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Peppery Beef Stew

Here in the Northeast U.S., we’ve been hit with winter’s full blast – more snow that I can remember in quite a few years, with still more expected in a few days. Lots of shoveling, but also lots of solid, comforting winter fare, like this beef stew recipe from Michele Scicolone in her cookbook, “The Italian Slow Cooker.”  The book is a gem, and in my case, really useful while my kitchen is undergoing a radical transformation. Cooking is relegated to another room in the house, where my table is set up with all manner of electric implements, from my rice cooker to my automatic polenta stirring pot.  You’d be surprised at how much cooking you can accomplish without an oven or a cooktop, as long as you’ve got electricity. Washing dishes and pots without a sink is another thing, but thankfully, my husband has become rather adept at bathroom sink dishwashing.

I’ve been using a hot plate to cook most meals, and had to rely on it to brown the meat and prepare the sauce for this stew, before dumping everything into my slow cooker. I bought an induction-heating hot plate and I have to say, it works really efficiently, heating things quickly — almost too quickly, as I found out this morning after burning some orange peels I was candying.

Anyway, back to the beef stew. After you brown the meat in a skillet, you add the rest of the ingredients (including a tablespoon of whole black peppercorns) and scrape up all those flavorful bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Then dump everything into the slow cooker and forget about it.

Come back 6-8 hours later, and you’ve got a delicious, fork-tender beef stew, ready to serve over noodles or rice.

Add a green vegetable on the side, and dinner is served.

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Peppery Beef Stew
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • salt
  • 3 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 2 inch chunks (I used 1¼ lbs. beef cubes but all the rest of the proportions in the recipe for the sauce)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup dry red wine, such as Chianti
  • 2 cups canned tomato puree (I used one 15-ounce can cherry tomatoes and ¼ cup water)
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped, plus 6 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, or to taste
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
Instructions
  1. On a piece of wax paper, stir together the flour and salt to taste.
  2. Toss the beef with the flour and shake off any excess.
  3. In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
  4. Add the meat in batches, without crowding the pan.
  5. Brown the beef well on all sides.
  6. With a slotted spoon transfr the beef to a large slow cooker.
  7. Add the wine to the skillet and bring it to a simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan.
  8. Add the tomato puree (or the cherry tomatoes and water), garlic, peppercorns, and ground pepper.
  9. Cook for 10 minutes, orr until slightly thickened.
  10. Pour the mixture into the slow cooker.
  11. Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or until the beef is very tender.
  12. Taste for seasoning before serving.
 

Polenta Festa Redux

Once a year, the Italian cultural organization I’m involved with holds a polenta festa. It’s always one of the most well-attended events of the year, with lots of polenta dishes to enjoy – from appetizers and main courses to dessert. This year, the nasty New Jersey weather kept some people away, but that just meant there was more for those who did show up, carrying their warm platters of the humble cornmeal dish.
Here’s a sampling of the various offerings: polenta with sausages and sauerkraut from Mary Sue and Al:
Eleanor’s polenta with broccoli rabe
 Polenta with sausages and melted cheeses from Ciao Chow Linda:
We had entertainment too – two students from Princeton University who played everything from “O Sole Mio” to the intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Bravi studenti.
 Then it was on to dessert, including Gilda’s cornmeal almond cake. I’ve posted the recipe for this before and you can find it here.
 Cornmeal chocolate chip cookies
 Polenta lemon cake (almost identical to a recipe I posted here)
 The next night back at home, as the Polar “Vortex” made its way to Princeton, I warmed up with some polenta and wild greens, again crowned with a mixture of grated fontina and parmesan, the same topping I used on the sausage dish I took to the festa.
My dishes, the first picture with the sausage and the one above with wild greens, were assembled by making a pot of polenta (instructions for making polenta from scratch here), cooking – then slicing some Italian sausage (or cooking the wild greens in water, draining and sautéing in olive oil with garlic, salt and red pepper flakes)  and scattering it over the polenta. Top with some grated fontina cheese and a sprinkling of parmesan. Heat in a 425 degree oven for a half hour or until cheese is melted and begins to turn slightly golden.
If you’re a neophyte when it comes to making polenta, fear not — take the plunge. The best polenta comes from constant stirring over a stove for 40 to 45 minutes, but I’ve been known to use the five-minute polenta too, and it’s not bad. Cookbook author Michele Scicolone even writes of a method using a slow cooker to make polenta, in her cookbook, “The Italian Slow Cooker.” And click here to learn about America’s Test Kitchen  “almost no-stir polenta” recipe.  Just don’t use that stuff that comes in a tube or you’ll be shut out in the polar vortex.
 
Polenta with Sausages (or wild greens) and Cheeses
Make polenta using one of the methods described and pour into an oven-proof dish.
Saute sausages in a pan until cooked through (or alternately do as I did and remove casings from sausage, then simmer in some water until cooked).
Slice and arrange sausages over polenta, poking some down into it. Cover with grated fontina and parmesan cheese. Bake at 425 degrees for 1/2 hour or until melted and slightly golden on top.
For the wild greens, boil them in some water, drain. Then add a bit of olive oil to a pan, some minced garlic and let it soften. Put the drained greens back in, adding a bit of salt and red pepper flakes. Spread the mixture on the polenta, adding grated fontina and parmesan. Bake for 425 degrees for 1/2 hour or until melted and slightly golden on top.
Basic Polenta – – Michele Scicolone, “The Italian Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010)
Serves 6
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1½ teaspoons salt
5 cups water (or half water and half broth)
Additional water, milk, broth or cream, optional
In a large slow cooker, stir together the cornmeal, salt and water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Stir the polenta. If it seems too thick, add a little extra liquid. Cook for 30-60 minutes more, until thick and creamy. Serve hot.