You know those chain emails that people send out entitled “all about me”? You know – the ones that are much too long and for people who need a more challenging job? Well, I received one not too long ago, and the question was, “Spring or Fall”? My friend reply was very succinct. She said, “Fall – the clothes are better.”
The clothes are better in the fall. Hidden beneath thick, woolen sweaters, layered tops, and high heeled boots its much easier to look attractive than when you’re letting every spare, sunburned ounce of flesh hang out of a tank top and flimsy cotton skirt. Maybe it’s the dark colors that flatter most skin tones, or maybe it’s the cool winter air that causes flushed cheeks and pink noses. There’s just no contest – fall is the superior season.
I have just one problem with fall. It doesn’t seem to exist in Southern California.
Today is Halloween, and it’s a balmy 75 degrees. I don’t even flinch when I see people wearing linen in this kind of weather. If you didn’t own a calendar, by looking outside you’d have no idea that Labor Day was practically two months ago.
But weather be damned, I’m tired of salads and seared ahi. I wanted a hearty, flavorful meal, the kind I always dreamed my mother would someday learn to make. I wanted the kind of meal that I’ve seen people who are both blessed and cursed to live in cold climates eat on TV.
Only slightly adapted from Ina Garten
6-8 ounces pancetta, diced
2 1/2 pounds beef chuck cut into 1-inch cubes
salt & pepper
1 pound carrots, sliced into 1-inch chunks
1 ½ yellow onions, sliced
2-3 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup brandy
1 (750-ml) bottle cabernet sauvignon
1 can beef broth
2 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon Herbs de Provence
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 pound frozen small whole onions
1 package mushrooms, sliced
½ package frozen peas
Crusty bread, like ciabatta
chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Heat a splash of olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the diced pancetta and cook until the browned and the fat rendered. Remove to a large plate, but do not drain on a paper towel. Season the beef cubes with salt & pepper, or if you’re lazy like me, use a pre-made steak seasoning blend. Then sear the beef for a few minutes on all sides. You may need to do this in several batches, and be sure to add more olive oil if needed. As each batch browns, remove the seared beef to the plate with the pancetta.Toss the carrots and sliced onions in the pot and cook until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
Now this is the scary part: add the brandy and then stand back. Light a match and carefully bring it to the pot, keeping your fingers as far away from the flame as possible. Keep the pot top nearby! Ignite the alcohol fumes to burn off the alcohol. (When I did this, the flames did not immediately flame out as I’ve seen on TV. It actually kept burning, and I had to put the flame out with the top.) Put the plate of meat back into the pot and follow with the entire bottle of wine and can of broth. Add the tomato paste and dried herbs. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and place it in the oven for about 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Combine the butter and flour with a fork and stir into the stew to thicken. Add the frozen onions. In a separate pan, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil until lightly browned, and then add to the stew. Bring the stew to a boil, add the frozen peas, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 25 minutes, or until the gravy is the thickness you like. Season to taste.
To serve, cut the bread into large chunks and then cover with stew and chopped parsley.
Leftovers Suggestion: spoon the stew into a baking dish and cover with mashed potatoes to make a fancy Shepard’s Pie. Just bake at 350 degrees until potatoes are browned and stew is hot and bubbly.