I grew up in Russia (technically Moldova, but we will leave the technicalities be for now). The winters were frigid -- and sometimes a bit depressing, as winters tend to be. Food was used to comfort the grumbling bellies and laughter was used to warm up from the inside out.
In Chi-Town our winters have always reminded me of Russia. Lots of snowy days with frosted windows and red noses. One day last year as I walked down my driveway and the snow crunched under my feet, I was reminded of cold winters as a little girl. I was always comforted by the savory scents of a stew slowly cooking away on the stove top as I ran into the house after playing all day in the snow. My mom, made the best stews and pot roasts. She used fresh ingredients and simple flavors. And was always, she was able to make an amazing dish out of practically nothing.
On one of these very snowy days last year during a very long and dreary winter, hubs decided to give me the task of a mushroom stew. I just so happened to have bought some really nice mushrooms that I had no plans for. I went out and bought my favorite piece of beef cut -- a nice cut of chuck that has lots of marbling -- and went to work.
The result was an incredibly comforting stew with layers of simple flavors. I served it over my skinny smashers and felt a little better about my indulgence. At the end of a few days, when I still had some of the stew left, I placed it in a ziplock bag and froze it for another day.
This stew recipe is not really a recipe but more of a technique. Once mastered, this typical braising technique can be used in hundreds of different recipes.
Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew
2 pounds of chuck, cut up into bite size cubes
1 large onion
1 pound of a variety of mushrooms
1 bay leaf
5 cloves of garlic
6 sprigs of thyme
1 cup Cognac
salt and pepper to taste
about 2 quarts beef stock
1. We begin by cutting up our meat into medium bite-sized cubes and seasoning well with salt and pepper on both sides. Preheat a Dutch oven or a thick-bottomed pot with vegetable oil until it starts to smoke.
2. While you are at it, preheat the oven to 325-degrees.
3. Place the beef into the pot, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Allow to brown on all sides.
4. In the meantime, wash and roughly chop your mushrooms. I used button, cremini, shitake and oyster mushrooms in this dish. If you use shitake mushrooms, make sure you remove and discard the stems as they are very woodsy and tough.
5. Dice up an onion while you are at it as well.
6. Check on the meat and remove once nice and brown. Set aside. You will have some fat and yummy bits on the bottom of the pot. Let it be. This is your flavor.
7. Add in the onions, a few cloves of garlic, a few stems of thyme, a bay leaf and mushrooms and toss to cover with the fat in the pot. Sautee for about 10 minutes.
8. Add the meat back into the pot and sprinkle evenly with one tablespoon of flour. Mix to combine until none of the flour remains.
9. Take about 1 cup of cognac and pour into a cup and then into the pot. NEVER POUR OUT OF THE BOTTLE! A flame can catch onto the bottle while pouring and the bottle will explode. (I have seen this happen, it's not a pretty sight.) Pour into a cup first then pour into the pot. You can either let it cook out or light the cognac on fire with a long match, or if the pot is shallow enough, tilt it toward the flame so it will catch on fire. Flaming it is a neat party trick :) This is also called deglazing.
10. Once all the alcohol has cooked out, about 3 minutes, you will be left with a beautiful glazed meat.
11. After 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 275-degrees and allow to cook for another 90 minutes or until meat is nice and tender.