And we’re back! Back to reality after a whirlwind trip to Barcelona, about which I have almost no thoughts to share at the moment. Likely because the words “whirlwind trip to Barcelona” are ones I never thought I’d have the good fortune to utter, and I’m a little nervous if I keep asking whose life this is someone might come take it away from me. My brain is still catching up. My stomach, on the other hand, has gone full Ariana Grande. (Thank u, next!)
Turns out there’s nothing like a week of eating only tapas to get me in the mood for a hearty single-course meal. The weather in Catalonia turned cold at the end of our trip too, which only intensified my cravings for rich, warm comfort food. Tucking into a bowl of something so decadent that it would surely live on my thighs for months to come was all I could think about as we made our way home. I scrolled through photos in the security line and scoured recipes on the plane while visions of slow-cooked meats thrummed through my thoughts, “should we have brisket? Or maybe soup...wait, what about pork ragu? No, more like bolognese, or even better, a classic beef stew.” Yes! That’s the one.
Now I know you might be thinking, “Cool story, Meg, but I’ve already got a favorite beef stew,” and I want you to know that I hear you because I have one too. I’ve been making Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon since I first learned how to cook and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever need another need another recipe. So much so that I couldn’t resist swapping out the celery from the original recipe here in favor mushrooms to make it more Bourguignon-esque. (ps - I’ve also had a Beef Bourguignon post waiting in drafts for almost a year now. Please shame me accordingly for my self-publishing shortcomings.)
I’m not even going to try to convince you that this beef stew is worth making - though I hope it goes without saying that it most certainly is - because the one thing you absolutely cannot miss here are the Cheddar Herb Dumplings. A proper noun, these dumplings.
They were a revelation for me. Savory morsels with a delicate exterior texture that holds together surprisingly well, but when sliced with the side of a spoon gives way to a luxurious interior of herb-kissed molten cheese. I’ve honestly never met a better conduit for beef stew juices in my whole life.
And as if I couldn’t brag on them for anything else, they are dead simple. Which makes sense considering the recipe comes from What to Cook and How to Cook It, by Jane Hornby, whose cooking style I have long admired for being unabashed and unapologetic in it’s refusal to be fussy. Her recipes revel in the powerful simplicity of a straightforward technique applied to a short ingredient list, and this beef stew with Cheddar Herb Dumplings is no exception. This is one for the files, weekend cooking at it’s finest.
Beef Stew with Cheddar Herb Dumplings, adapted liberally from Jane Hornby’s What to Cook and How to Cook It
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs stew beef, trimmed of excess fat and cut into large cubes (my butcher sold the meat already prepped)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 tbsp butter
8 oz cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp sherry vinegar (red wine vinegar works too)
2 small yellow onions, roughly chopped into small chunks
3 large carrots, chopped into bite-sized chunks
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf (optional, we were out and didn’t miss it)
1 heaping tbsp tomato paste
1 cup full-bodied red wine
3-4 cups beef broth
Cheddar Herb Dumplings
4 tbsp unsalted butter, cold and cut into small cubes
½ tsp baking powder
2 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
3 or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
5 tbsp milk
Kosher salt and black pepper
Prepare the beef. Mix the ¼ cup of flour, 1/2 tsp salt, and a few turns of a pepper grinder in a plastic bag, then add the beef. Shake vigorously to coat the beef in the flour.
Place a large dutch oven (or other heavy-bottomed, oven-proof pot) over medium heat. Add 1 tbsp of the olive oil to the pan and allow it to heat up. Put half of the beef into the pan, tapping away the excess flour from each piece before it goes in. Brown beef very well until there is a nice crust on all sides. Transfer the browned beef to a bowl, and repeat these steps with the next batch. It should take about 10-15 minutes per batch, but as Teri from No Crumbs Left says “and guess what? This part takes as long as it takes.” When the second batch is well browned on all sides, remove it to the plate.
[Note: If the original recipe has you splash a little water in the pan and scrape the charred bit between batches. I didn’t find this necessary, but that doesn’t mean you won’t. If, after the first batch, the bottom o’ pan bits look too black, like burned and not appetizing, then splash a little water in the pan and scrape them out before moving onto the second batch.]
Prepare the vegetables. Melt the tbsp of butter in the pan and let it foam up. Once the foam has gone down add the sliced mushrooms and saute until they release liquid and it evaporates. They should be nicely browned around the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the splash of vinegar and scrape up any browned bits still left on the bottom of the pan. Let the vinegar cook down, about 2 minutes. Remove mushrooms to the plate with the beef.
Add the last tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and allow it to heat up a bit. Then add the onion, carrot, thyme sprigs (either pluck the leaves or add the whole sprig and remove the stems later), and bay leaf, if using. Saute until the onions are turning golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for a couple minutes longer.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Return the beef and mushrooms to the pot, along with any juices that accumulated on the plate. Pour in the red wine and 2 cups of the broth. The top pieces of meat should just barely be poking out of the liquid (see the photo directly above the one of dumpling prep). Add more broth, wine, or water here to bring the liquid to this level. Note: I added another full cup of broth at this point and have adjusted the amount of broth in the recipe to reflect this. Bring the pot to a simmer over low heat, and once bubbling, cover with a lid and transfer to the oven for 2 hours.
About 10 minutes out from the 2 hour mark, start preparing the dumplings. Mix the flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Cut the cold butter into the flour and mix it using your hands. Continue mixing until it’s crumbly throughout and all butter chunks are the size of a pea or smaller.
Pause on the dumplings, and check the stew. The meat should be tender enough to cut easily with a spoon. If it’s not ready, give it an extra 30 minutes. Once it is ready, remove the pot from the oven and spoon off any excess fat from the top; Taste a small sip of the gravy - careful not to burn your mouth! - and season with salt and pepper as needed. Using two forks, shred the meat into bite-sized pieces. If the liquid looks a bit low, add more broth here. Note: My total broth used during cooking measured to 3 ¾ cups.
Return to the dumplings. Stir the milk, thyme leaves, and cheese into the butter-flour mixture. Add a big pinch of salt and a few turns of a pepper grinder. Divide into 12 segments and shape into balls. Set the dumplings on top of the stew, and return the pan to the oven, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
The stew is ready once the dumplings have swelled and turned slightly golden, and the gravy is rich and brown. Enjoy!
Reheating Tips: Remove the dumplings from the pot and reheat the stew on the stovetop over low heat, adding more broth or water as needed. (I added a ¼ cup.) Meanwhile, toast the dumplings separately in a 350 degree oven. Combine and dig into the best damn leftovers you’ve had in ages!