When you’re dealing with old meat, tough meat, meat that’s got some character to its bite, it’s best braised. Basically, you need to cook the bejesus out of it, long and slow, so it breaks down to something tender. I imagine my grandmother and great grandmother braised a lot of meat. Grandpa used to tell stories about hunting for the day’s catch. Armed with his slingshot, he set out to bring home supper. It sounds crazy to hunt with a slingshot, but he did. Back then, that’s what kids did when they were a sharecropper’s son and what they killed was what they could eat.
As a little girl, I used to look at his wide thumbnails and thick fingers. They seemed unnatural. But during the Depression, the sturdiness of his hands must have been beautiful. Calluses formed through work meant food on the table. In those days, a man knew what it was to do without. He valued each bite. Eating meant surviving, which meant providing, and my grandfather provided. He and my grandmother also saved every trinket, no matter how small.
For instance, this last year, my grandparents moved into assisted living. As part of the move, my parents waded through boxes of neatly folded grocery bags. My aunt and uncle searched through cosmetics, unopened and long since expired. My cousins discovered cookbooks, published in the early 1900’s and filled with the handwritten records of our family. My grandparent’s marriage was near the back of one book. They were 20 and 19. What an old maid I am!
Some of the recipes resemble things I make, like chicken soup and homemade croutons. Others are more interesting: dried beef and eggs, glorified rice (jello, pineapple juice, cooked rice, and sweetened whipped cream), or casserole of fish. Most things were fried, but how wrong can something fried be? Many of the meat recipes call for braising, “cooking in liquid,” or roasting. These women knew how to handle meat with character.
Serves 4 to 6
This is an extremely less expensive version of Beef Bourguignon. It doesn’t include two of the really indulgent ingredients, wine and bacon. However, it does include butter. Four generous tablespoons of it, which gives the sauce a silky, full body finish. Also, I opted against the traditional herb bouquet. If you don’t have fresh herbs in the garden, picking them up at the store is costly. Instead, I use dried herbs.
1 TBS dried oregano
1 TBS dried rosemary
½ TBS dried thyme
2 cloves garlic, smashed
4 TBS butter, softened
2 TBS cornstarch
2 TBS cooking oil (olive oil or vegetable oil work well)
3 pounds trimmed beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large onion, sliced
1 cup carrots, sliced
2½ cups beef stock
1 14.5 ounce can chopped tomatoes (regular tomatoes work or try the ones with basil, garlic, and oregano)
1 Bay leaf
Preheat the oven to 325. Tie oregano, rosemary, thyme, and smashed garlic cloves in a cheesecloth. Set aside for later.
NOTE: If you don’t have cheesecloth you can substitute two coffee filters. Lay one filter on top of the other. Plate spices inside both filters, so there are two layers of filter surrounding the spices. Bring edges of the coffee filters together and tie into a tight ball with cooking twine.
Mash together softened butter and cornstarch. Set aside for later.
In a large Dutch oven, heat cooking oil. Pat the meat dry with a paper towel. Season each side with salt and pepper. Add to pan, browning each side evenly. Remove meat from pan and set aside.
NOTE: Don’t skip patting the meat dry. It will help you get a deep golden brown. Also, you will need to brown the meat in at least two rotations. It’s important not to over crowd the pan. If you do, the meat will steam and not brown.
Add onions and carrots to the pan. Brown until tender. Deglaze pan with ½ a cup of beef stock.
NOTE: To deglaze, keep pot on high heat. Add liquid and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or whisk, working all the browned bits off the bottom.
Add remaining stock; tomatoes, with juice; spices; bay leaf; and meat to the pan. Add mead back into the liquid. Cover and move to the preheated oven. Allow to cook for 2½ hours or until meat is tender when pricked with a fork.
Remove pan from the oven and take out meat and bay leaf. On the stove, return pan to a simmer and reduce liquid by half. Whisk in butter-cornstarch mixture. Return meat to pan until heated through. Serve warm with oven roasted potato wedges or a generous helping of bread.