When I was 8, my mother went to work as a teacher and, shortly after, there were new signs of prosperity in our home. For one thing, our large upright yellow freezer was suddenly full--of meat. My parents had bought a side of beef. Common sense tells me now that it was probably only a part of a side of beef; still, one day the freezer was empty, the next day, packed so tightly I couldn't extricate the carton of Neapolitan ice cream.
It was a time of great bounty. We ate roasts and ribs and stews--and a wheelbarrow's worth of hamburger. My mother, being disciplined, saved the best cuts for last. She was so chary with the steaks, in fact, that long after everything else ran out, we had steak. We ate steak for dinner, steak for breakfast, steak for days on end. T-bone steaks, rib-eye steaks, fist-sized mild filets, map-like sirloins. My mother, possibly in response to her mother, who'd cooked all meat "to death," barely seared the meat. We ate our steak rare. Very rare. Wobbly rare. So rare that it bloodied the sandwich bread in my lunch box.
"What's for dinner?" my sister and I would ask.
"Aw, really? Steak again?"
We had pepper steak, steak Diane, steak pan-fried in a cast iron pan that my mother had sprinkled with kosher salt, steak barbecued on the indoor grill, steak and mushrooms, steak and onions.
"What kind of ingrates have I raised?" cried my mother.
"Let me tell you what it was like during the Great Depression," intoned my father.
Eventually, we grew so sullen at the mention, let alone the sight, of steak, my mother began to disguise it. She made beef stroganoff and marinated kebabs. She learned to stir-fry in a wok. And then, out of desperation, she made beef stew. Steak stew. Fabulous meat in a poor man's dish struck her as unbearably ironic--and miraculously indulgent. "I had to make stew so the girls would eat steak," she would tell people over and over again in the years to come, pride and outrage mingling in her voice. Imagine such waste! Imagine such prosperity!
My mother has been gone for a decade now, but I thought of her and the steak stews recently, when I asked a caterer I know how she made beef stew. "I flour and brown the meat," she said, "and set it aside. I saute onions, deglaze the pan with wine, add stock, cook the vegetables and, when everything's done, add the meat, warm it up and serve."
"But you'd need very good meat if you're not going to stew it for hours."
"Oh, yes," she said. "Sirloin steak."
The bottom line? Steak makes a quick stew that's perfect for those of us who want a big fragrant bowl of the stuff on a rainy day but don't have the time to tend a long-simmering pot. And, frankly, it's not that extravagant: What better way to make one pound of steak feed four people?
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Quick and Fragrant Beef Stew
Using a good, tender cut of meat means the stew doesn't have to cook forever. This dish can be ready to eat in about 35 minutes.
1 pound top sirloin cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons oil or lard
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 cup wine
1 can (14.5 oz.) beef or chicken broth
2 carrots, sliced in rounds
3 thin-skinned small potatoes, quartered
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 2-inch sprig fresh rosemary
1 small sprig fresh lavender
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 to 1 cup freshly shucked peas
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
Dredge meat cubes in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Brown cubes in hot oil or lard. Set aside. Fry onion until soft. Deglaze pan with wine. Add broth, carrots, potatoes, thyme, rosemary, lavender and orange zest. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer. When vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes, add peas; when peas are cooked, about 3 minutes, add browned meat and heat through. Adjust seasonings. If necessary, thicken with pea-sized pieces of flour and butter kneaded together in equal proportion. Garnish with fresh parsley and/or sprigs of herbs.
Food stylist: Norman Stewart; casserole and platter from Sur La Table, Pasadena