Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beef stew for dummies—or for busy cooks

Once upon a time I had a very large kitchen with oodles of storage and counter space; I also had the luxury of lots of time to shop farmers' markets and specialty shops unencumbered by anything more than my own imagination and the time to "create" in my culinary kingdom. Then, life handed me and my husband a surprise in the form of our extremely premature and very ill child. Nearly six years, three thousand miles and, it seems, a whole lifetime ago, life handed us a set of circumstances which turned our world upside down. We opted to move back to the east coast—to my hometown—to be closer to our families and, we hoped, a built-in support network.

Today, our life is fuller than we could ever have imagined. Complicated? Sometimes. Okay, fine, nearly always. Rich? Absolutely. I am a stay-at-home parent homeschooling our son; my husband is a nurse. Our little family lives in a tiny townhouse with an even tinier kitchen. And two cats.

No, really, I’m not kidding.

My kitchen is so tiny we can’t open the dishwasher and the oven doors at the same time. If I’m standing at the sink and my husband opens the refrigerator door, I am effectively trapped until the door is closed. Did I mention my kitchen is tiny? On the occasions we’re in the kitchen together, my husband and I need to give each other directions much like a wait staff in a busy kitchen. “Behind you! Hot food!”, "Watch out for the cat's tail!" or “Knife on the left, don’t back up!” are frequently heard in our kitchen. It’s really a one-cook space. Consequently, I tend to do a lot of crock pot cooking, baking in batches that I can freeze or store, or marinating something for my husband to cook on the grill—year round.

I’m blessed with a husband who enjoys cooking—though not as much as he enjoys eating. He is a willing sous chef on the occasions I have the time and energy to plan something adventurous. More importantly, he is content to eat anything I prepare and loves it when I experiment in the kitchen. I’ve been doing much more of that since our son, Nik, decided he enjoys food—a lot!

Nik has had a feeding tube of one sort or another since he was born. It wasn’t really until early this year that he showed any interest in food. But once he did, the boy became an eating machine. As we phased out Nik’s feeding tube, replacing more and more formula with pureed or mashed foods by mouth, I had to up my game in the kitchen. Not only have I had to come up with a greater variety of foods but I’ve had to figure out how to adapt them meet Nik’s need to be gluten free (GF) as well as avoiding some other suspected allergens. The transition hasn’t been nearly as hard as I thought it would be; there’s such a wealth of information and products readily available.

Many of the recipes I’ll share with you may be GF or I will try to give tips on how to adapt a recipe to be GF. Many of those adaptations will have been born through trial and error—sometimes lots of errors. I’ve always been more of an intuitive, experimental cook than a precise one.

Ask me for a recipe for something I’ve served and it might go something like this: “Add a pinch of this, a dash of that, simmer until it’s thickened. Add xyz spice to taste.” How long should it simmer? I don’t pay attention, really. Instinct. Consequently, a few of my meals are fabulous creations which turn out exactly as I envision them while many turn out to be reasonably good but not quite what I intended. In most cases, they are never prepared exactly the same way twice.

Of course, if you’re reading a cooking blog, odds are you’re not looking for precisely measured and strictly regimented recipes. You'll get a few of those from me but, really, if you want measured and regimented, use a cookbook. If you want to know how this stay-at-home-homeschooling mom manages to make some tasty meals for her hungry family? Pull up a seat, pour yourself a cup of coffee—or a glass of wine—and let’s get cooking!

Crock Pot Beef Stew


1 pound boneless chuck, fresh or frozen*
12 oz baby carrots
8 oz canned chopped spinach
1 large can (14.5 oz) low fat, low sodium beef broth
1 1/4 pounds new potatoes, scrubbed and halved
1/2 cup dried minced onion or 1 large fresh chopped onion
2 cups cold water whisked with 6 tablespoons All-Purpose Flour Blend**

Prepare your crock in whatever manner you prefer. I simply spray the bottom with cooking spray; some people prefer to use liners.

Place meat on the bottom of the crock. (* I used frozen meat because I knew I would be cooking the meal overnight. Either thawed or frozen works fine.)

Add vegetables and beef broth right on top.

Add generous sprinkles of both savory and oregano (NB: I don't measure but I'd estimate nearly 2 Tbsp each. Start light; you can always add more later.)

Whisk flour** and water together until completely smooth. Add to crock.

Cover and cook 4 hours on high. This should be enough for the meat to be tender and the vegetables completely cooked without being mushy. (I cooked mine overnight on low for twelve hours because I wanted everything to be soft enough to grind/puree to feed to my son.)

This recipe can be adapted to suit your particular tastes in vegetables. I simply made it using ingredients I knew would puree well and which Nik enjoys. In the past, I've made it using broccoli. You can use cauliflower, green beans, peas...whatever you like. You can also add more meat or make it completely vegetarian.

**To make this recipe using traditional wheat-based flour, use a 1:1 ratio. For general cooking, I use this all-purpose blend I found in Living Without magazine.

This recipe, as written, yields 8.5 cups. Approximately 230 calories per cup. (We are still tracking my son's caloric intake so many of my recipes will have that information provided.)

I hope you'll give this recipe a try and let me know how you like it. Meanwhile, what's your favorite crock pot recipe?


  1. That looks awesome, especially on this gray,pouring-rain day. I wonder what I have to throw in my crock pot today...

  2. This looks great. I have honestly never made Beef "stew" - soup, yes, but never stew. Think I'm going to have to give it a try.

  3. Yum! I love my crock-pot. My current favorite recipe is an italian sausage/tortellini/vegetable soup. (I make up recipes too!)

  4. Okay, true confessions. I gave my crock pot away. Simply could not figure out the benefit. What can I say? I've got my quirks.

    But, just about anything you make in the crock pot, I can make in my dutch oven, either stovetop or in the oven, so... Judy, I'd love that soup recipe, and Niksmom, this looks great!

  5. The more I comment on here, the more I am going to reveal myself to be a dummy. But I have not been able to figure out the crock pot. (I'm glad to read Kristen's comment above.)

    As a mom who works out of the house, I thought a crock pot would help us a lot. But I think I am too hung up on the INSTRUCTIONS- not being intuitive enough. Most recipes say to cook for, say 6 hours. But I'm gone from the house for 10 hours. So what do I do????? Do I adapt every recipe to just cook on low all day long? Is that ok?

  6. Gretchen, I just use mine on low if I'm going to be out of the house all day. It will probably work for most things you make except in my opinion chicken which I think gets too dry if in the crockpot too long. But soups and any kinda beef dish - I'd just do it for longer on low.

  7. Oooh, this sounds YUM!

    Kristen, when I'm working in an office, I am a SLAVE to my crockpot. LOVE IT. When I work at home? I almost never use it. Because, as you say, a dutch oven will do the job just as well, with less electricity, and takes up less space.

    That said, I ADORE my crock pot, and actually have as number two on my Chanukah list, one of those mini crocks/Little Dippers. (What's number one, you ask? A rice of those newfangled ones that you can set to keep the rice perfectly cooked all day long. ;-))

    And, Gretchen, there are crockpots that can switch to 'warm' once they're done with a timed cooking; that would be my suggestion. Although, with many crockpot recipes, I don't think overcooking is a huge issue. Sometimes, yes. But not always. You'd have to experiment.

  8. Congrats on your new post. I'll be keeping you with you in both places!

  9. I do agree with Kristen that I'd *rather* be using a dutch oven but, in our case, it just isn't practical with the amount of time we spend out of the house at appointments or the amount of supervision Nik requires right now.

    Gretchen, you absolutely *can* put it on low and let it go all day. It should be fine.

    A tip for cooking chicken in the crockpot so it doesn't dry out: add 1/2 cup water or broth to the bottom of the crock if you are "roasting" the chicken. Also, check that your lid is aligned properly so the moist heat isn't actually escaping out the side. I've never had a dry chicken using this trick.

    As TC mentioned, there are crockpots which automatically switch to a "warm" setting. Mine does that; it's a Corningware. It came with a travel cover and a carrying case, too!

  10. One of my issues with the crock pot is that very often a recipe calls for browning the meat ahead of time on the stove, so I've now got an extra step and an extra pan and suddenly it doesn't seem worth it when I can keep going in the pan I used to brown the meat and keep all that good stuff that sticks to the bottom and adds flavor. Make sense?

    But yes, people who are far better cooks than I am, love their crock pots. And no doubt, we will see a lot of crock pot recipes pop up here over the winter. Maybe one of them will convert me. ;-)

  11. Yum, sounds great -- I like the addition of spinach to the recipe. I probably use my crock pot at least 2 or 3 times a week, I don't know how I'd ever cook if I didn't! It's so good to hear that Nik is an eating machine these days :)

  12. Adding spinach to beef stew is a great idea. It looks hearty and comforting.

  13. TC,

    Phaedra has an awesome rice cooker. You should ask her about it. She loves that thing!

  14. I've been eager to get some crock pot recipes that are gfcf and soy free too! Thank you.

  15. Crock pots are heaven. Especially this time of year. I can almost smell your delicious stew from here!

  16. I'm going to make this in the next couple of days but what is "savory"? We've never heard of that as an ingredient...

  17. I love this vegetable beef soup! You’ll have to come back and tell me what you think after you try it!

  18. I so enjoy your site and your recipes. Would you please consider adding a print option so we can enjoy your recipes a little more easily. Thank you.UpdateLand