This weekend I made stew. Steaming hot, thick and meaty, spotted with bites of carrots, potatoes and chestnuts. Can you say fall? Though the stew was absolutely delicious, and the effects of comfort food are wonderful and reliable, my favorite part of the whole experience was the method used. My lovely friend Jerry, with whom I collaborated on this delicious adventure, is – with me – a devotee of the noble Slow Cooker. Not to be confused with the slow food movement, to which I dedicated my last post, the slow cooker is an appliance. Nor, however, should one discredit this method of preparation as antithetical to any aspect of that movement just because it is so convenient and, well, electric. In fact, for this recipe, all of our ingredients (save chestnuts, which a woman at the green market brusquely pointed out are not grown locally) are from the local farmers’ market or are organically produced by Whole Foods.
The slow cooker is truly an excellent invention. If it is not possible, in this time of your life, to sit around the stove all day long, stirring a bubbling pot until dinnertime, the slow cooker can do the work for you. I find it particularly helpful during the week, when a bit of chopping in the morning or the night before is all you need to ensure a hot meal when you return home from work. In the case of this weekend, I was in New York, and had no intention to sit around my friend’s apartment all day. We told several friends to show up at 7 for dinner, then left the house and did the same.
In my experience, there are two different kinds of slow cooker recipes. The first is emblematic of the cooking of the 1970s, when the machine first arrived on the scene. These recipes usually call for only 3 to 5 ingredients, and often involve a canned Campbell’s soup of some kind. Though these are for the slow cooker, they are not Slow Food. The gummy glop of salty paste that slurps out of the soup may be very easy when faced with the alternative of slowly caramelizing vegetables, reducing fresh cream infused with herbs, and pureeing the aromatic mixture into a soup, but which option would you prefer to eat? The recipes in some slow cooker cookbooks are simple and fast, but the results they impart have given the appliance a bad reputation for bland, mushy food with an ‘off’ aftertaste.
Not to worry – there is also a library of cookbooks featuring slow cooker recipes that do not compromise flavor to save a few minutes in the kitchen. And I do mean a few minutes – the slow cooker is nothing if not a time-saver. Some of my favorite reference manuals are: Not your Mother’s Slow Cooker Recipes, the Williams-Sonoma slow cooker cookbook, and 150 Slow Cooker Favorites. I also just picked up The Gourmet Slow Cooker, and will let you know how it tests out. These books are characterized by the use of fresh ingredients and a bit more thought about the importance of seasoning and taste. By taking the time to brown meat on the stove before you put it in the slow cooker or stirring in some fresh herbs at the end of the process, you can boost the flavor of the dish ten-fold!
Now for the stew. This recipe is adapted from two different recipes in the Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker: Recipes for Entertaining book. Jerry and I mixed and mingled our favorite parts of each, and encourage you to swap in your favorite veggies for ours.
6 slices of thick-cut bacon
1/3 c. whole wheat flour
3 lbs. lean beef stew meat, cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups chopped and cleaned leeks
3-4 large carrots, cut in rounds (or 1 small bag of baby carrots)
1/2 lb. new potatoes (if large, clean skin and chop into large dice; if small, halve them)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
16 oz. can of chestnuts packed in water
2 cups beef broth
2 cups dry red wine
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
Chop the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces. Put bacon into a large skillet preheated over medium heat and cook, stirring, until the fat renders and the bacon begins to brown. Remove bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat in the pan. Put the bacon into the slow cooker insert.
Put the flour into a large sealable plastic bag or a bowl with deep sides. Season the flour liberally with salt and pepper; stir to distribute. Add the beef and toss to coat. Return the bacon fat to medium-high heat and add the floured beef in batches, taking care not to crowd the pan. The beef pieces should not be crammed together or they will not brown properly. Turn the pieces of beef to brown all over, then remove the beef to the slow cooker insert. If you want to save time here, you can distribute the bacon fat between two pans and do the meat batches simultaneously, or skip the browning altogether (though I find that it is worth it, flavor wise, to take the time to brown).
When the meat is done, take a look at the pan. If you have fat left in the pan, great, otherwise add a tablespoon of oil and let it get to temperature. Add the carrots and leeks to the pan, stirring to grab up the browned bits of meat and bacon on the bottom of the pan. Depending on how thick you cut your carrot slices, cook these veggies for 7-12 minutes, until the leeks are softened and the carrots are just beginning to get tender but still snap in the middle when you bite into them. Add veggies to the cooker along with the cut potatoes.
Stir the tomato paste, beef broth, wine and chestnuts into the stew until they are evenly distributed. Tuck the bay leaf into the liquid and place the lid on the slow cooker, and set the dial to low for 8 hours, or high for 4 hours. We used a 6 1/2-quart Cuisinart oval Slow Cooker for this recipe and it was probably at the limits of capacity (if the slow cooker is filled more than 3/4 full, the dish will cook unevenly). If you have a round slow cooker or a smaller-capacity one, simply use a bit less meat.
When we returned from our city-trekking, the entire floor of the apartment building smelled divine. Our guests arrived momentarily and the feast was ready to go, with the kitchen already clean, no less! We served the stew with a delicious whole wheat sourdough boule that nicely sopped up the leftover liquid. A perfect fall meal!
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