Mashed Potato Beef Stew

It began one stormy and windswept Halloween night.

I took my two kids out trick-or-treating and left a pot of beef stew on the stove, with instructions to my husband to stir it every now and then.

Trick-or-treating in such miserable weather turned out to be hard work, and it was pretty late by the time we got home.

I looked for the potatoes I’d added to the stew, and they were nowhere to be found. Turns out they’d gotten so soft that they simply dissolved as my husband stirred the long-simmering stew.

My kids declared it the best stew I’d ever made, once again proving that sometimes the best dishes are created by mistake.

Ever since then, beef stew thickened by mashed potatoes has been a favorite in our household.

Mashed Potato Beef Stew

Makes 4 to 5 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into bite-size pieces
1 1/2 cups peeled, sliced carrots
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence, or herb mix of your choice
1 cup water
1 cup red wine (or water)
4 medium boiling potatoes (about 1 pound)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil. Dust the meat lightly with flour and add it to the oil in 2 or 3 batches, cooking it until lightly browned. Remove meat to a plate.

Add carrots, garlic and onions to the pot and cook over medium heat until onions are softened.

Add water and wine if using, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add meat back to pot, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to very low, partially cover, and cook for 1 hour, stirring 2 or 3 times and adding more water as necessary to keep stew from sticking.

Peel the potatoes and cut into bite-size chunks. Add to the stew and stir. Partially cover and cook over very low heat for an additional hour, stirring occasionally and adding a little more water if necessary to keep stew from sticking, or until meat is tender and potatoes are very soft. Use a large spoon to mash the potatoes into the stew.

Serve hot.

Funny Brownies

I run a cookie recipe site and was doing some research to see what keywords and phrases people are searching for in the cookie recipe realm. Researching “brownies” was an eye opener.

It seems that a whole lot of people out there are searching for recipes for brownies that carry an extra payload in the form of a plant that is, shall we say, a prized member of the hemp family. My, my.

Personally, I don’t know why anyone would want to adulterate good chocolate with pot—or for that matter, why anyone other than a horse would eat grass rather than smoke it (not that I admit to any personal experience, mind you)—but hey, different strokes and all that. If you are looking for illegally enhanced brownie recipes, just hit Google and you’ll find plenty of them. If you just want great brownies, minus the mind-altering substances, try my Classic Chocolate Brownies recipe.

Oddly enough, I do have a genuine cookbook recipe for a pot-enhanced dessert, though it’s for fruit and nut fudge, not brownies. It is from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, first published in 1954 and reissued in 1984 and again in 1998. Yes, that Alice B. Toklas, the secretary and lifelong companion of writer Gertrude Stein. Tucked in amongst the reminiscences of life in France and the recipes for chocolate mousse and oysters Mornay is a recipe for Haschich (sic) Fudge. I offer it here purely as a historical curiosity, since bringing this to the family potluck could get you arrested in the United States (and many other countries).

Toklas explains wryly that her fudge “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR: “Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected…”

Her recipe: “Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverised in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverised. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.”

I don’t know. I think I’d stick with brownies.

The Skim Milk Scam

“Things are seldom what they seem
Skim milk masquerades as cream.”

–HMS Pinafore, Gilbert & Sullivan

I loathe skim milk.

There, I’ve confessed the truth, in all its nutritionally incorrect squalor.

They always say that if you eat or drink something long enough, you’ll get used to it. Sure, skim milk doesn’t taste as good as full milk (a.k.a. real milk), but just drink it, they said, and you’ll get your calcium without all that nasty saturated fat.

Let’s toss aside for the moment the argument about whether milk is really essential for strong bones. Let’s talk about flavor. Skim milk has none. It tastes like an amnesiac’s memory of milk.

My grandmother, who came of age in the days when milk was delivered right to your door, with the cream on top and the skim milk on the bottom, used the cream in desserts and her wonderful creamed vegetables, drank the milk, and reserved the skim milk for stuff where its lack of flavor wouldn’t matter: in pancake batter, maybe, or as slop for the pigs.

I tried to be a good girl. Really I did. OK, skim milk was a bit too much, but I drank 1% milk, which is almost as low in fat. I drank it for years, actually. I poured it into my coffee and watched it turn the coffee gray. I used it in pancake batter and in smoothies. I ordered the skim lattes at Starbucks. Once in a while I held my nose and drank it straight.

I never got used to it. Ever. One day I looked at my husband and said, “Screw this. Get me some milk that tastes like milk.”

My conscience pricked me just enough to compromise on 2% milk rather than the full-fat stuff. Reduced-fat milk doesn’t taste quite as good as real milk, but I tell you, next to skim milk, it’s the creme de la creme.

The Food Safety Net

The E. coli-tainted spinach that killed three and sickened 200 people in 26 states and Canada has again focused attention on whether food safety oversight in the U.S. is too fractured. The National Academy of Sciences, the government’s General Accounting Agency, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other consumer groups have long called for one central agency to oversee food safety. So have at least a few members of Congress.

I think they have a point. If you and a bunch of other folks who ate burgers at the Grease Palace USA chain get sick, your doctors will report it to the Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat, so the burger patty falls under its jurisdiction. The Food and Drug Administration will get involved because it regulates the bun, lettuce, tomato and mayo. Your state health agency regulates restaurants. If toxic substances are involved somehow, the EPA will be called in.

The spinach case was actually a simple one, relatively speaking–the FDA regulates produce, packaged or otherwise.

To be fair, the regulators involved in food safety cooperate remarkably well considering they’re government agencies. Food safety experts tracked down the source of the E. coli contamination in the spinach to a certain area, and finally to cow manure from ranches in that area—an impressive feat. And the agencies involved point out that reported illnesses linked to E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria declined significantly from 1998 to 2005. (The CDC estimates foodborne illnesses sicken 76 million Americans every year, killing 5,000 of them and putting another 300,000 in the hospital.)

But in a world where the food you eat comes from everywhere and is combined in ways not even dreamed of 50 years ago (who could have predicted a burger on a doughnut?), the detective work needed to track down the source of an outbreak is difficult enough. It seems to me it would be easier if one agency was in charge.

Run for Your Food

An article in the current issue of the New Scientist suggests that humans may have evolved the body shape we did to become good runners. And why would we need to be good runners? So we could eat. Our ancestors could get to animal carcasses first to scavenge and later, when they became hunters, they could chase after prey for long distances, literally wearing the animal out.

An anthropologist who studies modern African hunters says the practice of chasing down prey is dying out. It’s a bit too labor intensive.

I’m not sure the practice is dying out. I know plenty of people who scarf down a bag of chips then run an extra mile on the treadmill. Ah, but wait—we’ve got it backwards. What you do is put the package of cupcakes or bag of Doritos a mile away. Then run for it. Better yet, race your teenage son to see who gets there first.

By the way, anthropologists say large buttocks contribute to our ability to run well on two legs. The next time you try on a pair of jeans and blanch when you look in the mirror, blame evolution, not that extra slice of fudge marble cheesecake.

The Vanilla Legacy

Many people leave their kids money and property. While I plan to leave both of those things to my children in the hopefully far-distant future when I depart this earth, one of the legacies I hope my daughter will treasure most is the bottle of Endless Vanilla.homemade vanilla extract

Nearly 20 years ago, my husband was trying to figure out what to do with some bottles of Crown Royal gathering dust in our basement. He had received the Canadian whiskey as holiday gifts when he was an auto racing writer. He didn’t drink the stuff, and none of our friends did.

“Hmm,” I said. “I bet it would make great vanilla.”

And thus the vanilla tradition was born. I sliced open some vanilla beans, dumped them in a bottle of the whiskey, shook up the bottle and waited a couple of weeks. The resulting vanilla extract was mellow and lovely.

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Julia Child and the Love of Cooking

I recently read the late Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, which was published earlier this year. It’s a quirky book, a series of often disconnected vignettes, but it is an entertaining read, opinionated and charming and endowed with a sense of humor, like Julia herself. You can hear her relating the anecdotes in her distinctive, warbly voice. You can taste the Champagne and roast chicken and heavy cream as she and husband Paul Child enjoy an endless series of leisurely Parisian lunches.

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