Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beef and Barley

It's cold, damn cold this winter. I'm not a person to complain about the cold: I like it usually. But there have been entire days this winter when I have been chilled inexplicably to the core and have not been able to feel warm. In weather like this, I definitely crave stick-to-the-ribs food capable of warming not only my chilly bones but my soul. And beef and barley fits that bill perfectly.

Raw Ingredients
On Sunday, before we took off to spend the afternoon at Delaplane Cellars to have lunch, I put all the ingredients for beef and barley in the slow cooker so that it would be ready and waiting for us upon our return.

My basic idea for beef and barley is to put stock, mirepoix, a bouquet garni, and barley in the slow cooker. Then brown the meat and add it to the cooker. Then deglaze the pan and add that to the cooker. Then walk away for hours.

For a really good, chef-quality result, the reality is a touch more complex than that. The day before, I made a huge stock pot of brown beef stock and reserved a half gallon for Sunday to serve as the flavor base of the dish. My idea of beef and barely is a little beef, too little to properly flavor the dish, and a whole lot of barley. It is a grain dish, not a meat dish, in my culinary lexicon and so a great stock is necessary to add deep meat flavor.

The bouquet garni came straight from the garden (yes, I put on my knee-high boots to wade through the snow drifts): sage and rosemary from above the snow and some thyme buried under a coat of snow. And I threw in a couple of bay leaves harvested back in the fall, from the pantry. Herbs, especially this time of year, add flavor nuance to an otherwise very mellow dish.

And variety in the root vegetables comprising the mirepoix will also help. I used what I had on hand: carrots, leeks, celery root, turnips, and red and yellow onions. Some people put potatoes in theirs; I prefer turnips. Into the slow cooker they went along with an ounce of dried porcini mushrooms (for yet another layer of flavor, a deep earthy one).

Browning the meat adds still more flavor and after I browned the beef shin and removed it to the slow cooker, I put a couple tablespoons of tomato paste and a small handful of finely minced garlic into the hot sauté pan and cooked it, stirring all the while, until the tomato paste was caramelized. I deglazed the pan with water and once I had scraped all the bits off the bottom of the pan, I poured all over the meat in the slow cooker. Tomatoes are another source of umami in addition to the beef and the mushrooms. The more layers of flavor at this party, the better.

I added a half gallon of water and a tablespoon of salt, stirred it all well, put the lid on, and spent five minutes washing up the kitchen, before walking out the door with Ann.

Neither Pretty nor Glamorous, but so Delicious!
Back at home later that evening, I pulled the beef shin out of the cooker and let it cool, before shredding the meat and adding it back. Once I adjusted the salt, I scooped out big steaming mugs that we ate in front of the fireplace while watching a movie, warm at last during this bitter winter. Life is good!

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