Beef stew is one of those meals that conjures many contrasting memories and emotions. At my core, I love it, as it evokes the warmth of hearth and home and the flicker of firelight when winter settles in and wraps us in frigid blankets of darkness and snow. It is more than comfort food; it is nourishment and life. We call it “hearty,” a word that literally means “of the heart.” It has sustained kings and peasants alike for countless generations. It is a simple and wondrous thing, but its beauty is marred by the cooked carrot.
The cooked carrot. Is there any more vile and revolting food? How could something so crunchy and sweet when raw, turn into such offensive mush when stewed? It is the turd in the punch bowl, the unwelcome boor at the dinner party, belching and smacking its lips while braying about the time it drank twelve beers and hooked up with a stripper named Clairette. If beef stew is to claim its rightful seat in the Pantheon of culinary classics, the carrot must go.
Fortunately, mother nature has provided an alternative that exceeds and excels on every level: the parsnip. This mysterious stranger of the produce aisle is unknown to many. They may ask, “is it like a turnip?” – that other root vegetable they’ve never tried. But it is neither turnip, nor carrot, nor potato. It is Parsnip, and it lifts a lowly beef stew from the hands of peasants and delivers it into the halls of the king.
This recipe not only replaces the carrot with the parsnip, but it includes two types of dried mushrooms: porcini and black trumpet. These fungi impart a beautiful earthy richness to the stew and should not be omitted. I include links to buy them from Amazon if you can’t find them locally (I get mine at Whole Foods). As a counterpoint to the mushrooms, this recipe calls for a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg. These spices add a touch of the exotic to a familiar dish. This is not a thick stew; it has a thin broth. I find this showcases the flavors better than one that has been thickened with flour. However, if your preference is for thick stew, simply melt 1/2 stick unsalted butter in a small pot, then whisk in 1/4 cup of flour. Cook this mixture (called a roux) for 5 minutes over medium-low heat, then stir into the stew.
As a final note, I want to address the subject of bouillon. If you’ve read my recipes, you’ll notice that I use bouillon quite a bit in stews. There was a time when I was a purist and would never consider using anything less than broth or stock. But Handan convinced me to try bouillon (the Turks use it a lot), and I have to admit, I’m sold on the idea. Not only does it give good flavor to certain dishes, but it is easier to keep on hand than store-bought stocks. Occasionally I will make homemade stocks, but for everyday cooking, I give my vote to bouillon. After trying several brands, I have settled on Berkley & Jensen Soft Beef Bouillon Cubes. They have by far the best flavor of any I’ve tasted. Since these cubes are bigger than most (14 grams each), you would need to substitute 2 of the Oxo/Knorr/Herb Ox cubes (which are about 6 grams) for each Berkley & Jensen cube. If you’re just not into bouillon, substitute beef stock for the water and add 1 1/2 teaspoons of table salt or 1 tablespoon of Diamond Kosher Salt or 1 3/4 teaspoons Morton’s Kosher Salt.
Let’s begin. (Printer-friendly recipe at the end of the post)
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 1/4 pound beef shoulder, cubed
- 1 large sweet onion, roughly chopped
- 1 large parsnip (up to 1/2 pound), diced
- 2 celery ribs, sliced
- 5 red potatoes (a little over 1 pound), skins left on and cubed
- 1 small handful dried porcini mushrooms, finely diced
- 1 small handful dried dried black trumpet mushrooms, finely diced
- 2 Berkley & Jensen Soft Beef Bouillon Cubes (or 4 of the smaller Oxo/Knorr/Herb Ox cubes)
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 5 cups water
Heat a cast iron pot or heavy dutch oven over medium high heat. When hot, add vegetable oil. When oil is hot, add beef and brown.
Add onions and cook for about 3-4 minutes, stirring often. Add parsnip and celery and cook another 2 minutes, stirring often.
Add potatoes and stir to combine.
Add mushrooms, bouillon, bay leaves, spices and water. Stir until bouillon is dissolved. Cover pot and simmer for 1 hour.
At this point, if you desire a thicker stew, melt 1/2 stick unsalted butter in a small pot, then whisk in 1/4 cup flour. Cook the roux for about 5 minutes over medium low heat, then stir into the stew and continue to cook until thickened.