Sunday, April 09, 2006

Recipe experiment: Beef and Guinness stew.

It all started when I absent-mindedly purchased several pints of Guinness at Whole Foods without really considering the fact that I might have to drink it. The problem with shopping at Whole Foods is that you are frequently seduced into buying foods you don't know how to cook (I think I have some sweetbreads in my freezer that have been there for at least a year, maybe two, but that's another story) or beers that you don't drink. So what to do except cook with it? I had made a beef carbonnade a few years back that had not been entirely successful; this time I would use short ribs and oxtails. It would be a Sunday afternoon experiment.

I started with heating a few tablespoons of oil in a heavy, 5 1/2 quart dutch oven. I had dusted my oxtails (four or five meaty joints) and beef short ribs with flour; I browned the pieces of meat in the hot, barely smoking oil until browned on all sides, a few pieces at a time so as not to crowd the pot. The browned meat went into a bowl to rest while I browned the onions. One or two onions, halved crosswise and sliced thinly, sautéed in the hot oil until translucent and brown around the edges, but not burned. The beef went on top of the onions. I cracked open a can of Guinness and poured it into the pot. Immediately a wave of foam soared upwards and threatened to overflow. Memories of the flaming whiskey disaster of 2005 flashed through my mind. Fortunately, the foam subsided. Turned the heat down, covered the pot, and let the stew simmer for a few hours. I had chopped several carrots into one-inch chunks; now I threw them into the pot and let them simmer briefly. I wasn't planning to eat the stew right away, and didn't want the carrots to turn into mush, so once everything had cooled I put the pot into the refrigerator.

A few days passed. It was time to see how the braised beef in Guinness actually tasted. After a soup or stew or braise has chilled overnight in the fridge, any fat rises to the top and hardens in a layer that you can just pick off and discard, a handy trick for de-fatting things. I brought it to a gentle simmer over a low flame as I made some mashed potatoes. The beer had reduced and intensified into a luscious sauce. The beef was tender and tasted of that magic combination of Guinness mellowed with the sweetness of caramelized onions and carrots. I put a layer of mashed potatoes on a shallow dish, made a dent in it, nestled a few pieces of oxtail and short rib in the middle, and poured rivers of that incredible gravy that was nothing but Guinness underscored with the essences of beef and onion, thickened with the flour I had used in the initial browning phase. It was heavenly. I will definitely be cooking this again.

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