Tag Archives: beef

Beef Stew and Irish Soda Bread!

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, and last week I went searching through my city’s public library catalogue of Irish cookbooks in order to find something special to cook as celebration of the day. I had to plan ahead in order to put together an Irish-inspired supper since Tuesdays are extremely busy for me in terms of scheduled classes and homework workloads. I figured I wouldn’t really have the time on Tuesday evening to put together a special supper, so I had better make my attempt at making a St. Patrick’s Day meal on the weekend rather than on the day itself.

I was actually fairly surprised by the sheer number of Ireland-related cookbooks that are available through the public library. For some reason I’ve never really thought of the public library as a resource for cookbooks—although now that I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be. I spent a good couple of hours searching through the online lists and catalogue of books about Irish cuisine and cookery before settling on requesting a copy of Cathal Armstrong’s 2014 book, My Irish Table. And it’s probably a good thing that I went hunting for such a comprehensive and contemporary Irish cookbook a few days in advance of March 17, because as of this blog post going live, all seven copies of this particular cookbook have been checked out from the library’s catalogue.

In My Irish Table, author and four-star chef Cathal Armstrong records his culinary path from Dublin, Ireland to the United States, where he currently owns and operates seven well-respected restaurants. It’s clear in Armstrong’s writing that this book is all about his love of his homeland and Irish food. Originally I was going to try to produce Armstrong’s recipe for Irish stew, but my parents vetoed the idea on account of their distaste for lamb. That’s a shame, because according to Armstrong, “Real Irish stew is not made with beef. At all. Traditionally it is made with lamb neck or shinbones (known as gigot)” (60). Although it’s worthy to add that Armstrong continues by adding that he usually makes this stew using lamb shoulder chops instead of neck or gigot as they “are meatier and you can get a good sear on them, which adds flavour” (60). And that’s a helpful addition of detail, because as much as I would have liked to cook with lamb in pursuit of authenticity, I’m not sure I’m on board with the idea of cooking lamb neck just yet.

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If you don’t plan on quartering small potatoes for your stew, why not serve it over a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes? From what I’ve been able to learn from online food writing sources, this is another traditional way of serving beef stew, and the creaminess of the mashed potatoes really has a delicious effect on a bowl of hot stew.

Instead, I settled for Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew as found on page 72 of the book. Back on page 60 in his explanation of what constitutes a real Irish stew, Armstrong suggests that carrots shouldn’t really be added to an Irish stew, but that he likes incorporating them due to their sweetness. Perhaps as a result of this carrots are plentiful in Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew, as are eight cloves of garlic, and an entire serrano chili—something that I wouldn’t have ordinarily associated with a typical Irish-based beef stew. (Although on further consideration, why shouldn’t it be added? Chilies and spicy peppers always seem to work well with beef, almost regardless of culinary context.)

Armstrong explains what is actually happening in the pot during the stewing process by telling readers that “when you apply heat to food, you’re actually applying pressure” (73). He further delves into culinary science by explaining that stewing meat is forced to contract due to the application of heat (and its pressure), and that this forces the flavourful liquids from the meat, into the surrounding mire-poix of the stew’s vegetable and aromatic components: the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and fresh rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf (73). Armstrong says that the reason that a stew’s flavour intensifies over the days following the day the stew was originally made is because as the stew cools and the meat cools, it begins to relax and (re)absorb the surrounding liquid—liquid that was created by the meat and the vegetables cooking in the first place (73).

While Armstrong recommends that beef stew be served over mashed potatoes, I thought I would make a couple loaves of Irish soda bread to help sop up the stew’s resulting gravy-like liquid. Armstrong helpfully includes a recipe for Irish soda bread on page 191. The popularity of soda bread (and of a lot of other unleavened breads) is due to the yeast’s historic costliness. Armstrong says that baking soda was introduced in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century (191) and this coincides with a historic record of the country’s economic climate which would indicate why this bread became as popular and prevalent through Ireland at this time.

Soda bread is not difficult to make. Consisting of mainly four ingredients (flour, baking soda, butter, and milk—oh, and let’s say salt too for seasoning), it’s a quick bread that requires little working and kneading of the dough, and no time required for resting the dough (since there’s no yeast in it). However I’ve had mixed results when making soda bread in the past. It was a bit of a surprise then that Armstrong’s recipe for the stuff worked out beautifully. (Honestly, my bread baking efforts have a 50-50 chance of success or failure.) As it was, the bread looked and smelled lovely when I removed it from the oven, and it tasted wonderful with the beef stew.

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Sure stews are even better the day after making them, but I think this was a pretty successful “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” St. Patrick’s Day supper!

I’d like to include the recipes for beef stew and Irish soda bread from Armstrong’s book to this blog post, but due to copyright issues, I will instead direct you to check out your local booksellers to find a copy. In lieu of making a purchase, I’d encourage you to browse your public library’s catalogue in search of it. Who knows, your public library might have seven copies of it—although I wouldn’t bet on being able to find a single copy available the day before St. Patrick’s Day!

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Braised Beef with Garlic and Tomatoes!

Last month, I read Michael Pollan’s recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Michael Pollan is a journalist and professor associated with UC Berkeley and The New York Times. As a food activist, Pollan writes engaging books aimed and general audiences about food production and consumption in the United States, modern agribusiness, and the cultural ethics related to the broad subject of food.

I don’t always choose non-fiction and investigative writing when I’m picking out leisure reading, but I’ve always appreciated Pollan’s writing style and I like that he can write about some very complex topics without getting too bogged down in their intricacies. His writing offers a clear and well-considered introduction to a variety of subject matter, and often his books will include a directed reading list should any of his topics interest readers enough to want to find more information on their own after they’ve finished his book.

Cooked is arranged into four sections that align with the classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth. These sections correspond with different methods of food production: cooking with heat and an open flame, braising and stewing, baking and bread making, and fermentation. Pollan’s writing made me think about my own cooking habits and relationship with food, and inspired me to attempt some of the cooking methods he discusses in Cooked. But since it’s still the depths of winter here in the city (despite recently flipping the calendar to match the month of March), attempting barbecue (fire) was a little out of the question, and both baking bread and pickling were rather complex processes that require an amount of time that I simply haven’t got to spare these days between competing deadlines for college assignments and projects.

So I settled on trying out braising—a cooking technique that I was somewhat familiar with, and which looked, on the page, like an easy enough undertaking. Braising is essentially a two-step process. Meat is first seared at a high temperature and then finishes the cooking process in a covered pot or roasting dish at a lower temperature surrounded by an amount of liquid (which usually adds flavour to the cooking meat, too).

See? Sounds simple enough. Regardless of the simplicity of the action of braising though, Michael Pollan suggests (by way of internationally recognized anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss) that braising meat is a method of rendering the animalistic (literally animal flesh) into something that is (figuratively) human. And that is quite the complicated statement.

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Beef braised in a flavourful garlic and tomato sauce that comes together with minimal fussing. I don’t think we even needed the egg noodles, the meat and sauteed greens were pretty much supper enough.

According to Pollan, cooking meat thoroughly in a braise “achieves a more complete transcendence of the animal, and perhaps the animal in us, than does grilling over a fire, which leaves its object partly or entirely intact, and often leaves a trace of blood—a visible reminder … that this is a formerly living creature we’re feasting on” (54). Pollan supports this idea by further suggesting that “the braise or stew—and particularly the braise or stew of meat that’s been cut into geometric cubes and rendered tender by long hours in the pot—represents a deeper sublimation, or forgetting, of the brutal reality of this particular transaction among species” (54). The “transaction” that Pollan is talking about here is the consumption of one animal by another, and furthermore, the consumption of the animal after (parts of) its physical form is altered by a cooking process.

And you’ve got to agree, that’s some pretty deep thinking caused by contemplating a hunk of meat slowly cooking in a shallow pool of liquid. Because of that, I set out to get the simplest braise recipe that I could find online. Thankfully the folks running epicurious.com had a three-ingredient braised beef recipe that (at the time of this blog post) boasts a 3.5/4 star rating by recipe reviewers, and 82% of cooks saying they would make it again. Now granted this braised beef recipe doesn’t require cooks to chop up a roast into “geometric cubes” (or to even brown it in the roasting pan prior to adding the liquid ingredients), but after the braising is finished doing its work on the collagen and connective tissue of the meat, the roast will be so fork-tender it is almost completely and unrecognizably transformed from the bodily tissue of an animal into a comforting, and delicious main course.

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Three ingredients makes for a cut of meat that’s fork-tender and delicious. And as with all stews and braises, the flavour’s even better on the second day! (So try to make sure there’s some leftovers for you tomorrow!)

Pollan continues the line of thinking introduced by Lévi-Strauss that boiled and braised foods represent “a further remove from uncivilized nature than does roasted food” (156) as boiled or braised food requires the cultural artifact of the cooking pot—something that is carefully crafted and then cared for after its use, two things that require specialization of labour (pottery-making) and culture to support. Pollan directly addresses this line of thinking by posing the idea that “if all cooking is a process of transforming the stuff of nature into culture, boiling [and braising] achieves a more complete transformation of the animal being eaten” (156). He addresses the cultural inclusion of food prepared in a cooking pot more directly when Pollan states, “To eat from the same pot is to share more than a meal … In the same way that the stew pot [or the braising dish] blends a great many different ingredients together, … it brings the family together as well” (158).

Another important fact about this particular recipe, is that it calls for an entire head of garlic. In Cooked, Michael Pollan looked into the role that onions and garlic play in global cooking trends. He found that the addition of garlic and onions to meat dishes greatly increases the general safety of eating these foods. According to Pollan (and other food researchers), “like many of the most commonly used spices, onions (garlic, too) contain powerful microbial compounds that survive cooking” (144) and that “microbiologists believe that onions, garlic, and spices protect us from the growth of dangerous bacteria on meat” (144-45). It then stands to reason that through years of trial and error, people discovered that cooking meat with particular aromatic vegetables (onions and garlic) resulted in meals that were less likely to make people sick afterwards. This was all discovered prior to the invention of refrigeration of course, but it might explain why garlic and onions (which are “one of the most potent of all antimicrobial food plants” [145]) are so commonly used in cooking.

I am unsure of the specific history of this dish, but braising is a cooking method with history, and braised dishes are made all over the world in many different cultures. Braising meat involves both dry and moist heat, as part of the meat that is braised cooks outside of the braising liquid. But it is this liquid (likely laden with antimicrobial ingredients like onions and garlic) that also helps to ensure the safety of the dish. The temperature of the liquid reaches the boiling point and holds steady at this temperature while the meat cooks, killing potentially illness-causing microbial elements in the ingredients.

It is also this cooking liquid that helps to form a harmony of flavours within the braising dish as well as helping detoxify ingredients, blending flavours, and breaking down tough plant and animal fibres and rendering them into digestible food. According to Pollan, “given enough heat and time, [a braising liquid] softens, blends, balances, harmonizes, and marries” (163) different aspects, ingredients, and elements of the braised dish. I think what Michael Pollan was trying to get at was that the cooked meal can be viewed as a metaphor for the coming together of a family unit (or community) in sharing a meal. And through this, cultural beliefs are built and reinforced when nature is brought into the home and transformed into a something nutritionally and socially sustaining.

Hopefully you will try this three-ingredient braised beef supper (it’s super easy!) and will enjoy it with a plateful of sautéed greens and noodles among your family or close, loved ones. After all, according to Pollan, a braised beef supper is downright designed for bringing a family together to harmonize over.

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