A few weeks ago, as the temperature decreased and my pandemic fatigue increased, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I simmered up a homey beef stew.
I’d forgotten all about beef stew, seduced by the likes of wine-braised short ribs and fancy Bourguignon. But while braises and Bourguignons may be more impressively company-worthy than stew, they’re not appropriate to our current national mood — or my personal one, at least.
Far more in sync with the moment is a pot bubbling slowly on the stove, its belly loaded with tender chunks of beef, nuggets of carrots and slivers of onions and herbs. The resulting dish is as cozy as my favorite moth-eaten thrift store sweater, a brown cashmere turtleneck I throw on whenever I need my clothing to feel like a warm blanket. A savory beef stew, plopped on top of buttery mashed potatoes (or polenta, noodles or rice), is soothing like that.
You don’t need special ingredients to make a good stew, though homemade stock is always going to make things taste better than most of its packaged counterparts. My default is homemade chicken stock, which I use even in beef dishes because it’s what I tend to have on hand. Given the choice, I’d even go for homemade vegetable stock over store-bought beef stock here. This said, if your freezer is stockless, just use what’s easy to come by. Beef stews are as forgiving as they are satisfying.
I also call for pouring some ale or beer into the stew pot, and you don’t need to be particular. Whatever you like to drink will work, including nonalcoholic brands.
The ale serves two functions: Besides brightening the sauce, it tempers the sweetness of the red onions and carrots nestled in with the beef, and keeps the dish from becoming cloying.
Ground spices — coriander and allspice — add an earthy complexity, and a ruddy blob of tomato paste deepens all the flavors in its umami-intensifying way.
Like most stews (and braises and Bourguignons, for that matter), this one improves as it sits. Leftovers will be even tastier and just as comforting as the dish was on Day 1 — without your having to cook another meal. It may not eliminate your pandemic fatigue, but it will give you more time to wrap yourself in your favorite sweater and sink into the couch, which is never a bad thing, especially now.