Snow Days and Stew

February 26, 2010

Up here on the mountain we feel utterly alone. It’s a silent white world, flakes swirling down from the sky, piling up, obliterating every edge. Snow hugs the house in a soft embrace.The cars have vanished into huge humps. The driveway is impassable; the rest of the world fallen away.

It is easy to imagine coming down, when it is all over, to discover everything changed. Ten years might have passed in the storm. Or the clock moved backward while we were sleeping. Strange how quickly we become disoriented when robbed of the familiar.

Two days ago the power failed. No internet, no oven, very little light. Too distracted to work we roamed the house, feeling fragile, worrying about frozen pipes and running out of wood. Unable to concentrate I did what I always do in a crisis: I cooked.

Nothing is so soothing as the scent of a stew in a cold house in a cold climate. I made ragu. I made toasted cheese sandwiches and enormous salads, racing to use the vegetables before they wilted in depression. I took the bones from the freezer and transformed them into stock.  But it was the boeuf bourguignon,which filled the house with the rich purple scent of wine and onions, that finally made us feel better. It was like a promise that the snow really will end. Some day.

Beef, Wine, Onion stew

Take as many onions as you feel like chopping and throw them into a casserole with a bit of butter and a couple of strips of bacon, cut into little squares. Add a couple of carrots, cut into whatever size you consider edible. Cook them together until they are fragrant and just a bit golden.  Add a few cloves of garlic, smashed, to the mix, and any herbs you happen to have on hand; thyme is nice, as is parsley, although personally I’d stay away from tarragon and rosemary. When they’ve all turned soft, add a squirt of tomato paste (it adds a touch of sweetness), stir for a minute or so and put the entire potful into a bowl to wait.

Melt a splash of oil and a pat of butter in the same pan. While it heats take a couple pounds of beef, cut up for stew, and pat it dry.  Salt and pepper the cubes, then toss them in a bag with a bit of flour and shake until they look like they’ve been dusted with snow. Cook the beef in flights – it hates being crowded in the pan – until beautifully brown, and then set aside with the onions.

When all the beef has browned, deglaze the pan with a good glug of brandy. Return the beef and vegetables to the pot, cover them with most of a bottle of decent red wine and throw in a stalk of celery and a bay leaf if you’ve got them. Simmer gently, partly covered, for three or four hours.  The aroma will fill your house and make you very happy.

Just before serving saute some mushrooms, quartered in a nice amount of butter for about ten minutes, adding salt and pepper at the end.  Toss them into the stew and taste it.  If it needs salt, pepper or more wine, add it.

I like this with simply boiled potatoes, but you could just serve it with a loaf of bread.  In my house this will feed about four people, but on a really hungry day I could eat it all by myself.

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