Wine With Zin-ful Beef Stew
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Few dishes are as satisfying on a cold January evening as cubes of beef braised in red wine. The French rely on culinary masterpieces such as Boeuf Bourguignon, and the Italians have Brasato, a delicious beef stew braised in Nebbiolo or other local wine. We decided to tweak these classics a bit by using Zinfandel instead of traditional Pinot Noir or Italian vino, and we added a subtle dash of chili powder to the stewing juices. We then invited our friends Rick and Rebecca over to evaluate our all-American stew, and to weigh in on which wines were best suited to it.
We'd expected more consensus among the four of us, but in fact a few of the pairings proved controversial. We all agreed that major oakiness, as in the splintery California Merlot we tried, turned quite bitter with the stew. Yet when the oak was tamped down just a notch in an Aussie Shiraz our ranks split, with three of us giving the pairing high praise. The fourth, however, was adamantly opposed to this wine. (Among the dissenter's remarks was the memorable description of the wine's complete lack of finesse: 'This wine announces itself like a stripper,' he sputtered indignantly, 'complete with tassels!') Okay, that wine didn't make the final cut. Nor did an Oregon Pinot Noir for the opposite problem (too light for the dish), a Pommard (ditto), and an otherwise delicious Barbera from Virginia (it too was a tad too lean for the rich stew).
What did we learn from all this (besides the fact that food and wine pairing is not an exact science)? One lesson was that wines with a measure of bold, sweet vinous fruitiness were winning accompaniment to this stew (perhaps this was not surprising given that the beef was braised in a youthful, fruity Zinfandel). But the main thing we took away from the exercise was the reminder that matching the flavor, structure and texture of the wine to that of the food yields the most sastisfying results. In this instance, wines that were extremely oaked or excessively tannic didn't mesh seamlessly with our Boeuf à la Zin, while the leaner wines in our roundup were overwhelmed by the fairly hearty dish. Had we braised the beef in a more delicate wine, might the Pinot and the Barbera have been on our list of favorites? The answer to that question awaits further experimentation on another wintry night.
ZIN-FUL BEEF STEW
As with any beef stew, this one is best if made a day or two before serving, which not only concentrates the flavors but also allows you to remove the excess fat from the broth. But because a certain amount of fat adds both flavor and texture to stews, we prefer to use cuts of beef that aren't too lean-in this case, for example, we had the butcher cut up a shoulder chuck roast.
We also subscribe to the notion that reducing the wine and broth before the meat is added yields a more concentrated, flavorful result. Any decent, fruity mid-range Zin will be good for braising. We like to thicken the juices with pureed carrots that have simmered with the beef rather than with flour, for the resulting 'gravy' seems lighter, with more elegant flavors. The beef may be braised in the oven or over low heat on top of the stove; we slow-cooked it in the oven. Polenta, rice, or potatoes all make good accompaniments that will sop up the delicious braising juices. We served our stew in shallow bowls, with a mound of spelt (a barley-like grain) in the center of each one.
one 750 ml bottle of Zinfandel
3 cups beef broth
One whole onion, peeled
2 bay leaves
3 pounds beef cut in bite size pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 garlic cloves
One teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon cardamom (optional)
One dash of dried red pepper flakes or cayenne
4 or 5 medium carrots, peeled and cut in chunks about 3 inches long
In a saucepan, simmer the wine until it has reduced to about one cup or a little less. Place the beef broth, the onion and the bay leaves in a separate saucepan, and simmer until reduced by about half. (Reducing the liquids will take about 20 minutes, and may be done well in advance). Combine the wine and the beef stock along with the onion and bay leaves.
Preheat the broiler. Place the beef in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan and toss it with the olive oil, coating each piece of meat. Season with salt and pepper, and place it under the broiler (about 5 inches below the element). As the meat takes on color, turn it over to brown evenly on all sides, being careful not to let it burn.
Preheat the oven to 275 or 350, depending on how fast you want the braise to cook. Transfer the meat to a heavy flame-proof pot and pour in the wine and beef stock (along with the onion and bay leaves). Stir in the whole garlic cloves (peeled), the chili powder, cardamom (if you have it), and the red pepper flakes. Add the carrots and bring the braise to a simmer. If there is not enough liquid stock to cover the meat, add more beef or chicken stock. You may continue simmering stew, covered, on top of the stove, making sure it doesn't scorch on the bottom, or transfer the pot (covered) to the oven. Cook until the meat is very tender, about two to four hours, depending on how low the heat is.
With a slotted spoon, remove the beef to a separate bowl along with the carrots. Refrigerate beef and broth separately several hours or overnight, then remove and discard the fat that has congealed on top of the broth. Remove the carrots (and whatever remains of the onion) and place in the blender along with a few spoonfuls of broth. Puree for a minute or two until mixture is very smooth; then pour it back into the broth. Add the beef and reheat.