Soups and stews are the ultimate cold weather comfort food. My interest in, and enjoyment of them, is relatively new. Which is weird, because what sparked it was a very old memory. The best cook in my family was my Nana. She was my Dad’s Mom, and very sadly she passed away just before I turned 5. She was used to feeding her family on a pretty small budget. But she was a lady who could go to the street markets and buy what they had she could afford, bring it home and turn it into dinner. Not just supper, not just a meal, but an honest to goodness dinner.
I wish I remembered a lot more about her than I do. A great deal of what I know came from my Dad of course, and my beloved Grampa. My Dad was always very complimentary of my cooking, but my proudest moment was when he told me I had inherited so much from his mother. He said not only was I as as good a cook as she, (everyone who knew her said she was the best cook ever) but the way I worked around a kitchen was so much like her. How cool, right?
I have snippets of memories of things she cooked. There were two especially amazing Polish cookies I remember. My Dad had these recipes and he and I made them together several times in my childhood. Something I remember eating specifically at her table, cooked with her own to gifted hands, was…. stew.
Kind of anticlimactic, I know, after the Polish cookie lead-in. But it was so good. Funny, but my Dad didn’t have nearly the memory of it I did. She made soups and stews frequently, he said. Ok, I said.
I knew a few things about it. At least I thought I did. The memory of an almost 5 year old as to what might have been in a stew recipe decades ago isn’t exactly reliable. I’d tried a bunch of different recipes, and some were even good! None of them were even a little close. I had pretty much decided my memory was always going to be better than anything I could come up with.
Here is what I knew from memory and from Dad: It was a beef stew. It was a beef barley stew. It was not in a tomato broth but there was a touch of tomato to it. What I knew from my own cooking was stock is better than broth, barley beats the heck out of potatoes in stews and soups (personal preference), and (like my Nana) whatever veggies the green grocer has today will work.
Not a lot to go on. But aren’t you glad: It only took me 46 years, but I can cook that memory. I wish my Dad and my sister were around to taste it. I’m glad my husband and children can enjoy it, but my deepest hope is my grandchildren are making memories of not just their Grammy, but of this incredible stew.
Wow…. what an intro! But the background and family history to this rediscovered, reworked recipe of my childhood is just as important as the comfort food itself.
Pitch Perfect Beef and Barley Stew with Vegetables
Set a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium high heat and add 2T olive oil. Cut 1 1/2 to 2 lbs top sirloin into 1 inch cubes and season well with Kosher salt & pepper. Add to the hot oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until evenly browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon. Turn heat down to medium. To the pot add 1 medium sweet onion, diced, 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced, and 2 – 3 celery stalks, diced. Cook, stirring occasionally, til tender, 3 – 4 min. Add 3 cloves garlic, minced, and 2C sliced mushrooms to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, til browned, another 3 – 4 minutes. Pour in 1/3C dry red wine, stirring well to loosen the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Stir in 2T tomato paste and when well combined, stir in 8C beef stock. Drop in 1 bay leaf, and 5 sprigs fresh thyme. Add meat and any accumulated juices back to the stew, and stir in 1C rinsed pearlized barley. Stir well to combine and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until barley is tender, a good 45 minutes. Stir in 2T chopped fresh parsley and Kosher salt & pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
I’m telling you, my Nana Murphy (yes, my Polish Nana Murphy!) would have been very proud to set this stew on her table. It tastes every bit as wonderful as I remember. It stands alone well, or goes with a salad, bread (or both) to make a filling meal.
I hope when you make a pot of this incredible stew, you will stir in a healthy cupful of your family’s memories with mine. Just keep a written record of it somewhere!