beef stews weird and great

I am reading what David Tanis has to say about fusion. One of his favorite examples combines east and south. Tanis’ judgment is short and clear: “they can keep their wasabi aïoli, thank you very much” (this reminds me a little of my own aside on Pesto in this hummus article). Of course, Tanis then dives headlong into a gorgeous recipe for a “French-style [duck] braise with Chinese flavors.” (David Tanis 2008. A platter of figs and other recipes, p. 80-2. The book is a pleasure to read).

Fusion, in this interpretation, is the same as a non-original globalized mix of ingredients and cooking techniques. Robin tells me that the dapper Borås Tidning recently printed a Chili recipe. It incorporates all sorts of seasonal vegetables (Swedish, that is), a tiny amount of Spanish peppers and, as a special treat, soy sauce. It should be served with lingonberry bread. So this is Fusion for Dummies or, if you really need a name, Spicy Beef Stew with Swedish Seasonal Vegetables and Soy Sauce. No Chili, though, so much is clear.

A southern cuisine newbie like myself still feels his head spin when people who know more about Chili than myself begin discussing Heat’n’Meat ingredients. Tanis’ recipe for “Green Chile Stew”, New Mexico style, is accompanied with two excursions into various local varieties of New Mexico green hot peppers, Anaheim, poblano chiles (also called pasillas) and roasted jalapeños (p. 252 and 255-6). No matter, in spite of the advantage of his superior knowledge, Tanis calls his recipe what it is: a stew.

In simple recipes, “original” and “non-original” is largely about the use and mis-use of terminology. Salcia Landmann, in her belligerent and entertaining culinary-opinion-book Gepfeffert und gesalzen, teaches us about the distinction between Goulash and Pörkölt (the second of these is in fact what we think the first is). To mix up these terms is wrong, but no fusion, both are supposed to be authentic of the same part of the world.

In Landmann’s version, Pörkölt (what we uninitiated would identify as Goulash) is the simplest thing to make. All you need is a heap of meat and a heap of chopped onions, maybe a dash of red wine and some tomatoes, and a lot of patience. And Paprika. The paprika needs to be of top quality, it is added quite late in the proceedings.

After a few tests I believe that two elements are of superior importance for the success of Pörkölt in particular, and any stew incorporating paprika in general: the patience and the late addition of the paprika. In comparison, our frantic efforts to “brown the meat over high heat” are less important. The success of browning really depends on the cut of meat and on the specifically desired result: do we need the sauce to be meaty and the meat boring or do we prefer some kind of a balance?

Even in the – for Pörkölt preferred – cheaper cuts of beef, the ones with fat and tissue and thingies still attached, I have identified three kinds of browning behavior.

No. 1 is what all those retro-cooks remember from their horse cart years: cheap, sincere beef, a bit dry around the edges but not yet smelly. Toss it into your kettle with the almost smoking fat, together with the chopped onions, get a strong dude from the workshop to stir vigorously with a small spade, add the wine, salt and chopped tomato as soon as browned, reduce heat and switch on your patience for a couple of hours. I have not been able to find such non-watery cuts for years, but I still remember that they once existed (I have good hopes, though. The butcher around the corner offered me to provide special cuts if desired at my first visit. And his lamb steak was the best I had in a very long time).

No. 2 does get brown like no. 1. It also gets fibrous, tasteless and tough, and stays so even if it is cooked for a week. Maybe its brownness (“caramelized” in fancy talk) adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to the sauce but its leatheriness definitely doesn’t. Better un-browned and slow-cooked.

No. 3 is Our Daily Beef; bits out of a package (or perhaps cut from a larger slab of rib meat that comes out of a package) that immediately begin to boil in their own juices no matter how large your kettle is and how hot the cooking fat. Since the stew will boil for hours to come, there is no need to go on boiling the bits in their own juice. Add wine and tomatoes and get going with your stew.

My recommendation is to begin by trying to brown a few bits at a time. If the meat even then doesn’t play its part, just abandon the browning exercise. Long cooked stew with a lot of onions and nice, spicy paprika is good in any case.


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