Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Big Thaw

It has been an ungodly sort of winter so far here in Chicago. It’s brought back memories of February in Montreal, the type of skin-piercing cold and bone-chilling wind I was pretty sure I had left behind when I received my diploma from McGill.

If, dear reader, you have never experienced this type of cold, count your lucky stars. It is close to indescribable, a sort of chill that permeates your entire being and keeps your insides cold long after your fingers have regained feeling. Now the cold this winter has not been as bad as the worst Montreal is capable of serving up, the -40 degree winds that forced tears from your eyes, which, despite their salt content, freeze immediately, gluing your eyelashes to one another. But it has been viciously cold, and since it’s been three years since I’ve experienced this type of tortuous winter, for which one would only stand in exchange for the chance to reside in one of the most underappreciated and gorgeous cities in North America, I have come to expect a milder sort of winter.

When it is this cold outside, there is not much that can will you to step outside. It has to be something really and truly worthwhile. Something for which you don’t really mind seemingly turning into a solid block of ice. Something thaw-worthy, that makes the achingly long process of returning blood flow to your extremities bearable. When there is no such thing, there is nothing better than staying indoors.

It is this acceptance and embrace of the indoors that makes us yearn for a slow, long cooking process, something to which we can dedicate our evening and feel totally alright. When there is no reason to go outside, it’s really best to ensure that your time inside is as warm and cozy as can be. This past weekend I was going to relax, take my time, and enjoy the process of cooking something soothing.

Well, at least that was the plan. The stars were not aligned for the relaxing aspect of my grand scheme. You see, the cork in my wine bottle was the least cooperative bugger. I had left the wine-opening for when my meat was browning, assuming that the nearly 15 minutes before the wine was to be added was more than enough time to open a measly bottle of wine. How wrong I was. After nearly triggering the smoke alarm, setting off spice bottle dominoes resulting in a smash of glass and bay leaves about the floor, and the haphazardly abstract spotting of nearly every inch of Andrew’s kitchen with wine after I realized that the only way to lure the wine out of its bottle was to force down that stubborn cork, only then was the wine was introduced to the pot with nary a moment to spare. Oh, and I forgot to add the flour when I was supposed to, but that was the least of my worries.

Yet despite the unforeseen complications in an otherwise simple recipe, the meal achieved its ultimate goal. My fears about the late flour addition were quelled once I drew the pot from the oven and removed the lid, as the deep-burgundy color immediately cast its spell and calmed me down. The meat itself had taken on the color of the wine, and its complexity and depth was visible to the naked eye. And so the thaw began.

That’s why this sort of cold calls for a certain something, a hearty meal slow-cooked in a heavy pot, the elements of which are all substantial in their own regard. Hunks of beef, cast iron, a deep red wine – now these, my friends, are the makings of a real winter feast.

When the weather is chilly enough to tempt you indoors for days at a time, I think the best bet is to get at something that warms you from the inside, that has the ability to return feeling to the depths of your body, even those that you feared were done for until the first signs of spring. Something that will make you feel rejuvenated, renewed, and warmed throughout body and mind. Mother nature, with her seemingly vengeful force, can’t even mess with that.

Jacques Pepin’s Beef Stew in Red Wine Sauce

Adapted from Food & Wine Magazine, April 2007

For the wine, I used a 2004 Bordeaux that I found on sale in the grocery store. Jacques recommends one from the southern Rhone valley. Whatever wine you choose, make sure it’s a good one; since the recipe calls for no broth or water, it is the only liquid you’ll be using. The original recipe calls for only 15 each of the onions, carrots and mushrooms, but I personally prefer more vegetables. If you choose to add more, you may need to account for this by adding more water to the pan in Step 7. I served our stew over polenta that I had cooked with garlic, onions and chicken broth. And, of course, a hunk of crusty bread.

2 pounds lean beef chuck
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion, about one medium onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon flour
1 bottle of red wine
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
20 cipollini or pearl onions, peeled
20 cremini mushrooms, washed
20 baby carrots
5 ounces cured salt pork (bacon can be substituted)
1/4 cup water
Dash of sugar
Chopped parsley for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Remove visible hunks of fat from beef and cut into about 10 pieces (more or less depending on how big you want the pieces)

3. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron pot. Arrange the meat in one layer in the pot, and season it with salt and pepper. Cook on top of the stove over high heat for about 8 minutes, making sure to brown the meat on all sides.

4. Add 1 cup of finely chopped onion and 1 tablespoon of finely chopped garlic to the pot. Cook over moderate heat for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add 1 tablespoon of flour. Mix in well so that the flour doesn’t form lumps (since I forgot to do this at the right time I just sprinkled the flour in so I was sure it wouldn’t clump. My fear was that the flour taste wouldn’t have a chance to cook off and would taint the stew, but the wine is such a strong enough flavor that it didn’t sour the dish). Stir in 1 bottle of red wine. Add 2 bay leaves, a sprig of fresh thyme, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Stir well and cover.

5. Place the pot in the oven and continue to cook for about 1 1/2 hours; the meat should be soft and tender and the liquid properly reduced. The recipe can be prepared to this point up to a day ahead.

6. To make the lardons (if you don’t want to use these, omit this step and add a bit more olive oil to the skillet when browning the vegetables, after the water has evaporated), place the salt pork in 2 cups of water and bring to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce and simmer for about 30 minutes; drain. If bacon is being used, reduce the simmer time to about 8-10 minutes. Cut the pork into 1/2-inch slices and then cut the slices into 1-inch-wide lardons.

7. Combine the onions, mushrooms, carrots and lardons in a skillet with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1/4 cup of water and a generous dash each of sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes or until there should be practically no water left in the pan. Uncover and sauté over high heat until the vegetables are nicely browned.

8. Mix the vegetables and lardons into the stew. Add a little chopped fresh parsley, serve, enjoy and feel the warmth begin to return.


Anonymous said...

Shelby, this looks so delicious!

Anonymous said...

I'M HUNGRY!!! Bring some back to NY on the 15th, and then leave it at my house in Staten Island, and then when I get back from Baltimore I'll have some good food waiting for me. Deal? Deal!

SAF said...

Looks delish! Sounds like you had quite the fight with the wine, but it was well worth it from the looks of the stew. Great post! Though I think I'd appreciate it more if the weather hadn't gotten worse since you posted...

Stephen A. Weisberg said...

So I take it that you do eat meat now? Did you address that within the blog at any point? Meanwhile, I think I deserve to be part of one of these meals that you cook. I actually find it somewhat inconsiderate that I haven't received an invite. Finally, Mike Huckabee does not believe in photosynthesis...its true.