I grew up eating beef stew mama prepared in her slow cooker. The beef was harvested from Angus cattle my grandfather raised. His cattle were all-natural grass fed beef, the kind of beef increasingly popular with chefs and “slow-food” minded people that prefer cattle that have not been corn-finished. Slow food is the opposite of fast food, and these disciples are concerned about the disappearance of local food traditions, people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.
Solely grass-fed beef is very meaty and flavorful, but can be tough and choosing the proper technique for cooking is important to coax out the beef’s tenderness. Sometimes Mama prepared stew with deer meat shot by my father or given to us by an uncle or a neighbor, instead of beef. I grew up calling it deer meat, and never called it venison until I went to culinary school. Regardless of what you call it, it is meaty, full-flavored, and lower in fat than beef, so it too, responds well to long slow cooking. Both the beef and venison stews were tender, rich hunks of meat bathed in dark brown gravy thickened with flour and flavored with a generous slug of my grandfather’s homemade muscadine wine. She’d make a big batch and we would enjoy it for several nights, each successive night providing a richer, fuller stew with the flavors increasingly mingled and married. She would often serve it with rice, potatoes, or buttery egg noodles. It was simple, satisfying country cooking.
My immediate family is not a family of farmers, but my grandparents were from the rural South and were young married adults during the Depression. Meme always hoarded flour and sugar in her attic and they not only raised a lot of their food, they also preserved a lot of their food. People that are used to having gardens, raising farm animals, or harvesting wild game from the land are aware of the amount of work that goes into producing food, and the amount of work it takes to get food on the plate. So nothing is wasted and to that end tough cuts of meat are simmered until tender and imminently edible.
This recipe is a marriage of my mama’s long cooked slow cooker stews and a traditional country stew I learned in France. Don’t be tempted to skip browning the meat. The resulting stew will be thin and tasteless. Browning the meat makes all the difference. Serve it the day of, or as mama did, over the course of a few days.
Slow Cooker Boeuf Bourguignonne
Serves 4 to 6
Never choose stew meat already in precut cubes. It’s more expensive and you have no idea if you’re getting, for example, leftover bits from the shoulder or rib-eye, two wildly different cuts that won’t cook at the same rate.
3 pounds lean rump roast, chuck pot roast, sirloin tip, top round, or bottom round, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 (750-ml) bottle red wine, preferably Pinot Noir
1 carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 stalk celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, coarsely chopped
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into lardons
2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more if needed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
21/2 cups beef stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium beef broth
Bouquet garni (5 sprigs of thyme,
4 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, 2 bay leaves, preferably fresh, 10 black peppercorns, tied together in cheesecloth)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces white button mushrooms, halved or quartered if large
To marinate the beef, place the cubes in a large glass or stainless steel bowl. Add the wine, carrot, celery, and onion. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Line both a baking sheet and a large plate with paper towels.
Remove the beef from the marinade and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Pat the meat dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade, reserving separately both the vegetables and the liquid.
To cook the beef, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to the prepared plate to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat from the pan. Decrease the heat to medium, add 2 tablespoons of the canola oil and heat until shimmering.
Season the beef with salt and pepper. Sear the beef in two or three batches without crowding until nicely browned on all sides, about 5 minutes; transfer to the prepared baking sheet when done. (For ease of removal later, wrap the beef in cheesecloth and tie with cotton butcher’s twine.) Set aside.
Add the reserved vegetables from the marinade and cook until they start to color, 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle on the flour and toss again to lightly coat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the flour turns brown, 2 to 3 minutes.
Transfer the vegetables and cheesecloth bound package of beef to the insert of a slow cooker. Add the reserved marinade liquid and enough stock to barely cover the meat. Add the bouquet garni, tomato paste, and garlic. Seal with the lid. Cook on high heat for 3 to 4 hours or low for 6 to 8 hours.
Remove the bouquet garni and discard. Transfer the cheesecloth bound packet of beef or remove the individual pieces with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Remove and discard the cheesecloth.
Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce and vegetables remaining in the insert until smooth. (Or, once the beef is removed, ladle the sauce and vegetables into a blender and puree until smooth a little at a time.) Return the reserved beef to the sauce. Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve piping hot with noodles, potatoes, or rice. Or, better yet, reheat and serve the next day.