For most modern home cooks, a pressure cooker is a key piece of kitchen equipment they can’t seem to do without. I can’t blame them: you get to tenderise cheap and tough cuts of beef in 10 – 15 minutes tops rather than wait forever and six days. However, what it delivers on in terms of speed and tenderness tends – alas! – to fall short with regard to flavour. Sure, your beef is as tender – perhaps even more so – than your first kiss, but it’s about as bland as a chunk of cardboard. Nine times out of ten, home cooks tend to keep adding more salt or bouillon cubes to whatever it is they’re cooking just to give it more taste – and, unfortunately, also raise everyone’s blood sodium levels in the process.
Slow cooking, on the other hand, takes forever and six days to do – but the results are absolutely worth it because stews and soups are more flavourful without having to chuck in any additional salt. Beef stews, specifically those from France and Spain, are prepared in such a manner for lavish Sunday family dinners: pots are prepared as early as the night before and allowed to simmer on the stovetop or sealed into tightly covered saucepans and slow-baked in the oven for hours on end. Modern-day cooks – especially urbanites – may look askance at this long-winded cooking method, but let me be quick to assure you again: the results will be worth it.
After a glorious meal of tuhod y batoc (a slow-cooked stew featuring beef shin and neck in a wine-infused brown gravy) at Dulcinea recently, I was certainly convinced of the merits of slow-cooking: the beef was very tender, silken almost; the gravy rich and full-bodied and truly savoury having absorbed the bare essence of the meat. Something to be savoured with a bowl of just-cooked rice or maybe mashed potatoes for a taste of glorious comfort on a rainy evening.
That said, I tried my hand at slow-cooking a beef stew inspired by a French classic: the cream and wine-enriched blanquette de veau. However, given that veal is hard to find in these parts, stewing beef had to do – and the term blanquette kind of becomes a misnomer because you have to brown the beef prior to stewing as opposed to gently poaching it directly in a fond blanc (white stock) with aromatics such as citrus rind, fennel fronds, and herbs. Plus, the aromatics for this particular stew are more robust: red onions, garlic, rosemary, and bay leaves round out the flavour profile here and bacon throws in additional savour and smokiness.
But a slow, gentle simmer for the better part of an hour and more tempers these robust tastes, softening and melding them into a delicious whole. The beef – cartilaginous and tough – becomes almost meltingly tender; the onions take on an appealing sweetness. The addition of heavy cream towards the end of cooking evokes a classic blanquette and the enriched sauce blankets the rest of the elements to make a meal that is both satisfying and absolutely indulgent.
I know it is more than a little time consuming, but take the time and the effort to cook this at least once – and you’ll find this becoming a regular feature on your weekend menu. 😉
Blanquette de Boeuf
- 1/4 kilo stewing beef, cut into chunks
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 large red onion, peeled and cut into wedges
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 medium tin whole button mushrooms, drained and liquid reserved
- 1 beef bouillon / stock cube
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup red wine
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
- 1 large or 2 small bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/3 cup bacon or hickory- / bacon-flavoured Spam, finely chopped
- scant 1/4 teaspoon rock salt
- ground black pepper to taste
- 1/3 cup water
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/3 cup red wine
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or wok over medium heat. Brown the beef in batches; set aside.
Add the onions to the pan and cook till softened and slightly caramelised at the edges. Add the garlic and cook till slightly browned. Stir in the bacon and the beef cube; cook until the beef cube dissolves. Combine enough water with the reserved mushroom liquid to yield 1 cup total. Pour this in along with the water, 1/4 cup wine, rosemary, and bay leaf. Stir well and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and carrot chunks and lower the heat. Allow to simmer for 45 minutes before adding the mushrooms. Cover and cook an additional 20 minutes.
Whisk together 1/3 cup water and the cornstarch to make a slurry. Uncover the pan and pour in the slurry, mixing well. Cook until slightly thickened, then add the wine. Stir well and allow to cook an additional 10 minutes before stirring in the cream. Remove from heat and serve immediately with rice or mashed potatoes.