Even as I grew up and my tastes became a bit more sophisticated, and I tried other versions of braised beef dishes, they never really tickled my tastes buds. I can even remember tasting a well-executed Boeuf Bourguignon as a teen and feeling sort of lukewarm about it. I did a bit better with pot roasts in my twenties. I guess that's because the meat can more easily be separated from the mush that surrounds it in a pot roast. You can remove the roast from the muck and cut it separately.
I think part of it is I always preferred tender cuts of beef served rare. I always wanted a steak or roast beef and not a burger as a child (and don't get me started on meat loaf). Beef that had strong flavor and longer cooking requirement just never tasted quite as good. If I had a burger it had better be cooked less than what today's food fascists would ever advise you to cook for a child.
I had to ask myself, "What about a nice barbecued brisket? How about a nice slow-cooked bowl of chili? What about short ribs? That's long-cooked beef." So I think more about it and think that while a rare steak is still my preference over beef that's been cooked forever, maybe if I cooked beef forever in the right flavors, I would make a stew or pot roast that I really loved.
My first experiment was last year where I used a wine with an edge and sweet spices. I avoided the mushy vegetable problem by browning the vegetables first, then removing them, and only adding them in at the end of the cooking.
While in Italy I ate a wonderful beef stew that was nothing more than onions, tomatoes, and red wine. The flavors were perfect and there were no mushy bits of veggies clogging up the meat or the sauce. Potatoes and vegetables were on the side rather than turning to sludge in the stew.
It's December and winter braises are on everyone's mind, so I decided to try to imitate my Italian meal yet again.
I started with bacon. (Isn't that always the best way to start?) I doubt that's how they did it at the farm, but I'm American and in this country we believe everything is better with bacon! (Wave your flags now.)
I had about two pounds of beef. I cut a chuck roast into chunks. I could have bought stew meat already cut up, but it's cheaper to cut up a whole roast. Money was a big factor in this because I wanted to get the best quality, most local, most lovingly-raised beef possible. That would be the closest to the kind of beef I had at the farm. That kind of meat is going to be pricier. I save money where I can.
I also added some red pepper flakes, garlic, and oregano. Everything went into the oven for a little over two hours.
The result was a mouthwatering combo of flavors and fall-apart tender beef. Even the smell was irresistible. The long cooking mellowed out the flavor of the Chianti nicely. I served with with fried potatoes like we had at the farm along with a veggie mixture of mushrooms and spinach cooked in olive oil and garlic.
Chianti Beef Stew
- 2-3 pounds beef chuck, cut into chunks
- Salt and pepper
- 2 strips thick-cut, uncured bacon, cut into small pieces
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups Chianti wine
In a large saucepan or dutch oven, cook the bacon until crispy and fat has rendered. Remove bacon from pan and set aside. Try not to eat it all before the recipe is done. Pour off a tablespoon or two of fat if it makes you feel less guilty.
Add onions and red pepper flakes to the pot and cook until soft. Add garlic and cook for another minute.
Lightly sprinkle the beef with salt and pepper. Remove onions from the pot and add the beef. Cook until browned. It is a good idea to do this in two shifts as adding it all at once risks crowding and your beef will steam more than it browns.
Add onions back to the pot with the beef. Add the tomatoes, wine, and oregano and stir to combine well. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and place in the oven.
Cook for 2.25 hours. Sprinkle whatever reserved bacon bits you haven't already eaten over the top. Serve with potatoes.