HOW TO BUILD FLAVOR WITHOUT THE HASSLE OF BROWNING THE MEAT
Few cuisines can rival the complexity of Spanish food, with its influences from ancient Greece and Rome, North Africa, and even the Americas. The multilayering of flavors and textures is particularly apparent in meat stews from the country’s easternmost region of Catalonia. Almost all begin with a slow-cooked jam of onions and tomatoes known as sofrito and end with a dollop of picada, a pesto-like paste of fried bread, herbs, and ground nuts that gives the stew body and dimension. Warm spices such as cinnamon and smoked paprika add another level of depth.
With so much going on, you can skip the stew-making step most cooks dread—the browning of the meat, which takes half an hour of constant attention and leaves your stovetop a mess. Short ribs work best in this recipe because of their beefy flavor. And boneless short ribs have far less fat than the bone-in option so you don’t have to worry about degreasing the stew. But just because we skip the stovetop sear doesn’t mean we don’t want browning.
We have discovered that browning of the meat can occur during the long stewing process if you follow these steps: First, move the operation to the oven and keep the lid off. Second, don’t flood the pot with too much liquid. If the meat is poking above the liquid, it will brown during the 3-hour stewing time. Speaking of liquid, there’s so much flavor in short ribs that we don’t bother with beef broth. A modest amount of water and white wine (a better complement to the flavors in this stew than red wine) is sufficient. If you think beef stew requires a lot of work, you’ve been making the wrong recipe.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Streamline the Sofrito
A good sofrito, the flavor base for this stew, takes time, but there are some shortcuts. We add a sprinkle of salt and sugar to the onions to draw out moisture, which in turn, hastens and deepens caramelization. A can of tomatoes might seem like an obvious shortcut, but it’s a bad one. Go for the brightness and acidity of fresh tomatoes. Skip the tedious step of blanching and peeling the tomatoes and grate the pulpy flesh with a box grater to rid them of their leathery skins. Perk up the flavor of the sofrito further with a bay leaf and the powerful character of smoked paprika.
Swap Out the Sherry
Sherry is a traditional addition to Spanish beef stew but it can become cloying. Red wine, a common pairing with beef, is too dominating here. Instead, reach for a dry white, such as a Spanish Albariño; thyme and cinnamon are also welcome additions.
Enrich with Mushrooms
We dispense with chunks of starchy vegetables like potatoes and carrots in favor of oyster mushrooms, a Catalan ingredient. Resist the urge to cook the mushrooms in the stew, which will only spoil their delicate flavor and texture. Sauté the mushrooms separately, and stir them into the stew just before serving.
Brighten It Up
For the stew’s final flourish, the picada, pull out a food processor and whiz together fried blanched almonds, toasted bread crumbs, and raw garlic (better than sautéed as it gives the picada an appealing pungency). Adding the traditional parsley to the food processor ruins its grassy flavor, so chop it by hand before combining it with the rest of the ingredients. Splash in a little sherry vinegar at the end for an extra-bright finish that complements the warm spices of the stew.
Boneless short ribs are incredibly beefy and require no browning because of the sautéed sofrito.
Catalan-Style Beef Stew with Mushrooms
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 50 minutes to prepare onion-tomato base (mostly hands-off)
- 2½ hours to 3 hours to simmer beef in oven (make picada and prepare mushroom garnish while stew simmers)
- 5 minutes to finish and season stew
- Dutch oven
- 10-inch skillet for frying almonds and bread and sautéing mushrooms
- Food processor for grinding picada ingredients
Substitutions & Variations
- An equal amount of quartered white mushrooms may be substituted for the oyster mushrooms.
- To make the stew ahead, follow the recipe through step 2 and refrigerate for up to three days. To serve, add 1 cup water and reheat over medium heat. Proceed with step 3.
Remove the woody base of the oyster mushroom stems before cooking. Serve the stew with boiled or mashed potatoes or rice.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large onions, chopped fine
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- Kosher salt and pepper
- 2 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise, pulp grated on large holes of box grater, and skins discarded
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 bay leaf
- 1½ cups dry white wine
- 1½ cups water
- 1 large sprig fresh thyme
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2½ pounds boneless beef short ribs, trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes
- ¼ cup whole blanched almonds
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 slice hearty white sandwich bread, crust removed, torn into 1-inch pieces
- 8 ounces oyster mushrooms, trimmed
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- For the Stew: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-low heat until shimmering. Add onions, sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt; cook, stirring often, until onions are deeply caramelized, 30 to 40 minutes. Add tomato pulp, paprika, and bay leaf; cook, stirring often, until darkened and thick, 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add wine, water, thyme sprig, and cinnamon to pot, scraping up any browned bits. Season short ribs with 1½ teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon pepper and add to pot. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Transfer to oven and cook, uncovered. After 1 hour stir stew to redistribute meat, return to oven, and continue to cook until meat is tender, 1½ to 2 hours longer.
- For the Picada: While stew is in oven, heat almonds and 1 tablespoon oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat; cook, stirring often, until almonds are golden brown, 3 to 6 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer almonds to food processor. Return now-empty skillet to medium heat, add bread, and cook, stirring often, until toasted, 2 to 4 minutes; transfer to food processor with almonds. Add garlic to almonds and bread and process until mixture is finely ground, about 20 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed. Transfer mixture to separate bowl, stir in parsley, and set aside.
- Return now-empty skillet to medium heat. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil until shimmering. Add mushrooms and ½ teaspoon salt; cook, stirring often, until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to bowl and set aside.
- Discard bay leaf. Stir picada, mushrooms, and vinegar into stew. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
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