Warming up with Beef Stew
We in the Bay Area really don’t experience the severe winters that are prevalent in the Midwest or the Northwest, where temperatures are often below freezing for days at a time. In fact, we seldom see temperatures below freezing for even a day. In spite of that, we often feel that the weather is cold and raw, especially when it rains nonstop for a week.
When our late-winter storms bring rain and temperatures in the 40s, nothing seems as warming as comfort food, which encompasses a variety of fare. One of my favorites is hearty beef stew; but instead of the traditional mix of potatoes, carrots and tomato-based stew, I prefer a more local flavor.
Using locally grown and crafted products is a great way to enjoy seasonally available foods: Napa and Sonoma, two of the world’s best wine-making regions, are just minutes away, as is one of the world’s largest vegetable-producing areas. We’ve all had great meals that combine regional products, and here’s another, a delicious beef stew with winter vegetables.
My recipe uses seasonal vegetables produced regionally and combines them with good-quality wine. Butternut squash and fennel go well together, and when you add a hearty red wine, such as Zinfandel or Syrah, to the mix, you create an unforgettable meal. The sweetness of the squash merging with the mild licorice flavor of the fennel simmered in the slightly acid, full-bodied red wine produces an outstanding combination of flavors and textures.
The next time you feel the need for comfort food, try this recipe and enjoy a Bay Area–style dish with ingredients produced right here in your own backyard.
Beef stew with winter vegetables
1 cup all-purpose flour
1½ pounds stew beef, cut into ½-inch cubes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 fennel bulb (white part only), sliced very thin
1 bottle hardy red wine (I prefer Zinfandel)
3 cups beef broth, heated and kept hot
1 cup apple juice
1 large sprig fresh thyme
1 large sprig fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
12 to 15 pearl onions (red or white), peeled and stem-end trimmed Salt and pepper to taste
Put the flour into a large plastic or paper bag and add the stew-beef cubes. Shake the bag vigorously a few times until the meat is coated with flour. Remove the beef to a platter, shaking the excess flour off the meat with your fingers.
Pour the oil into a heavy-bottomed stewpot large enough (6 to 8 quarts) to hold all the ingredients. Heat the oil over a medium-high heat until it’s hot but not smoking and add about a third of the meat. Make sure the pieces are not touching each other, as they should brown, not steam. Turn the stew pieces until they are browned on all sides. Remove to a platter and continue with the rest of the beef until all of it is browned.
Add the onions and the sliced fennel and stir to distribute evenly. Cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent, stirring frequently to release the brown bits from the bottom, or about 8 minutes. When the onions are done, return the beef to the pot along with any accumulated juices.
Pour in the entire bottle of wine and stir everything together. Add the hot beef broth and apple juice and again stir the ingredients. Add all the fresh herbs and turn the heat to high. When the stew starts to boil, adjust the heat low enough to just maintain a simmer. Simmer until the beef is tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
When the beef is tender, add the diced squash and continue simmering, without covering, for 15 minutes. Check the squash by piercing it with a slender knife; if it pierces easily, it’s done. If the squash is not done, continue cooking, checking every 5 minutes until done. When the squash is done, add the pearl onions and simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Taste the stew and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the herb stems and serve the beef stew hot. Serves 6 to 8.
—By Roy Creekmore