Beef stew with red wine sauce

Jacques Pepin's Beef Stew in Red Wine Sauce

Here is how you will know I love you. When you are hurting, when you call and cry, or when you don’t call for too long, and I know it is because something has sucker punched you or swept you under or somehow laid you flat, I will show up. And if at all possible, I will not come empty handed.

Some people spend a lot of time angsting about relationships. Should they say this? Should they say that? Should they rush in or give space?

In matters of the heart, I am rather uncomplicated, constrained less by second-guessing and more by my supply of Tupperware containers. And until recently, my inability to make a decent stew.

It has always seemed to me that there is a certain kind of pain best addressed, not by words, but by a quiet presence and a bowl of slow-cooked something.

When your friend’s phone chirps and it is the sixth call in the last two hours. She picks up, and an aging relative begs her for pain drugs, and help with the doctor, and also for a room in her house. Your friend does not say yes. She does not say no, either. Her home is already crowded with children, laundry, untended work projects, and the thick, unfinished air from arguments she has not yet had time to have with her husband. Every 20 minutes her phone rings. And you see your friend’s face as she listens. She is kind and undone. It’s the pain of wanting and not wanting at the same time. The pain of “no way” and “of course” battling it out in a sleep deprived brain. It’s the kind of pain that bears down from all directions. Where anything extra, even a kind word, feels like more weight to carry.

This is the kind of pain where you shut up and bring stew.

If one could, in fact, make stew. Which, until recently, I could not.

Stew has been my theoretical response to rough times for as long as I remember, but not my practice because, well, my stew sucked. And inflicting nasty – as in tasteless and tough and often grey -- slop on a hard situation is, at best, not helpful.

This changed last month when I walked into the supermarket and got suckered into buying a copy of Food & Wine Magazine. The cover had the best picture of beef stew I’d ever seen. Cute little onions, and it was just so puuuurdy.

I fell the way some women fall for magazines that promise a new waistline or a new sex life or, better yet, the real, never before revealed secrets of Brangelina.

I BELIEVE, I told myself, all evidence be damned.

I took the magazine home and read the recipe. It asked for an entire bottle of red wine. I thought, maybe my luck has changed.

My well loved copy of Food & Wine Magazine

cipollini onions

The hardest part was chasing down a bag of cippolini onions. Thank you very much to the vegetable guys at the Central Avenue Shoprite. (They had the baby carrots, too.) All of you were more educated about your product than any person I’ve ever spoken with at Price Chopper. And on three visits, the veggie guys were so helpful I left wondering if someone had slipped them some Trader Joe’s Kool-Aid. On my last visit, I was greeted by name.

You officially have my business now.

I followed the recipe exactly. Who am I to argue with a famous chef? Also, I’ve been improvising my way to horrible stew for more than 20 years. No need for more of that, thankyouverymuch.

(I did use chuck roast, not the flatiron he chooses. But his mother liked the more traditional stew meats.)

The bottle of wine don’t hurt none, but what I love about this recipe (and what I never would have thought of) is that you cook and season the vegetables apart from the meat. This changes everything. The vegetables bring their own flavor and texture. Everything is intensified rather than dulled. The beef is busy with the wine and doesn’t miss a thing.

It was the best beef stew I had ever made. That is not saying very much. It was also, possibly, a beef stew I would dare to serve to my mother-in-law. That is saying a lot.

I tried it again to see if it was beginner's luck. Nope. The recipe is gem. I used the last of my Tupperwares to bring the stew to two friends in need of solace. They both swooned.

The same week, a friend stopped by with a big bag of plastic containers, all with matching lids. She told me that she knew I liked to bring food to people and she wanted to encourage me. Also, she was cleaning out her kitchen.

I took it as a sign.

I was finally going to be the woman with the stew, my love unconstrained by a meager supply of Tupperwares and talent.

My timing was good.

A friend had surgery recently. She showed up for her post-op doctor visit wondering if the parts that matter most would ever work again. She was more than a little tired. She was hurting and maybe a little scared. She maybe did not speak as clearly as she usually does. Who knows? But there she was mid-question, and before the mark, before she had arrived in any sense of the word, the doctor turned and walked out of the room. No goodbye, no excuse. He just left.

Her half sentence hung in the air. She yelled, “Wait!"

She would have chased him, except those are some of the parts that did not yet work.

I would find this hard to believe except that I once had a surgeon do the same thing to me. In her case, the doctor responded to her yell and came back. In my case, I sat there for 15 minutes dumbly waiting for his return. Then I let myself out. I should have yelled.

In both cases, the feeling of erasure, of empty, was the same.

I brought the beef stew to my friend. I didn’t ask her if she wanted stew. I knew the answer. She didn’t want stew. She wanted to not hurt. She wanted all the parts that didn’t work to work again. And she wanted the jerk doctor to give her more than his back. I couldn’t give her any of these things. I knew that and she knew that. I just showed up. With stew. Warm and rich, and made with a lot of attention.

I love her. There is no question about that. And now I’ve got the kitchen chops and the Tupperware to do it properly.


So glad to see you writing here again!

thank god you solved stew. its about time. now I can learn. I'm going to try it for Sunday night. thank god you're back and ready for the cookbook that YOU will write.

Excellent recipe--I plan to try it!

This was so wonderful - I also love to make stew too, and have several really wonderful recipes if you are interested. I will have to try this one. Of course I am vegetarian so I don't eat it, but stew makes the meat eaters in my life so happy.

Glad to see you back. I assume you know about Fin the fishmonger.

When the weather cools down you've got to make this.

Sear the meat very well and make it at least a day ahead.
This has been my Christmas eve meal for many years.

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