An epic stew

Everyone is always doing projects on the weekend. Home improvements. Crafty things. Yard work.

Jeff and I decided on a recent Sunday that we wanted to devote the day to a cooking project. Not just any old recipe that you start an hour or two before you eat, but a challenge. We picked Catalan Stew from Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home.”

“Stew!” you say. “That’s not so hard!”

But Keller’s Catalan Stew is complex, both in flavor and preparation. It combines short ribs, fennel, leeks and fingerling potatoes in a broth that’s flavored with orange and Spanish olives. It is very much a Mediterranean stew – and it is fantastic.

Among the complexities in preparation: The recipes within the recipe. The requirement of cheesecloth. An ingredient we had never heard of before. Kitchen gadgets we didn’t have.

But I loved the photo spread in “Ad Hoc” showing the deconstructed stew. It’s pretty, right?

Now, I will take you on a journey. By the end, you will be exhausted and you will vow never to make Catalan Stew. I think this is the main reason why Keller didn’t put step-by-step photos in his cookbook.

One of the recipes-withina-recipe is short ribs. If you have the foresight to make these the day before, go for it. We thought about having foresight, but then decided to do everything in one day. Short ribs are the first thing to do.  (1) Let them come to room temp, (2) coat each chunk in flour, (3) brown them in a cast-iron skillet, (4) set them aside.

The next step is to make a braising liquid that you’ll put in a pot with short ribs so that they finish cooking. Basically, you break down fennel, onion and carrots, which will flavor the braising liquid.

(Spoiler Alert! I wouldn’t worry about being perfect with your cuts. After you slice the fennel and carrots and dice the onion, the recipe tells you to throw the vegetables away. That sounded silly and wasteful, so we saved them in the fridge to make a stock later. Then we forgot about them and threw them out two weeks later. Recipe: 1. Us: 0)

So, the veggies go in a deep pot (1), and eventually the short ribs go in there too. But the veggies and short ribs aren’t supposed to mingle. So using cheesecloth (Am I the only person who usually avoids recipes that call for cheesecloth?) you create a hammock (2) for the short ribs to rest in. You’ll want a long piece of cheesecloth so that the edges anchor over the sides of the pot (3). Place the short ribs in the hammock (4) and add beef or veggie broth until most of the ribs are submerged.

You let that all braise away until the meat is nearly falling off the bone. The recipe says it shouldn’t be falling apart, which, sadly, is how I like it.

Next, you dismantle the pot by pulling out the short ribs and straining the liquid, twice. The recipe says to use a fine-mesh conical strainer, which I’m sure is lovely, but we don’t have one. Instead, I used this tiny strainer (what, possibly, is the real purpose of this world’s tiniest strainer?) and it worked just fine.

Oh! All of this time, we were also making soffritto, which is my new favorite thing that takes five hours to make. Basically, it’s a tomato-onion jam with savory sweetness, and it’s incredible. It cooks low and slow for five hours. You start with onions and an insane amount of oil (1) and add tomato puree (2) after two and a half hours. The mixture continues to reduce (3) and after another two and a half hours, it takes on the consistency of a thick pesto (4). Though I’m not sure how essential this ends up being overall, I think it’s meant to add depth of flavor to the stew liquid. It’ll come into play later.

I prefer to eat soffritto with a spoon. You’ll use about half of what you make, and the leftovers are great in a Sunday morning egg-potato-veggie scramble. Or, again, on a spoon.

OK, back to the stew. Remember all of those vegetables you cut up before? They’re not in the stew. You threw them out or put them in the fridge. So now you need new veggies for the stew: Fennel, cut lengthwise in to wedges, and leeks. The recipe says to cut the leeks lengthwise, but then all of their layers would just fall apart once you give the stew a good stir. I went with discs instead.

You also have to boil fingerling potatoes in water seasoned with a sachet of herbs. I boiled the potatoes, of course, but I left out the sachet of herbs because you end up throwing it away as soon as you drain the potatoes.

Now, it’s time to build the stew. The crazy thing is that at this point, you’re only like 25 minutes out from eating.

So here we go. (1) Spoon some delicious soffritto in the bottom of a deep pot. (2) Add the braising liquid from earlier, plus two wide zests of orange peel and Spanish olives. (3) Nestle the short ribs and fingerling potatoes in the broth, then (4) cover with the fennel and leeks. (5) Spoon the braising liquid over the veggies – don’t mix everything. Cover and simmer.

And just eight hours from when you started, you have an awesome stew!

I have to say that if I ever see Catalan Stew on the menu at one of Keller’s restaurants, I’ll probably order it to check my work. The orange zest and olives make for a really distinct flavor, so I wouldn’t serve this to a meat-and-potatoes crowd. But for anyone who is looking for a  twist on stew, this is worthy of a Sunday project.

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