January 24, 2011

Hearty Slow-Cooker Beef Stew

We made up a big batch of beef stew recently, using our crock pot.   We used a recipe that first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Cook's Country and whilch has since been reprinted here and there among other America's Test Kitchen products (I first saw it in the Best-Ever Recipes collection).  Having made it ourselves, Juli and I understand why this recipe is so popular.   It is, with no hyperbole ever, easily the best beef stew either of us have ever had, and it's among the best things I've ever see come from a slow-cooker.

And even better, trying out this recipe got us to try out a new vegetable!

The much maligned parsnip.
The word "parsnip" conjures up thoughts of an old-fashioned, icky-tasting vegetable.They're a little tricky to grow in Iowa, because they hate heavy clay soil.  

I was a little squeamy about adding parsnips to the stew, because I imagined that their flavor would be unpleasant.  Silly me!  In the cooked dish, they're identical to the potato chunks in appearance, and virtually identical to the carrot chunks in flavor- maybe a little sweeter.  Jeffrey thought that it would be cheaper and easier to just add carrots, but I liked having them in the finished dish.

Some people think that parsnips are so named because they're a cross between parsley and turnips, but that's just an old wive's tale.  They do look a lot like carrots, but they are a pale yellow or white instead of the typical carrot orange.  Apparently you can eat them raw like a carrot, but the raw bite I tried was very fibrous, and I have to say I've never seen a recipe that called for raw parsnip.  If you have a recipe, please share!

You start this stew by cutting chuck roast into chunks, removing unnecessary, large chunks of fat as you go.  As written, this recipe calls for a lot of meat - 5 pounds of roast - so we ended up using two small roasts.  The beef is thoroughly browned in batches, then transferred to the crock pot.

Next you fry up some onions in a skillet.  When they're done, you stir in some tomato paste, chicken broth and soy sauce, then pour that into the crock pot atop the cooked beef along with a couple bay leaves and some tapioca (to thicken the stew juices).

Next you peel and slice potatoes, carrots and parsnips, toss them with a bit of oil and thyme and wrap the vegetables up in a foil packet, which is placed atop the beef/broth mixture.  After that, you cook it for about 6 hours, open the vegetable packet and stir its contents into the stew.   This technique is one of the things that makes this stew so good, in my opinion.  Cooking the vegetables in the packet, rather than in the stew itself, and then stirring them in toward the end preserves the flavor of the vegetables more than does cooking them in the stew the whole time.  As a result, each major ingredient of the stew - the beef, each of the vegetables - maintains some of its own distinct flavor, while all are joined together by the stew juices.   Plus, this method keeps you from ending up with mushy or fallen-apart vegetables.

Finally, you add a bit more seasoning and some frozen peas to the mix.  After 15 minutes, you ditch the bay leaves, season to taste with salt and pepper and enjoy a delicious stew.

This recipe makes a lot of stew, so we got a lot of great leftovers out of the deal, which we've been enjoying for lunch at work.

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