The best comfort food is something your mother made. Simple, homey, familiar. Perfect for a cold, rainy Sunday in January (or any grey, damp day). Make it in the morning, ready to reheat after an early show at the neighbourhood cinema, or just a wet walk in the park with the dog.
This, above, is my mother's beef stew. James Beard provides an almost identical recipe (minus carrots, potatoes and celery) in "American Cookery" called simply "American Beef Stew". Edna Lewis' version in "In Pursuit of Flavor" also leaves out the vegetables, but adds whole grain barley to simmer and soften in the strained broth after the meat is done. Crushed cloves of garlic and black peppercorns are the (undoubtedly French inspired) additions Julia Child makes in her "My Best Beef Stew", otherwise almost exactly as James Beard's.
Craig Claiborne's classic, 50's/60's beef stew is slightly more formal, with a hint of cloves, red wine, and buttered noodles instead of potatoes. It was included in a 1987 NY Times piece (see it now in NY Times "Cooking").. "Fed Up To Here" described a trendy nostalgia for "real food" as seen by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Sotheby's serving meat loaf, cabbage and pot pies at glittering parties. A then top caterer termed this "nouvelle grandma".
English beef stew is in the same cosy, simple tradition. Felicity Cloake analysed the "perfect beef stew" in her ongoing series for The Guardian. Read her conclusion here and see if you agree.
Me, I'm sticking with my mother's recipe - or really no-recipe, as she, from long experience, just threw in the ingredients she always used and put them in a covered pot on a low flame for a couple of hours. A few more carrots or onions more or less really doesn't matter. But don't forget the potatoes (my father hated rice).
This is (more or less) how my mother made her beef stew. Feeds 4
1 lb beef (I use chuck steak or braising beef) in 1-2 inch pieces - or just one flat piece if I'm feeling lazy
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
2-3 large carrots, cut into small chunks
2-3 large stalks celery, sliced thin
12 small new potatoes (or more if desired)
small sprig thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
Brown the meat on both sides,.Add add cut up vegetables, cover and simmer on low heat until softened. Add salt and pepper to taste, plus bay leaf and thyme, plus water to cover. Simmer on low heat, covered, for about two hours, or until meat falls apart when cut with a fork.
Cut new potatoes in half and add to the stew for the last half hour of cooking.