This blog post was written by Jack Moore, SCRC Research Services Student Assistant. Jack has a double major in Political Science and Philosophy from Christopher Newport University. He is currently working on his Master’s in Biodefense at George Mason University.
Welcome to Cookbook Corner, a series where I will be taking recipes from the old cookbooks we have here at the Special Collections Research Center and testing them to see how they hold up for a standard home cook. Sometimes ingredients fall out of fashion or cooking methods change, and I’m excited to adapt to the challenges these hurdles can provide. For this week, I took a look through Mary Savage’s Savory Stews: Captured, begged, and borrowed recipes for stews – from around the block and around the world (1969). Though not generally magnificent visual marvels, stews are hearty and can be absolutely packed with flavor. They can be meals entirely on their own, and often don’t have a particularly demanding cooking process. Savage says that stews have two key ingredients: “Time and Love.” Stewing is a long-slow simmering process, it takes time. And the love is what ingredients and effort you’re willing to put in to make it better, customizing each recipe as you prefer. I picked out the Basic Beef Stew, to give me a baseline recipe with plenty of room to experiment and add to it once I’d tried it.
In reading through the recipe, I saw it called for an open flame. Now I’ve never been a boy scout, so I don’t know how to cook over a campfire, but my best friend Aidan has a gas stove, and that’s certainly close enough for me. It also comes with the added benefit of having Aidan be my sous chef, and since this stew recipe serves 8-10 people, there is plenty of prep work. 2 large green peppers, 2 cloves of garlic (we used 4, and I might even recommend going up to 8 cloves as one can never have too much garlic), 6 stalks of celery, 2 bunches of carrots, and cubing the full 3 pounds of beef shoulder. For reference, this cut is commonly called beef chuck, and stewing helps tenderize the meat as it is tougher than more popular cuts of steak. Finally, there are two large onions.
There are a few tricks for cutting onions without crying: Making sure they’re as cold as possible, cutting the root last, cutting them in cold water, even lighting a match beforehand could help if you’re really desperate. Unfortunately, every time I go to cut onions, I forget every piece of onion related knowledge I have, and I start crying like I’m watching the end of Marley and Me. This was no different, and luckily, I’d saved the onions for last. By the time I’d thinly sliced both onions I had to give my eyes a break in another room.
When my eyes recovered enough to continue, the process was very simple from there. Toss the cubed beef with flour in a paper bag (we used a large Tupperware container), sear the beef in the pot, then add everything except the peppers and carrots. Bring the whole thing to a light boil then drop the heat and let it simmer for two hours. After the two hours, add the peppers and carrots, simmer another 45 minutes, and you’re good to go. Most of the cooking time requires no effort besides an occasional check to make sure the kitchen isn’t on fire. However, start the recipe in the afternoon if you want to eat any time before 8 pm. Aidan was cranky by the time the stew was ready because we started a little late, (I had a late lunch, sorry Aidan). Once it was done, we served it up with sourdough bread and potatoes and absolutely demolished it. We both went back for seconds, and Aidan had thirds (helping his mood significantly). We both liked the stew, but there were definitely things we’d improve or change for ourselves.
An issue that both Aidan and I commented on was the lack of seasoning and spices throughout the recipe. For the beef, it’s a tablespoon of seasoned salt for up to three pounds of meat and a cup of flour. For everything else, all of the flavor comes from the vegetables and the onion soup packs. I would add paprika, garlic powder, and cracked pepper to the beef before searing it as the flavor of the stew was good, but nothing extraordinary. It was quite helped by the potatoes we roasted, and the sourdough bread Aidan had on hand. However, I didn’t mind the simplicity of the stew as it fits with what I was looking for out of the recipe. It was relatively low effort for two people and could work for serving 8 people or prepping meals for the week. It saved quite well, and I had it two days later for lunch. Pairing it with a good sourdough really completes the dish.
Keep in mind that the recipe is a basic beef stew, it provides a framework for us to adjust and tailor however we like. What we can add to it is the love Mary Savage described in the introduction. Aidan and I both love garlic and thought more seasoning would improve the stew, so we’d add eight cloves of garlic and season our beef accordingly. I don’t like green peppers, so I would switch those out for yellow peppers, and I would dice them rather than quartering them. If we really wanted to deepen the flavors, we could stew beef bones and use that broth instead of water. The options are endless, the only question is how much time and love we’re willing to put into our stews.
Photos by Jack Moore. Graphic created by Amanda Menjivar.
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