Wednesday, November 17, 2010

One great beef stew: Take a Thanksgiving breather

Between the magazines, the cooking shows, the food Web sites and -- yes, we're guilty -- the newspapers, it's easy to get caught up in Thanksgiving panic.

Make it bigger! Make it fancier! Make it the most special Thanksgiving of all time! If you're not milling your own flour for pie crusts, you're not going to have The Best Thanksgiving Ever.

You know what? Thanksgiving comes every year. It came last year, it will come next year, and it will be fine this year.

Maybe it's a good time to step back and make a simple dish, something earthy and comforting. Something satisfying with no loaded expectations attached.

I found this Slow Cooker Beef Stew in the most recent issue of Cook's Country magazine. Like all of America's Test Kitchen recipes, it has a fussy touch or two. But nothing difficult -- I put it together one morning before I left for work, and was rewarded by coming home to a satisfying dinner on a chilly, rainy night.

One of the wrinkles is a great tip for slow-cooker fans: Use Minute tapioca as a thickener for slow cooker sauces. Unlike flour slurries or cornstarch, it won't break down in the heat. The method of wrapping the vegetables in foil and placing them on top of the cooker keeps the vegetables from getting too soft and lets you season them separately. And stirring in the peas at the end keeps them green and appetizing.

As always, I made changes: I skipped the parsnips because my husband doesn't like them (pity -- I love their sweet flavor), and I used stew beef from Gilcrest Natural Farms. Cutting your own chuck roast would be cheaper, but would take a bit more time. Instead of a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, I used a healthy squirt from a tube of paste.

It all turned out just fine. And so will Thanksgiving.

Slow-Cooker Hearty Beef Stew

From Cook's Country, December/January issue.

5 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 to 4 onions, peeled and diced

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

2 cups low-sodium chicken or beef broth

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 bay leaves (optional)

2 tablespoons Minute tapioca

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces (peels left on)

1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme (I was out, so I used dried herbs de Provence)

2 cups frozen peas, rinsed until partly thawed

Pat beef dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. (If using prepared stew beef, cut into bite-size pieces.) Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Cook half the beef until well browned all over, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to slow cooker. Repeat with additional 1 tablespoon oil and remaining beef.

Add onions, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and cooked 6 to 8 minutes, until softened and a little browned. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring often, until paste begins to darken, about 2 minutes. Stir in broth, soy sauce and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Add to beef in the slow cooker. Stir in the tapioca.

Toss the carrots, parsnips, potatoes, remaining 1 tablespoon oil, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Spread out a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Pile the vegetables on one side of the foil, fold over and crimp edges to seal. Place the packet in the slow cooker on top of the beef mixture. (This was the only place I had trouble -- make sure your packet will fit in the slow cooker and stay sealed to hold in the steam. I ended up using a second piece of foil to seal it.)

Cover the slow cooker and cook on high for 6 to 7 hours or on low for 10 to 11 hours. Uncover and remove the foil packet to a bowl or cutting board. Discard the bay leaves if you spot them. Open the packet and pour all of the vegetables and any cooking liquid to the slow cooker, stirring to mix it all in. Cover and heat about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas 5 to 10 minutes before serving.