I promise you that the following recipe is, in fact, bacon related, and that the following self disclosure is germaine to my recipe.
Mkay. I shut my car door on my head the other day. It really doesn’t matter how this happened, okay? But it did. And someone saw me.
I share this because it was one of those moments that shatters one’s self image. As much as I strive to be the guy with the deadpan sarcastic charm of Fred MacMurray fused with the urbane whimsy and food wisdom of Mark Bittman and the childlike exuberance of Jonathan Richman … the reality is often much more… yeah.
Which brings me to cookbooks, and, in a roundabout way, to the stuff that they contain.
They have personalities, don’t they? Like people. The “wow, you are amazing and exotic but I can only stand to look at you for about five minutes,” Kind, or the warm and sensual ones that inspire you, or old trusted souls you can turn to again and again when things go wrong.
This one is my favorite. And I like to think that it’s personality, on my best days, matches mine. Why?
1. There is a perfect balance of simplicity and elegance.
There is a restraint here. It’s culinary, but also visual, literary and typographic. It’s a small cookbook, with only 130 recipes, very few of which have more than three or four key ingredients (you know, plus like salt and pepper). Imagine “brownies” rather than “Single-origin carob brownies with a chipotle espresso glaze.” When most cookbooks trend toward more and more complicated and original ideas, there is something to be said for “essence.”
And it’s not that this food is simplistic or lowest common denominator… not at all. But the format has a way of stripping away a lot of pretense and ends up reminding me why I learned to cook in the first place. You notice the touches. Like the orange zest I’ll get to in a minute.
While SPET contains recipes for dishes I don’t care for (cranberry sauce, fish cakes, Rhubarb pie), every recipe I’ve earnestly and carefully tried has produced superior results. I do a version of his rich, tender muffins on many Sunday nights, while the pizza base, mayonnaise, tomato soup, chicken pot pie and risotto have become my standard preparations. Not to mention the following recipe, which is the best in the book.
3. Makes you better without being preachy
I always think the best thing friends do for one another is to encourage them to become who they want to be. That sort of low-key unobtrusive helpfulness is evident here. The cookbook’s simple format is a collection of recipes collected from Herbert’s space-limited food column. As such, the recipes are peppered with concise, italicized advice. Sometimes this advice borders on obvious, like adding bacon to mashed potatoes or Cointreau to chocolate truffles, but it does manage to teach you quite a bit, like not stirring rice (dislodges the starch) or using rice flour (texture) for shortbread.
Anyway, this is my favorite recipe in the book, and I made it recently. It’s a beef stew, and not too much different from many other beef stew recipes one sees. Other than the fact that it also contains bacon. But you notice the little things. The portion of liquid to solids just seems to work perfectly to keep the meat submerged and tender.
There is one minor intuitive refinement I permit myself, which is to reduce the sauce a little bit, which results in a deeper, almost creamier texture.
Otherwise this recipe pretty much writes itself.
adapted from Simply Perfect Every Time
2-3 lbs of stew beef cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/4 C olive oil – give or take
1/2 C Flour
3 Slices of Bacon, chopped
1 Fist-sized Yellow Onion
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Carrots, chopped
2 Cups Beef Broth
2 Cups Red Wine
1 13oz can chopped tomatoes
2 bay leaves
one big piece of orange zest.
Preheat the oven to 300
Place the flour into some sort of vessel, like a large bowl. Dredge the steak cubes in the flour, a few at a time, shaking off the excess.
Heat some of the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Cook the steak in small batches, adding the rest of the oil as needed. Place the browned meat into a large dutch oven (or casserole dish) once browned.
Place the remaining oil into the pan, add the bacon and cook for two minutes, or until the fat renders into the pan. Add the onions, carrots and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, for about five minutes or until the kitchen starts to smell good and the onions are tender. Transfer to the dutch oven.
At this moment, your kitchen will smell pretty frikkin amazing. I’d pay good money for beef stew Renuzits.
Deglaze the pan with the broth, stirring to incorporate any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add to the casserole dish, along with the wine, tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme and parsley and orange zest. Heat this to a boil on the stovetop, cover, and
insert into the oven.
Cook in the oven for two to three hours. Stir the meat occasionally as it cooks. The meat will be very tender but not chewy.
At this point I like to remove the meat from the sauce and reduce the gravy a bit. There are even beef stew recipes that call for resting the meat overnight and defatting the gravy completely before reducing. I will stipulate that I have done this before and it’s very tasty, but it is not, strictly speaking, necessary.
Check the “sauce,” and add a bit more water if it appears dry, or cook it a bit longer if it appears runny. Remember, dishes like this thicken as they cool.
Serve with crusty bread.