It is no secret that I am obsessed with fall. The leaves, the apple cider, and not to mention the two holidays that make it socially acceptable to stuff your face with candy (Halloween) and the best food in the world (Thanksgiving).
The food that sums up a chilly fall day good feeling is stew. Stews are far superior to soup in my opinion for fall. Stews are chunkier and more filling first of all. Second of all, the flavors seem to be more robust and developed than soups because they cook for longer periods of time and have more ingredients.
The best stews have perfectly cooked vegetables and meat. The vegetables are the simpler of the two. Meat and its preparation is a science.
Maillard browning was introduced earlier with Bruschetta and is the main reaction in the cooking of meat. As a brief review, Maillard browning is a reaction that generates the roasted, nutty, or “savory” flavors we associate with coffee, chocolate, toast, meat, and browned butter. It requires sugar and protein, both of which are readily available in meat! The sugar component comes from glycogen in the meat. Glycogen is a carbohydrate that only makes up about 1% of the meat. Protein, however is a huuuuge percentage of the meat (not counting water which is the highest percentage by far).
When you add heat with these two components, browning magic happens, and wonderful flavors and smells start to waft up toward your nose. This is optimized with a dry environment. That’s why meat browns more readily and evenly in a dry pan versus one with liquid like stock or water in the bottom of it. That’s also why when you deglaze a pan, you need to make sure the meat is sufficiently browned before adding that wine.
Another big part of cooked meat that makes it different from raw is the effect on tissue softening. A tender filet mignon is definitely something different than a cut of meat in the butcher case. There are many different types of proteins that make up an animal’s muscle. The main proteins we are interested in, however, are connective tissue proteins. Collagen, reticulin, and elastin are all responsible for holding together the larger structural proteins. These proteins are fibers that are destroyed when heat is added. Think of it like strings of muscle melting. When those fibers melt, the structure of the meat begins to fall apart, and the meat becomes tender.
That saying “it’s so tender it falls apart in my mouth” when people talk about perfectly cooked meat is not an exaggeration. The meat is no longer being held together by structural proteins!
And there you go! The basics of meat and what makes it so amazing and mouthwatering after it’s cooked.
Also, fun fact of the day, collagen gets thicker and more cross-linked as time goes on. That’s why veal is so prized and older cattle are tough.
Fall Stew (with some spring vegetable appearances)
Adapted from Food 52
2 pounds beef (or veal), cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons Olive Oil
3 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, diced finely for brunoise
1 medium carrot, cut into small pieces for brunoise
1 celery stack, cut into small pieces for brunoise
4 garlic cloves, minced finely for brunoise
2 bay leaves
1/3 cup dry white wine
3 ½ cups vegetable or chicken stock, hot
15 ounces baby carrots, cut lengthwise in half
15 ounces frozen peas (or fresh, if you happen to be making this in the spring)
1 parsnip, cut into small pieces
2 medium leeks, just the white part, sliced thin
8 medium potatoes, preferably Russet or another high starch potato, peeled and cut into medium size pieces
3 teaspoons chili powder
Lots of salt
1. Season the meat with some salt and 1 teaspoon of chili powder. Set aside.
2. Prep all of the vegetables for the brunoise. (Brunoise is a fancy term for specialized knife cuts. It is also the vegetable basis—onion, carrot, celery normally—of most culinary dishes and sets of the flavor of everything. It is a very classical French practice.)
3. In a Dutch oven (or a very heavy, large pan with a tight fitting lid), melt the butter and the olive oil. Add the brunoise vegetables (celery, carrot, onion, garlic) and bay leaves. Cook for 3 minutes or so, until the onion is translucent.
4. Add the meat to the pan and brown on all sides. If your vegetables have released too much moisture, your meat will not brown properly. Brown your meat in a separate pan and transfer to the stew pot. Try to avoid this so that those wonderful meat flavorings that stick to the bottom of the pan can be incorporated into your stew easily!
5. Deglaze the pan with the white wine. Stir with a wooden spoon to keep the meat from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Let the wine reduce completely (aka cook until there is hardly any wine left in the pan).
6. Add the hot stock to 2/3 of the heat of the meat. Season with salt and the remaining chili powder (If desired. Omit the remaining chili powder if you want the vegetables to really be the main flavor of the stew).
7. Cook with the lid on for about 2 hours over low heat, or until meat is very tender. Stir the stew from time to time adding more stock if the liquid level falls below 2/3 of the height of the meat.
8. While the meat and brunoise is cooking, prep the remaining vegetables. Keep the cut potatoes submerged in water following their prep to keep them from browning. (A super interesting enzymatic reaction that will be explained in the future)
9. Add the rest of the vegetables except for the peas to the stew and cook for about 10 more minutes with the lid on. I had to add the rest of the stock to keep the liquid level at about the right place. Make sure not to add more stock so that the liquid covers the vegetables and meat, however, because the starch from the potatoes should be working to thicken the stock.
10. Add the peas and cook for about 5 minutes without the lid, or until the potatoes are completely done.
11. Fish out the bay leaves and discard. Season with more salt and pepper, and serve hot.
Enjoy your wonderful fall stew! I just know you’ll do me proud by eating it in front of Hocus Pocus, by a window depicting the fall season with orange leaves, and while burning an apple pie candle from Bath & Body Works.
As a side note, this stew freezes well so that you can enjoy vegetables in the winter too!