One time I asked my mother what her favorite food was. She thought about my question for a few seconds and then said, “I like anything that I don’t have to cook.”
By the time I asked her that question, my mother had been cooking for her family over sixty years. Even if we subtract all the Friday Fish Fries, Sunday Buffets and lunches with friends that she had enjoyed over those six decades, I’m sure that she had still cooked at least 60,000 meals. My mother was 15 years old when her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and admitted to the TB sanitarium in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Mom’s two older sisters were no longer living at home, so she became the housekeeper and cook for her father and two older brothers with the extra responsibility of mothering a younger brother and little sister. When her mother came home cured from the sanitarium, she was still weak, so Mom kept cooking. Then she married my father and soon was cooking for her own offspring.
For over sixty years, seven days a week and three times a day, she worked in her kitchen. She baked bread, cakes, pies, cookies and other desserts; she fried bacon, eggs, sausage and pancakes for breakfast; she roasted hams, chickens, turkeys and pork shoulders; she baked beans, squash, meatloaf, casseroles and puddings; and she made soups and stews almost every week in the year.
Since we grew many of our own vegetables or bought them cheaply from local farmers, soups and stews were a good way to satisfy big appetites without spending a fortune. And of course, even tough cuts of meat become tender if you simmer them long enough. Many of Mom’s stews included diced rutabaga, a vegetable which is no longer as popular as it once was. Rutabaga adds a subtle sweetness to a stew that turns an ordinary dish into something really special.
Be sure to use it in the recipe which follows. Even if you think you don’t like rutabaga, give it a chance. This stew has made converts of many who knew they hated the root.
2 – 2 1/2 lbs. inexpensive cut of beef (chuck roast or similar)
1 large yellow onion
1 clove garlic
3 or 4 medium carrots
3 or 4 ribs of celery
2 or 3 medium potatoes
1 small rutabaga (3 to 4 inch diameter)
2 to 3 cups of tomato juice
2 to 3 cups of dry red wine
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 T butter
2 T cooking oil
1/2 tsp. basil
1 bay leaf
Dash to 1/8 tsp. cloves
Dash to 1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. cayenne
1/8 tsp. marjoram
2 T flour
sliced mushrooms (optional)
Cut the meat into 1 to 1 1/2 inch cubes discarding bones and excessive fat. Peel and chop the onion into half inch pieces, and mince the garlic. Heat the butter and oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot holding at least 8 quarts. Brown the meat in batches and set aside to drain.
When all the meat has been browned, turn down the heat and add the onions to the pot. Cook slowly without browning for 3 or 4 minutes until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and return the meat to the pot.
Add equal amounts of tomato juice and wine to cover the meat, bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer for about an hour stirring once or twice. Add all the herbs and spices at this time, and more liquid if necessary, and let simmer another hour.
While the meat is cooking, clean and chop the carrots into 1/4 inch slices. Clean and chop the celery into 1/2 inch slices. Peel and cut the potatoes and rutabaga into 1/2 by 1 inch pieces. Add the vegetables to the pot with equal amounts of juice and wine to cover them.
Simmer for 45 minutes. Stir the flour into about 1/2 cup cold water and stir this mixture into the stew until the broth thickens slightly. At this time you can drain the liquid from a small can of sliced mushrooms and add them to the stew or add some fresh braised mushrooms if you wish.
Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary and serve with a glass of the dry wine, plenty of good homemade bread and perhaps a salad on the side.
NOTES: Don’t forget the rutabaga! Mom did not use wine in her stews, but she liked my beef stew. I do wonder sometimes if maybe that was just because she didn’t have to cook it.