It was because the neighbors made such a fuss coming over when my mother cooked stew and asking for the recipe that the stew grew larger than life. Indeed, the potatoes and carrots saturated with gravy were pure comfort. I’d line them up on my plate and mash them into piles, melting margarine on top to make them richer. My mother loved the onions but I didn’t and I was neutral on the celery. The meat was a crapshoot, some pieces were fall apart tender but the threat of hidden gristle or an endlessly chewy bit made each bite suspect.
She browned the meat first.
She used cooking wine from the supermarket mixed with bullion cubes for broth. She must have cooked it over the week-ends when she had more time. I was riveted watching her discard shards of congealed fat from the surface of the chilled pot. Once defatted, she’d set the pot on a low flame and turn her attention to salad.
I don’t know the story behind the recipe, or if she took pleasure in the slow simmer that scented the house or if she thought “Damn I make good stew.” Did she sometimes think she was badass raising her girls, or feel smart and alluring and wish someone might fall for her because she could juggle and cope and cook and was brimming with love? Did she think“I am special”
If she did, she didn’t let on.
Did she think I am special?
When I make stew I use good red wine, homemade broth, carefully trimmed pasture-raised beef and I load on the vegetables. Lighter, brighter, quicker cooking is more my way, but when I do make stew I’m filled with hope.
My stew can never match the one that fed the chubby awkward girl who watched her mother’s every move, searching for a sign.
Stiffness and incremental loss of stability mixed with depression coalesced into the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Year after year pieces of her disappeared. I’d sit with her, lining up food on her plate, mashing it to pieces, feeding her, watching her every move.
Now, cooking and eating her stew to write these words, the girl and the dutiful aging daughter merge. We watched and waited, hoping to find what wasn’t there. Her meat and potatoes couldn’t fill me. They didn’t fill her.
My meat and potatoes taste of a dream.
3 # Chuck steak
1 large onion, peeled and cut in half
2 stalks celery, chopped into small pieces
1/2 # Crimini mushrooms
3 c. homemade broth
1 c. red wine
bay leaf, thyme, 4-5 garlic cloves, salt, pepper
2 T tomato puree
1/2 # carrots—peeled and cut into large chunks
1/2 # each: Japanese turnips, shallots—peeled and left whole
1# potatoes—peeled and cut into 2” chunks
Use a thick Chuck steak rather than the pre-cut stew meat. Trim away thick veins of gristle and the thickest of the fat. Sear the steak in a super hot skillet sprinkled with a big pinch of salt—approx 3-4 minutes per side—long enough to brown the surface of the meat. Move to a cutting board and let rest. In the same skillet sear the peeled onion until there are bits of char on the surface. Set onion aside. Sear mushrooms until they give up their water. Set aside. Deglaze pan with wine, scraping up any browned bits. Reduce wine to around 3/4 c.
Preheat oven to 300
Cut seared meat into 2” pieces.
Put onion, celery, mushrooms, red wine, bay leaf, thyme, tomato puree and broth in an
oven-proof stew pot. Bring to a boil. Add beef and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. The broth should not quite cover the beef.
Partially cover pot and transfer to oven for an hour and a half.
Add carrots, turnip, potatoes and another sprinkle of salt and pepper. Add a little more broth if needed. Roast, partially covered for another hour or until the vegetables and meat are fork tender.