Saturday Dinner: Beef stew with quick polenta

Saturday is when I typically put together the “Meal of the Week.” If I’m feeling good, this is the dinner I try hardest on. Not that weekday meals don’t get effort, but generally they are assembled from the freezer with a stop at Wegmans if I need some fresh produce. Saturday dinner starts with an early morning trip to the Central New York Regional Market and/or Wegmans with my daughter (who will be seven months next week) for the ingredients. For the most part, I have a plan in mind. Sometimes, I fly by the seat of my pants, buy a bunch of stuff and see what I can come up with.

None of that happened yesterday. I’ve been sick all week, so whatever was going to happen for dinner needed to happen with little fanfare at grocery.

Late in the morning, I decided I wanted stew. I had purchased stew beef earlier in the week with the plans to make it one night, but the aforementioned cold (and a related illness that hit The Wife) reduced my dinners to defrosted soup and store-bought soup (thumbs up to Wegmans’ Chicken and Dumplings).

I had everything in the house for a decent stew but onions. Late in the morning, I shuffled off to Wegmans to pick one up, as well as whatever base was going to hold the stew up. While wandering the store, I grabbed some mushrooms, leeks and instant polenta (as well as coffee at a nearby Tar-bucks, or a Starbucks inside of a Target). And then, there was dinner:

Beef Stew with Polenta
Adapted from Epicurious.com

  • 3 tb oil blend (I used 2 parts canola, 1 part extra-virgin olive oil)
  • 1# stew beef, trimmed to bite-sized cubes
  • 1/2 cup searing flour (my own blend…1 cup flour, 1 tb coarse sea salt, 1 tsp white pepper)
  • one small or medium cooking onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, trimmed, diced and leaves reserved
  • 1 large leek, washed and chopped into thumb-width chunks
  • 8 oz. white mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 4 cups beef liquid (I used one can of Swanson’s Beef Broth and topped the rest off with Wegmans’ beef culinary stock)
  • 2 dry bay leaves
  • Liberal sprinkling of herbes de provence (I make my own blend, which I’ll discuss shortly)
  • 8 ounces of instant polenta or coarse grain cornmeal
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup of parmagiano reggiano
  • salt
  • pepper
  1. Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the bottom of the pan is clearly to hot to touch, add the oil. Toss the meat with the searing flour to coat the meat white. When the oil shimmers, add the meat. Brown on all sides, 5-6 minutes.
  2. Add the onions and garlic. Stir to mix, so that the onion get contact with the bottom of the pan. Stir occasionally for the next 7-8 minutes, so that you have a good bit of grease worked up and the onions are soft.
  3. Add the wine and deglaze the pan. Use a good, heavy wooden spoon to scrape the stuck-on bits of food from the pan’s bottom. Cook long enough for the wine to disappear.
  4. Add the rest of the veggies and stir to mix. Saute for 2 minutes.
  5. Add the liquid, a liberal sprinkling of kosher or sea salt, fresh ground pepper, herbs and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for about 60 minutes. Check in on the pot every 15 minutes or so and stir. If the stew has lost too much liquid, add enough water to partially cover.
  6. Test the gravy at this point for flavor. If you need salt, add it now.
  7. Partially uncover the pan and allow to cook for another 30-40 minutes.
  8. With about 10-15 minutes to go in the stew, take a large, heavy saucepan and bring 4 cups of vegetable stock and 1 tb of salt to a boil.
  9. Using a flat whisk, mix the polenta into the broth, little by little. Stir continuously for three minutes, not allowing the mixture to settle or burn. Add the parmagiano reggiano. Stir for another three minutes. When the polenta can be stirred in the pan and unstick cleanly from the walls, remove it from the heat and let sit for two minutes.
  10. Using a large, flat spatula, remove the polenta from the pan to a large, warmed dinner plate. Allow to sit.
  11. Serve the stew hot over the polenta.

Now, had I thought about this in advance, I would have made the polenta the night before. I love cold polenta and how the dryness from an evening of refrigeration would reduce it to a crumbly mix.

Dinner went over well with The Wife, though I think my herbes de provence mix didn’t go well this time. I mix my own batch of herbs and this one is a little heavy on the fennel seed. I think I need to balance it off with rosemary or parsley to temper the strong bite from the fennel.

Tendria Chorizo!

Apologies. About all I can do in Spanish is order dinner. Beyond that, it’s hit or miss.

Pastor sliced from the spit at La Hacienda

The Wife and I went to Las Vegas in Summer 2009. As you’ll see in my favorite restaurant links, we did a lot of eating. This is how I travel, really. I’m less interested in the sights. Weeks in advance, I start getting myself ginned up for the restaurants. It could very well be the reason I topped out at 330 pounds that winter. I digress…

Traveling from The Strip to my cousin’s house in Northeast Las Vegas meant driving East Lake Mead Boulevard, an interesting collective of commercial development, local casinos, poverty and the upper middle class development that came with the housing bubble. Along the way between, Mike’s gated community and the excess of Las Vegas Boulevard, were an assortment of meat stores, bakeries and restaurants that catered to the Mexican population in that area. One of those stops was La Hacienda.

***

Mike said he had always wanted to try the little taco stand on the corner of Christy and Lake Mead, but he didn’t want to go in alone. Frankly, I couldn’t blame him. The outside has all the charm of a crack house. Earlier that week, Mexican gangs had committed a series of armed robberies along this stretch of road, I couldn’t really fault him if he was leery about stopping.

The menu was all in Spanish, but wildly diverse. Mike had a lengua torta and a couple of tacos. I had pastor tacos and my first taste of chorizo. The torta, which was less than $4, came wrapped in grease-soaked wax paper. Inside was about eight ounces of heaven. A half-pound of sausage was grilled with onions and served with queso fresco and an avocado slice. It was…beautiful.

***

The weekend we returned to Syracuse, I hit the road looking for chorizo. My first stop was the gateway of Syracuse’s Southwest side–Price Chopper in Western Lights. No luck. The closest was something that claimed to be chorizo but looked more like dried Hilshire Farms kielbasa. Next stop, Wegmas Dewitt, figuring that this had the largest ethnic food selection in town. Wrong. Their chorizo was authentic enough, but $9.99 a pound. No thanks. I realized what I had to do.

My trip to Nojaim Brothers on Gifford and West Streets was not my first. I had been a regular visitor while interning in Armory Square. The store had a KeyBank branch, where I could cash paychecks. Today, I was actually looking for food. Paul Nojaim should be applauded for serving a community where no one else will go. His store sits perched in one of Syracuse’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. And, beside the chicken feet and pigs feet, they stock chorizo.

This story leads me to dinner from last week. I had some chorizo in the freezer itching to be cooked, as well as some potatoes on the precipice of growing eyes. Together, they made this marvel, adapted from one at Blue Kitchen:

Patatas Riojanas

1/4 cup olive oil (I like Trader Joe’s house brand and Goya)
1 small onion, diced
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced into bite-sized chunks (don’t peel these)
1/2 red bell pepper, cleaned and diced
4 ounces Spanish chorizo, sliced into pinky-finger width pieces
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup dry white wine (I used Vendange Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a solid mass market California wine that provides nice flavor. If the SB isn’t available, go with pinot grigio)
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup water
salt and pepper (this dish needs a lot of salt)

Add oil to a saute pan or dutch oven on medium heat. When oil begins to shimmer, add onion and cook until it softens (3 min). Add potatoes and stir well. Cook until lightly browned (7 min). Be sure to stir periodically.

Add red bell pepper and chorizo. Stir occasionally and cook for three minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant (45 sec.). Add paprika, crushed red pepper flakes, bay leaf, wine, stock and water. The liquid should top the potatoes.

Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover the pan and cook until potatoes are tender (10 min.).

This will serve two people. A nice crusty bread goes well with this for mopping the liquid.

**

The Wife dislikes bell peppers, but found that she was missing the sweetness they bring to the dish. I cook with sea salt, which was probably a mistake. The next time, I’ll use kosher salt so I don’t find myself dumping tons of salt (and getting the accompanying dirty looks from The Wife) on the dish.

What is this?

Apologies if this post sounds like my seventh-grade “What did I do last summer” essay.

My earliest memories take place in a specific kitchen. Rewind to the early 1980s on the Syracuse’s Northside. My maternal grandmother, Concetta Mancini, hosted the big dinners in her turn-of-the-century colonial on Mary Street (Remember that Italians, like most Catholic families, are matrilineal. Everything goes back to the mother’s side of the family. There are exceptions, but this is the general rule.). Christmas and Thanksgiving were at my aunt Carolyn’s, but the dinners that mattered were here. I still remember the flecked countertops, the big stove with a pot of something simmering (the stove was always heating something), the window over the sink that looked out at the driveway…and the food.

Our family hails from the Molise region of Italy, more specifically Campobasso. My father’s family is from Ferrazzano; my mother’s was from different places in and around Campobasso. I have never been to Italy and know little about this region. What I can tell you is how my grandmother’s cooking influenced me.

Sarah Vowell, in Partly Cloudy Patriot, writes that it was years before she learned that not everyone ate a potato with every meal. It was quite a shock to me that not everyone ate pasta two or three times a week. And, don’t get me started on where the sauce came from. A jar? What do you mean? Your grandfather on your father’s side doesn’t grow the tomatoes so your grandmother and mother can crush and seed them?

Labor Day weekend meant two things in my house–the start of the school year and gagging. And the two were not related. I don’t know if you have been around tomatoes being crushed and strained, but it is not fun. Worse was the smell of a rotten tomato that slipped through the QA team of mom and grandma. They would run the tomatoes through an electric tomato crusher, which separated the seeds from the pulp, leaving behind the makings of the next year’s sauce and a wretched smell.

If Labor Day was our annual rite of a season’s end, then New Year’s Eve marked the beginning of the cooking calendar. New Year’s was held at my house each year and was “our holiday.” And, until the day my mother died in 1997, we had the same menu. On the Eve: Fried smelt, red clam sauce over angel hair, shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped scallions, cipollinis, roasted red peppers (which were roasted on our back deck for a number of years), broccoli, baccala, and an assortment of cold salads, many with fish. On the Day: French onion soup, prime rib, baked potato and a bunch of vegetables of which I had no particular interest. Easter had nothing to do with chocolate. Sure, I got my share, but for me it was about the ponzat (sp), or stuffed veal leg breast. And on, and on.

By my junior year of college, I was living in an apartment and cooking for myself. My experiments went mostly wrong, but by senior year I was making my own sauce and freezing it and am certain that I was the only person to ever borrow the RA’s hammer for the purpose of pounding veal for scallopini.

Today, through all of it, cooking is a therapeutic release. I can’t fix a damn thing. I can’t change my car’s oil. I’m useless with a golf club. But, you give me a couple of hours notice and I’ll assure you that you will eat well. It’s my art. It’s my release. It’s what gets me through. And I’m happy to share it.

%d bloggers like this: