I don’t mean to shock you, I mean, I do hope you’re sitting down for this, but it turns out that when I asked my husband to choose between a caramelized cabbage dish, mushroom tacos, or a beef stew whose ante had been upped with butter, bacon, Dijon, cognac and a splash of red wine as his ideal homemade Valentine’s meal, he chose the beef stew. I could hardly believe it either. I mean, between my delivered flowers, his cufflinks and the kid’s heart-shaped candies, I might have to mix things up next year just to rage against predictability.
This isn’t just any beef stew, however. This stew is fancy. It’s luxe and lush and so intensely flavored, if you’re anything like me, after one bite you’ll forget every crock pot attempt that yielded thin broths, tough meat, weak flavor and, always, unevenly cooked vegetables (potato mush and still-rubbery carrots, sigh), or at least I did. It will an excellent consolation prize for a winter you’re totally ready to be done with, pretty as it can occasionally be.
Comfort is indeed the central theme. The New York Times published this recipe one week after 9/11 as part of a piece by Regina Schrambling about the meditative aspects of long-cooking dishes with layers upon layers of flavor. These days, and in this city especially, there’s usually so little reason to cook. If you’re hungry, soup dumplings or Thai curry is always just a Seamless order away. But if you’re feeling hollow, Schrambling writes, you can bake pumpkin bread or molasses cookies; you can lose yourself inside a recipe for a while and build something delicious where you thought there wasn’t much at all. It’s the act of cooking, not the egg noodle-draped result, that feeds us.
One year ago: My Favorite Buttermilk Biscuits
Two years ago: Carrot Cake Pancakes
Three years ago: Spaghetti with Lemon and Olive Oil
Four years ago: Ginger Fried Rice
Five years ago: Whole Lemon Tart
Six years ago: Pasta Puttanesca + Broken Artichoke Hearts Salad
Seven years ago: For Beaming, Bewitching Breads [Breadmaking Tips]
Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew
Adapted, barely, from Regina Schrambling via The NYT
It probably goes without saying that if you’re no fan of Dijon, this isn’t your dish. While it mellows inside the stew, it still contains a staggering amount, not for the faint of heart. (Although, I believe you can easily halve the mustard volume and still make something spectacular.) If, however, you’ve been plagued by mediocre beef stews; if you, like me, wondered why they were regarded so warmly when you found effort upon effort so lackluster, this bold and rich take should be your new favorite dish. We served it over wide egg noodles and it was perfect.
A few notes: If you don’t eat pork, keep in mind that it’s used here a little bit as a background flavor but also as rendered fat to brown your meat in. Thus, if you’d like to skip it, just start with a tablespoon or two of butter or olive oil instead. The crisped bacon is never used in the dish (gasp!) but you’d better believe we sprinkled it over our salads. Do keep in mind that Dijon contains a fair amount of salt, as do cured pork products. The best way to keep the saltiness at bay is to use an unsalted beef stock and only lightly salt your meat before browning. If you don’t have Cognac, brandy is a good substitute. Schrambling calls for Pommery mustard in this dish, a extra-sharp mustard from Meaux, France based on an ancient recipe. I used a whole-grained Dijon instead, and recommend it if you, understandably, don’t live near a French grocery store. The recipe calls for 1/2 pound mushrooms but if you’re a mushroom fiend, as we are, I think you could easily use 3/4 pound or more. Finally, I entirely forgot to finish the dish with red wine and we didn’t miss what we didn’t know about. If you don’t have a bottle open, don’t fret it. This dish is good without it, too.
Serves 4 to 6; takes about 3 hours total
1/4 pound salt pork, pancetta or bacon, diced
1 large onion, finely diced
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, in 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Cognac (see Note)
2 cups unsalted beef stock
1/2 cup smooth Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons coarse Dijon or Pommery mustard (see Note)
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into half-moon slices
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/4 cup red wine (see Note)
Place salt pork in a Dutch oven or a large heavy kettle over low heat, and cook until fat is rendered. Remove solid pieces with a slotted spoon, and save for another use, like your salad, vegetables or, uh, snacking. Raise heat to medium-low, and add onion and shallots. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a large bowl.
If necessary, add 2 tablespoons butter to the pan to augment fat. Dust beef cubes with flour, and season lightly with salt and more generously with pepper. Shake off excess flour, and place half the cubes in the pan. Cook over medium-high heat until well browned, almost crusty, on all sides, then transfer to a bowl with onions. Repeat with remaining beef.
Add Cognac to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose. Add stock, smooth Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon coarse or Pommery mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 1/4 hours.
Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender. As they cook, heat 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté mushrooms until browned and tender. Stir mushrooms into stew along with remaining mustard and red wine. Simmer 5 minutes, then taste, and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.