Beef Stew With Root Vegetables

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"There's a lot left to learn about umami...after all, everyone knows exactly what you mean when you talk about sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. If umami is just as fundamental a taste, then why does it so often need to be explained? What makes umami so obscure?"
-Bob Holmes Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense

Raise your hand if you've heard about "umami," the fifth widely accepted "fundamental taste" -if you haven't, don't worry. That elusive savory, meaty, almost gamey flavor often associated with soups, broths, aged food products (cheese, charcuterie), and mushrooms is now called "umami," because apparently "savory," "meaty," and "gamey" are doing service no longer. I had heard of this term (which was only publicly acknowledged about fifteen years ago) but I grasped umami more as a concept. I couldn't pin an intense experience as a recent memory.

Last month when I finally made good on my threat to visit a real butcher shop, I brought home two pounds of meat to use in a pot of beef stew. Call me old-fashioned, but a rich, tomato-based beef stew seems to be the heart and soul of umami as a rich and previously-nameless flavor. I froze the meat and when early September brought with it unusually perfect, autumnal weather I knew it was an apt time to hunt down a purposeful go at umami.

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Growing up, we never took family vacations; we camped. In tents, in a pop-up camper, often in the back of the car when the inevitable monsoon crashed over our campsite and threatened to wash us and all of our belongings (along with approximately three million mosquitoes), into the brackish waters of North Carolina's Currituck Sound. But occasionally we hoofed it to the Blue Ridge Mountains and set up camp in a place with real boulders and actual hills and the distinctly thrilling possibility of black bears. Places where the comfort of a campfire drew you closer instead of trying to smother you. I remember the white curls of wood smoke in the bare oaks, the smell of crushed acorns...the one ill-advised family hike which had us straggling back to our camper well after dark to to discover that the crock-pot of beef stew had boiled over onto the laminate counter-top. But more than my imminent fear of bears, I recall the crashing hunger that bowled me over when I smelled that stew. My mother hadn't even opened the camper door, and the scent enveloped us. In an Esau-like move, I swore fealty to that tomato-based, potato-laden, boiled-over mess with its tender chunks of beef. I think it was then, post-hike, that I first knew what umami could mean.

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This recipe draws all the old meaning from those memories of camping-trip beef stew while elevating it to something altogether more spectacular - I've omitted the potatoes in favor of roasted turnips, carrots, and butternut squash and added some white wine (one traditionally uses red wine, but I already had white in my pantry and I liked the effect). Perhaps my favorite part of the adjustments to the recipe is the fact that when I gave some stew to my dad, he did not recognize the absence of potatoes, though he might have balked if he'd known that he was eating turnips and butternut squash. Welcome to the heart of autumn's umami. Go camping, get lost on a hike, let it boil over, enjoy the results.

Beef Stew With Root Vegetables
(serves 8)

2 pounds high-quality stew beef with good marbling, cut into 1" chunks
3 medium-sized turnips
1 small butternut squash (app. 1 pound, though this is to preference)
olive oil for roasting
4 large carrots
2 medium yellow onions chopped into 1-inch chunks
7 cloves of garlic, chopped or mashed
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup white wine
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
6 cups beef broth
2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 small bay leaves
1 large sprig fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons honey

  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Peel carrots, half them lengthwise, then chop into 2" long pieces. Set aside.
  2. Prepare butternut squash by peeling, then cutting into 1" chunks. Prepare turnips by washing and cutting into 1" chunks. Toss the turnips and butternut squash with a drizzle of olive oil, then lightly salt. Spread out generously on a parchment-lined sheet pan and roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until able to be pierced with a fork, but not too soft.
  3. In a large stockpot on the stove, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Sear chunks of stew meat in oil on both sides, cooking in batches if necessary to insure every piece gets a good turn on the heat. Transfer meat to a plate and set aside.
  4. Add to the pan the onions, garlic, and balsamic vinegar and stir for about five minutes. Add the tomato paste and cooking wine and stir for a few moments, then add back in the beef with its juices. Add the broth, water, salt, pepper, bay leaves, thyme, and honey. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for an hour.
  5. Add in roasted vegetables and carrot pieces, then simmer for an additional two hours or as long as preferred. Serve blazing hot.


(Also, this serves as my grain-free, low-carb recipe for this week's Gelato Freeze cooking challenge)

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