What?? Yesterday I was sniffing the daffodils and wondering where I'd stashed the flip flops when winter all of a sudden roared back and blew all the camellias off of the bush. I went from thinking about what I could grill next (can you grill pork belly, I wonder? Or will it incinerate your grill in a fat-fueled inferno?) and whether or not I can convince my family that chard's stylish fuchsia affectations underscore its inherent desirability (how often do you get to eat food that loves pink-HOT pink, just like an eight-year-old?) to dreaming of long-simmered braises and stews.
As I stared at the criss-crossing muddy paw prints that marked every rug and every board of my hardwood floor last night, I yearned unsurprisingly for comfort food but I wanted something both old and new. And then I remembered a recipe for a beef stew I used to make in college from The Silver Palate Cookbook.
The Silver Palate Cookbook was the very first cookbook I ever bought. Although I was raised looking up recipes in both Julia Child and my high school's compendium of cream of mushroom soup recipes, The Stuffed Cougar (still available!), Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins' book marked my inauguration into adulthood, as a householder and as the arbiter of what went into my mouth. I learned to cook, or perhaps, was emboldened to cook by two of my roommate's boyfriends (one of whom didn't know the other was sleeping with his girlfriend), both diplomat brats from Northern Virginia who'd spent time growing up in places like Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. It was a watershed moment when one of them flipped open my cookbook and starting studding a big hunk of beef with slivers of garlic. I fell in love immediately--not with boy (I had other, more interesting, male distractions) but with the overwhelming, addictive perfume of fresh-cut garlic.
These guys were passionate about garlic and used it in large, extravagant quantities. They proselytized about its curative and aphrodisiacal properties (what twenty-year-old guy wouldn't?), but I think they were just in love with the sharp, heady flavor with which one tiny clove of garlic could infuse an entire dish. I was an instant, devout convert and I've never looked back.
One of the meals we whipped up all those years ago was an unusual Mediterranean stew that, although it had both cumin and chili powder in it, wasn't exactly Mexican (or straight-up Southwestern chili) and wasn't exactly Mediterranean, in the sense of Italian or Spanish, either, despite its green olives. It tasted vaguely Moroccan but I think what appealed to the three of us was precisely this ambient, indeterminate exoticism. It tasted new and made us feel sophisticated. We ate olives in our stew.
What made me go back to this recipe though, is not the atmosphere of foreign intrigue the stew seemed to engender (remember, these were diplomat kids and they were engaged in some fairly complex sexual shenanigans of their own), but its lingering, mahogany-brown lushness. The sweet little popping pearl onions cut the deep saltiness of the green olives, and the beef itself, instead of stewing down to stringy mush, retains instead its meaty structural integrity. Break out the Chianti and mop up the remains with a piece of good country bread, and sigh for your squandered youth, in all of its messy, alluring beauty.
The Silver Palate's Beef Stew with Cuminseed (isn't that charmingly anachronistic?)
- 2 c. unbleached flour
- 1 Tb. dried thyme
- 1 t. salt
- 1/2 t. freshly ground pepper
- 3 lbs. stew meat, cut in 1-inch cubes (The Belmont Butchery should be on your speed dial by now)
- 1/4 c. olive oil
- 1 c. red wine
- 1 1/2 c. beef broth (your call)
- 1 c. crushed tomatoes
- 2 Tb. ground cumin
- 1 t. chili powder
- 1 bay leaf
- 24 pearl onions (frozen are easiest)
- 6 garlic cloves, minced or put through a press
- 1/2 c. chopped Italian parsley
- 1 c. pitted and halved green olives
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Add the flour, thyme, salt and pepper to a one-gallon ziploc bag and shake to mix thoroughly. Add the beef cubes, a few at a time, and shake until well-coated but not gummy, transferring to a plate. Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the beef cubes and brown on all sides. Transfer to a clean, paper towel-lined plate.
Discard excess oil from pan. Add wine, tomatoes, and beef broth. Turn up heat and simmer, scraping up all the brown (and possibly burned) bits from the bottom of the pan. Then put the beef back in the pot, along with the cumin, chili and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer.
Cover, place pot in the oven and cook for about 1 1/2 hours or so, stirring occasionally. After one hour, add (still frozen) pearl onions and cook stew uncovered for another 15 minutes. Then throw in the garlic, parsley and olives and finish off for that last 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper; serve and sigh. Youth is indeed wasted on the young.