Michael's Beef Stew

My friend Michael posted a couple of handy beef stew tips recently during a Facebook exchange with another friend seeking stew advice. His suggestions include a layer of caramelized onions, whose sweetness would be a rich addition to just about any dish, and deglazing with Guinness. I had a couple of bottles of Edmund Fitzgerald porter from Great Lakes Brewing (a Cleveland brewery, superb beer) so I substituted that.

Typically I'd skip the onions and deglaze with red wine, a more classical French stew. But I was intrigued, and as I had the beer, I went for it.

See that brown stuff in the pan? That's the fond. It's the caramelized sugars from sauteeing the onions low and slow for about 40 minutes. (The panful of 5 medium sliced onions cooks down to about a cupful of concentrated onion goodness.) It's full of flavor. To release it, you add liquid to the hot pan (over a flame, so it stays hot) and scrape it with a spatula. (It's a good way to "clean" a pan, too.) This is called "deglazing."

In this instance, I used beer, which got nice and foamy in the pan. After you scrape up the goodness, you boil the liquid and let it reduce. Basically, you cook the water out of the beer, making a concentrated, thick, flavorful melange of beer flavored with sweet onion residue.

What's this? Leftover beer? Can't waste that...

The red pan above has had a couple of things happen to it. First, I heated oil in it. I cut up 3 lbs of beef chuck into pieces about the size of a pack of smokes and seasoned them liberally with salt and pepper. I then dredged them in flour and seared them in the hot oil. I let them get a good crust, working in batches so as not to crowd the beef. If you crowd the beef it will steam and will not get crusty nor will it leave a fond. Took about 30 minutes in all. (The beef is resting, with the onions, in the pan behind.)

When you cook beef in hot oil it gives off beef juice, which has a lot of sugar, so it reacts the way the sugar in the onions does... it forms a fond. It's very concentrated beefy goodness... it is the essence of beef. You treat it exactly the same way as you did the onions. But first I cut a carrot, onion and stalk of celery into fine dice and sauted that in the beef pan to soften; you can see them in the photo above. After 10 minutes, I added the reduced beer from the onion pan to the cooked dice vegetables, and another glug of beer, cooking it until it was nearly all gone.

Then I returned the beef to the pan and added about 2/3 quart of chicken stock and about a cup of tomato sauce, both homemade and both from my freezer. It almost covered the beef. I brought it to a low simmer, where it remains. More on this later.