltimore/DC area, this is why I wasn't going anywhere on Saturday:

So I decided to make Jim Lahey's ciabatta bread with some added rosemary. If you haven't heard of Jim Lahey's no knead bread technique, you should definitely check out his cookbook. A few years ago, he created a sensation with this breadmaking technique, and it was profiled by the New York Times.

If you don't feel like checking out the book, the Times printed a version of his basic recipe here. Cook's Illustrated also came up with a bread that uses this technique, so you might be able to find that version.

(Finally, the sun came out, and there was color!)

Basically, you create a very wet bread dough with a very small amount of yeast. Jim Lahey explains the science behind this dough in his book:

"The long, slow rise brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment, to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network. The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile when there is a sufficient quantity of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough was stiff."

If you ever make this dough, it will seem totally wrong at first, but don't add more flour, just go with it.

This bread is insanely easy to make; it just requires that you plan ahead in order to accommodate the 18-24 hour rise. I've made his standard recipe, as well as the wheat recipe, so I wanted to try the ciabatta.

Speaking of ciabatta, if you ever find yourself at Pazo in Batimore, you should get their ciabatta.

So I made the dough by just dumping the ingredients together, including about 2 teaspoons of rosemary, and let the dough rise for about 22 hours.

Speaking of chopping rosemary, I got bored with using the chef's knife, so I decided to try the coffee grinder. It worked beautifully, and I felt like a genius. It wasn't so easy to clean, though, so we'll see how I feel later when I'm drinking rosemary-scented coffee. Gross.
The dough then got pushed around a little bit and underwent a secondary rise for about an hour.

Jim Lahey then directs you to put half of the dough on a preheated pizza stone and cover it with a preheated clay baker. Well, I don't have a clay baker, and because they sound highly breakable, I don't intend to get one.
Instead, I inverted the dutch oven to cover the bread on the pizza stone. This was potentially a very bad idea, as dutch ovens are quite heavy. The clay bakers are heavy too, though, and I figured that the dutch oven at least has big handles.

Well, I managed to cook two separate loaves of bread without inflicting a serious injury upon myself. And the bread was awesome.

Jim Lahey sounds a little cocky when he claims that his bread is better than what you'll find in most stores, but it's true. I could have eaten all of that bread myself, especially with some cheese and Prosecco.

Did you know that sparkling wine is really good with beef stew? I wouldn't have guessed, but it was great. We've all been drinking Prosecco and Cava before meals for a while now, and it's recently gotten trendy. I swear we were doing it first, though.

What a lovely snow day.

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