If the Academy Awards prove nothing else, there’s still no accounting for taste.
This year, I’m overjoyed (and not just because I won my Oscar pool). Spotlight strikes a win for journalism, classic Hollywood filmmaking, and plucky do-gooders taking a corrupt system to task. It’s the best movie of the year, easy.
If only we could say the same about some other Best Picture winners.
Crash, Forrest Gump, Ordinary People — no one today thinks these were the movies of the year (if they were any damn good at all). Still, the old, white members of the Academy nodded and lacklustre producers waddled off with their shiny, gold, Clue-inspired murder weapons.
Maybe these movies suck. Maybe they just ain’t my bag. It’s hard to say when taste comes into play (and my old lit crit profs would argue that to death too). In the end, people just like what they like.
So, maybe that’s why I haven’t written about beef yet.
Almost a year into this Cook Somethin’ nonsense and I’ve yet to cover cattle at all. It’s a little surprising, to be honest. There are ingredients I hate (cilantro, beets, cooked salmon), but red meat’s not one of them. I eat beef. I chase down cheeseburgers in every city I visit. I’ll go out of my way for a truly superb steak. I’ve even got a pack of jerky in my doomsday prep kit. Beef is a thing.
And what a steak it was. Thanks, Florence!
But, it’s rarely too exciting.
“DON’T BE A LOSER! BEEF IS THE BEST! IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER! WHAT’S BETTER THAN BEEF?! NOTHING! MEAT MEAT MEAT MEAT MEAT MEAT….”
Whoa… have you heard of pork chops, buddy? Or duck legs? Or black bean burritos? Or big plates of cacio e pepe? Even without the issues around its sustainability, beef falls way down the list when I want something good to eat.
It has its place, sure. Rare beef pho is always the right pho. Ditto, a pastrami sandwich. And, there’s still no effective substitute when you’re craving a Big Mac.
But, nine times out of 10, beef is … dull.
Here’s what’s normally involved: Get a grill ripping hot, salt the meat, sear it for a few minutes a side, let it rest, then stuff it down with a baked potato as you cream your jeans over your cooking skills. Belch and take a nap.
“Another fine steak, if I do say so myself. Now, where’s the colonoscope?”
“It’s all about respecting the ingredient, man! With a truly great piece of beef, it’s wrong to do anything else with it.”
That’s fine, you’re right. But I don’t want to eat it.
Give me the shitty cuts any day. Oxtail. Shanks. Short ribs. They’ve got more flavour, they’re cheaper, and there’s no pretension about respect and simplicity. You want oxtail to taste good? You better hit it with everything you’ve got (for a long time to boot).
Here’s where the stew comes in. Stewing (aka “braising” aka “cooking for hours in a little bit of liquid”) is the perfect way to handle all the trash meat you’ve got. As I’ve said before, think of it like a sauna for your eye of round. The tough, sinewy fibres loosen up, getting soft and succulent. With small cuts of beef (like stew meat), the fat and juices seep into the liquid so you can’t tell where the sauce ends and the meat begins. The long cooking melds the ingredients together, resulting in a big happy cult orgy of united flavours and textures.
Try the stew. Skip the Kool-Aid.
For most people, only one stew comes to mind — that vaguely English-Irish dish of meat and root vegetables in gravy. But, there are only so many ingredients and so many cooking methods. Virtually all cultures have a riff on beef stew.
The Russians have zharkoe. Texans have chili con carne. Japan has nikujaga and Thailand’s got massaman curry. Trot around all you want, you can’t escape someone slow cooking tough beef with other tasty flavourings.
My favourite version right now? It’s no shock if you checked out my Raddest Shaz of 2015 list. Grab your vampire fangs and bust out your porno mags, ‘cause we’re going Hungarian with some old-school gulyás.
Gulyás or goulash (or, perhaps more accurately, pörkölt) covers a lot of ground, at least according to the Internet. Don’t get me wrong — I expect gulyás recipes to differ, but I don’t expect them to differ so widely. From website to website, goulash may refer to anything from a simple herdsman’s stew of beef and paprika or something akin to beefaroni.
Having never been to Central Europe and having met exactly one Hungarian in my life, I don’t know my arse from my elbow when it comes to Magyar tradition. What I do know? What’s delicious — and that’s all that matters. So let’s get started (it’s going to take a while).
First, buy this stuff:
- Stew meat
- Regular paprika
- Smoked paprika
- Caraway seeds
- Black pepper
- Red wine
- Stock (vegetable, beef, whatever)
Slice an onion into strips the size of your pinky fingers.
Chop carrots into cubes the size of your thumbnail.
Slice bacon to match the carrots.
Melt a couple of thumbsize gobs of butter in a big-ass pot.
Add the onion, bacon, and carrots to the pot.
Toss in a couple of big pinches of salt.
Stir it all around and poke the onions every few minutes.
Put a frying pan on your stove over high heat and wait until you think it’ll burst into flames.
Lay the stew meat into the pan, leaving a finger’s worth of space around each piece.
After a minute or so, turn the meat cubes over. Are they nice and brown? Keep doing it until they’re brown all over.
Look at the onions. Does it seem like there’s about half as many as before? Perfect. Dump in a crapload of paprika, smoked paprika, caraway seeds, and black pepper.
Smell the pot. Does it smell toasty? Great. Add the beef and mushrooms.
Pour in a glass of red wine. It’ll probably erupt with steam. That’s cool, don’t worry about it.
Pour in a glass of stock while you’re at it (or a glass of water and a bouillon cube).
Turn down the heat to two or three.
Put the lid on the pot.
Y’know how you always meant to dig into Mad Men? Well, now’s your chance.
After every episode, stir the gulyás a little.
When Don tries to fire Pete in Season One, Episode Four (roughly 3.5 hours into the series), it’s time to dig in.
It goes a little somethin’ like this — hit it!
Taste the gulyás. Does it need salt? Pepper? Vinegar? Anything? Add whatever you think will make it taste better.
Jó étvágyat! Call it what you fancy – gulyás, pörkölt, or paprika-caraway beef stew – I just call it good eatin’. If you’re not feeling the Magyar love, the exact same process works with other flavour profiles. Swap cumin, garlic, and saffron for a Moroccan tanjia recipe. Beans and barley push it vaguely Ashkenazi. Leave out the extra seasonings and you’ve got the bistro classic bouef bourguignon. From one method, comes many dishes.
I like my gulyás with white beans and coleslaw.
Do it up! Take a photo and send it over. I’d love to see what y’all are cooking up these days. And, if you dig this recipe, push it along to your friends and your family. It’s the first of March and we’ve only got a few weeks left in stew season, so get on it.
PS. Want another stew? Check out one of these other Cook Somethin’ posts: