Cooking For One: A Change
EVENT: Vegetarian’s First Beef Stew
VENUE: Cara’s Apartment, Park Slope
PARTY SIZE: 2
TYPE: Warm Winter Supper
MENU: Simple Slow-Cooker Beef Stew; Homemade Noodles; Steamed Green Vegetables
It being the new year, I wanted to come clean to readers about a change that got underway slowly, a month or two ago. It has to do with my eating habits, and with a choice I made in the spring of 2007 to stop eating meat, then to stop eating all animal products, then to eat, once again, dairy and seafood. (I guess that is a lot of changes already; see Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book for confirmation that I’m not alone in my wavering.)
For me, vegetarianism has always been a choice that requires a great deal of caring, whatever level of it I am at. While accepted, because meat-free is still not the way the majority eats, to be a vegetarian in our society involves careful investigation and a bit of nitpicking. In a city like New York, it’s easy to dine mainly at vegetarian-friendly restaurants, seek out your preferred brands of tofu and veggie sausage, and ask a waiter at a non-veggie establishment to serve your roasted brussels sprouts without the bacon topping. When you’re committed to the eating habit, none of this is hard.
But food for me is not just about what I put in my mouth. In my life, it has a social and traditional aspect to it that I think rivals the actual gastronomical aspect of any particular dish. This ranges from eating matzoh balls on Thanksgiving (a family tradition) to respecting the standard manners of a polite guest dining at a friend’s house. I came to feel like a giant pain in the neck requesting special meals (matzoh balls sans chicken fat or a dinner I’m not making that must be based around my needs)–though I recognize that not everyone has as low a guilt threshold as I. But since in the rest of my life, I take pride in being flexible, it started to seem strange that I had become a “picky eater.” This fall, I began to reduce my special requests. At restaurants, I wouldn’t ask if my meal had been made with chicken stock. When invited to friends’ houses, I wouldn’t ask about the menu in advance or even alert them of my vegetarianism. I’d just go with the flow, and if the dish was one that didn’t appeal to me, I’d take a small portion. This felt something like maturity.
Of course you carnivores will be happy to know that once I decided I’d eat a little meat (like a particularly appealing bite of Alex’s pork chop at dinner one night), I remembered how mouth-watering it is. That’s when I realized that, contrary to what I’d thought for a while, it wouldn’t just be about flexibility while out of the house, but about starting to cook a little meat for myself at home. And that’s also when I noticed I was craving beef stew, and I’d have to develop a beginner’s plan for making it. I wound up using my slow cooker, and I balanced out the richness of the hearty stew with a bowl of homemade noodles and a side of steamed kale, zucchini, and asparagus. Admittedly, it was strange to have my apartment smell like browning beef, but I wasn’t displeased with the scent.
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
1 lb stewing beef, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup rich red wine (I used one from Bordeaux)
2 cups water
½ square bouillon (optional)
Salt and pepper the beef. Heat the oils over medium-high heat and sear the beef, in batches, in a large cast iron pan. Make sure the beef is brown on each side before flipping. When a batch is done, remove to a plate.
When all the beef is finished, lower the heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring constantly, especially at the beginning while the pan is still very hot. Add the carrots and celery and sauté another few minutes until the veggies are quite soft. Put in close to a teaspoon of dried thyme, pinched between your fingers and crumbled, as well as the garlic and a good sprinkling of salt. After a minute or two, raise the heat and add the wine. Let it cook off until it reaches the consistency of thick syrup, using a heatproof spatula to scrape all the bits off the bottom of the pan.
Add the veggies to the slow cooker with the beef and the water, and the bouillon cube if using. Add any extra water to cover the meat, then cover the cooker and let it stew on low for 7 hours.
If you have time, cool the stew, then refrigerate it until ready to eat. Reheat in a pot on the stove. Serve with egg noodles, mashed potatoes, or crusty bread.