embittered beef stew and cuisine tristesse

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I’m a humanities graduate student finishing her dissertation who has just gone on the market for the first time. Needless to say, I am embittered.

For months, I have been flirting with a recipe category I call “la cuisine tristesse,” exploring the bitter side of food with ingredients like endives, artichokes, escarole, almonds — anything that makes you pucker up or bites back. So what better way to perform one’s emotional angst than experiment with bitters?

The only bitters I can find in my lovely two-bit town are Angostura, which are available in every grocery store. A friend has scored me some Regan’s orange bitters, which I’ll pick up on my next trip to the Bay Area. So my experiments have just begun. Until I can get my lazy behind up from winter hibernation and on the road, Angostura is my monogamous plaything.

And just what is it that I’m playing with? Angostura is meted out in dashes. It’s an herbal concoction that is faintly sweet and spicy, with a bitter kick in the end. The standard use of Angostura, of course, is in cocktails. The mixology historians say a cocktail isn’t a cocktail without Angostura. But there’s also a slew of recipes out there, many concocted by the Angostura corporation itself, for food seasoned with these bitters. It makes sense. If it adds a certain je-ne-sais-quois to mixed drinks, it can also enliven food. After some research, including this fantastic 1933 recipe booklet from Angostura scanned and made available by LambMartini, I have found that the best recipes for an Angostura infusion are those with a high fat content, the creamy mouthfeel acting as counterpoint to the bitterness.

I’ve already written about my coeur à la crème experiment with Angostura. Last night my husband made the mistake of telling me to refill his drink, so I made him a “Poor Man’s Orangina” with OJ, Perrier, lemon and Angostura. (For the record, it was tasty, and he requested it again tonight!) I refrained from adding Angostura to the butter cookies I made the other day, but I did try it in a dressing for salmon and roasted fennel, combining the Angostura with whole-grain mustard and olive oil (much tastier with the fatty salmon than the fennel). And it is delicious on orange slices. I can’t wait until strawberry season, peach season! Mmm…and in whipped cream.

But by far, the best marriage I’ve made is Angostura and beef stew. This recipe is my Boeuf Bourguignon On Vacation in Provence recipe made zippy with Angostura. It will serve four, and freezes well. Share your bitterness. Your friends will love it.

Embittered Beef Stew

1 bottle deep, rich wine (I use Syrah or Cabernet, but a Burgundy or Pinot Noir would be more authentic)

3-4 pounds chuck beef, cut into 2-inch chunks (best to buy a chuck roast and cut it yourself, since “stew beef” contains a variety of cuts)

2-3 T. bacon drippings or vegetable oil

1 large yellow onion

1 juicy orange, peel removed with vegetable peeler with as little white pith as possible and juiced into bowl

2-3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 bay leaves

1 t. dried thyme or a handful of fresh thyme

2 T. flour

salt and pepper

optional: 2 c. frozen pearl onions and 1 package button mushrooms, chopped

a few dashes of Angostura bitters

If you have time, marinate the meat overnight in 1/2 bottle wine, orange juice, orange peel, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. If not, rinse and pat meat dry with paper towels. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In a heavy dutch oven, brown meat in several batches in bacon drippings or vegetable oil (if you have any leftover bacon or salt pork, add these for more flavor).

When meat is a deep, mahogany brown on all sides, remove the meat and set aside in a bowl. Saute onions in drippings until golden, then return the meat to the dutch oven. Add the marinade or 1/2 bottle wine, orange peel, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Cover and place in oven.

Pour yourself a glass of wine. Set aside rest of bottle.

After about an hour and a half, remove the stew from the oven and skim the fat from the top into a pan. If there isn’t about 2 T., add some butter, then the 2 T. of flour. Make a roux, which you will use to thicken the stew: stirring constantly, cook the flour with the fat until mixture is peanut-butter-colored. Stir it into the stew, along with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another hour and a half, or until meat is fork tender and can be pulled apart easily.

About 10 minutes before done, add the rest of the bottle of wine. It will brighten the color and add a tart flavor layer to the stew. At this point, adjust the seasoning and remove garlic cloves, orange peel, and bay leaves. You may also now add sauteed button mushrooms and/or frozen pearl onions sauteed on medium heat with a bit of soy sauce and sugar to carmelize.

Serve over boiled potatoes or egg noodles. Immediately prior to serving, add 2-3 dashes per serving of Angostura bitters to each serving dish.

Another option is to substitute Angostura with orange bitters. I will try this as soon as I can.

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