The root, it springs

Spring. It's here.

And it's beautiful. I don't remember the cherry blossoms bursting forth so soon, nor so lovely, in many years. Not since, oh, 2004. (I so liked Spring).

I'm happy, obviously, but also very busy  - it's my last chance to cook cold weather fare like winter squash, molasses-rich cakes and dark, meaty stews. This past week I've made (Hermannator) ginger cake, rice pudding, a winter fruit compote, shurpa lagman, oh, and lots and lots of bread pudding. While doing the latter I managed to cut myself rather intensely (damn you crusty crusts, and, you too, serrated bread knife!) but it hasn't dissuaded me from baking more (two breakfasts in a row, and counting).

Yesterday, I made a completely scrumptious cabbage gratin and I considered sharing it with you today but I decided this place is a veritable cabbage patch as it is. Nevertheless, if you have a copy of Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone get thee to page 278 immediately. You shan't regret it.

What I will share with you is a pleasing, end, middle or start-of-winter beef stew I poached from  Food52 - one of my new favourite online sources of recipe inspiration. The premise of this site is that a community of home cooks contribute recipes while competing in weekly themed contests. The victors will be published in a cookbook containing a year's worth of winning recipes. I like to browse through the Editors' Picks since they cull the most promising and interesting recipes including those of the contest winners and runner-ups.

I was drawn to this one mostly because it had prunes in it. Prunes that had been bathing in booze. I'm not quite sure why, but I've been amassing a hefty load of recipes that involve prunes: beef, rabbit and tripe stews, ice creams, and yes, bread puddings.

It also called for the intriguing addition of  licorice root so I went foraging on the shady side of Summit Park. The sun was shining, crocuses carpeted the Garry Oak meadows and I got a little dirty digging out rhizomes with a sturdy stick. I felt pretty satisfied with myself.


It takes time to procure and prepare the foundation of a good beef stew. The meat you choose should be from a well-exercised, tough part of the animal like the shoulder or leg (in butcher's terms the chuck, round or shank) and cut into large pieces. It is important that the meat is completely dry before you brown it, otherwise it will never become a handsome golden-brown. You add aromatics: vegetables like onions, carrots and celery; herbs or spices such as bay leaves, rosemary, or thyme; liquid in the form of stock, wine, cider or beer, and really, anything else that strikes your fancy. The longer you simmer your stew the better - mine was in the oven (which provides a more even, even gentler heat) for four hours.

Your base of simple but carefully selected ingredients blossoms. In my case the result was a stew with layer upon layer of flavour - exceptionally tender beef, sweet prunes, robust beer, sharp vinegar, elusive licorice and a rich, just-short-of-sticky sauce. Not bad as Winter shoots into Spring.

Beer, Licorice Root & Beef Stew
Adapted from Food 52

I served this with mashed potatoes, crusty bread and, to finish, a simple green salad with a mustardy dressing. The next day I tried it with mashed sweet potatoes and I liked that even better; the prunes and sweet potatoes complemented each other nicely.

2 pounds boneless stewing beef (such as chuck, top or bottom round, shank), trimmed of tendons, excess fat and cut into approximately 1-inch pieces
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp butter, or more, if necessary
2 yellow onions, roughly chopped
2 celery sticks, thickly sliced
2 carrots, thickly sliced
1 clove garlic, thickly sliced
a pinch of red pepper flakes
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
7 oz. prunes, soaked in brandy for 1 hour
4 bay leaves
4 branches of rosemary
one 4-inch piece licorice root
4 1/2 cups stock (beef, chicken, vegetable) or water
3 cups malt beer (I used Hermannator)
sugar and balsamic vinegar, to taste
2 tbsp butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp all-purpose flour

Pat the meat dry, season generously with salt and pepper and let rest in the fridge for at least one hour, preferably overnight.

Dredge the pieces of meat in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Heat the butter in a large, deep pot over medium heat and brown the meat on all sides, using tongs to turn. You will likely have to do this in batches so you don't crowd the meat. Adjust the heat and/or add more butter, if necessary, so as to prevent burning. Browning is okay, but not blackening. Once the pieces are browned, transfer to a plate.

Preheat the oven to 250 F. Bundle the bay leaves, rosemary branches and licorice root together in a piece of cheesecloth, nylon or the like. You don't have to but it'll save you from picking out the individual rosemary needles later. Also, drain the prunes, but save the brandy since it's even better now!

If there is no butter remaining add a bit more, then add the onions, celery, carrots, garlic and red pepper flakes. Saute until softened, fragrant and beginning to colour.

Add the vinegar, scrape up any bits clinging to the bottom of the pan and cook until almost evaporated. Return the meat, as well as any accumulated juices, along with the drained prunes, herb bundle, stock or water and beer. Slowly bring to a simmer and skim off any fat.

Cover and cook in the preheated oven for 3 to 4 hours, or until the meat is totally tender and starting to fall apart.

Dump the contents of the pot into a sieve suspended over a large metal bowl. Remove the herb bundle and discard. Keep the meat and vegetables warm. Return the sieved sauce to the pot, skim off any fat and boil to reduce by about one-half, or until it is close to the consistency you desire.

Meanwhile, smash 2 tbsp of butter and 2 tbsp of flour together (this is called a beurre maniƩ). Once the sauce has been reduced to your liking, add the beurre maniƩ in small knobs, whisking until fully incorporated. This will help thicken the stew and give it a luxurious sheen. Simmer for about five minutes, or until the consistency you desire is reached. Check the seasoning, adding salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar or a dash of balsamic vinegar, if required. Return the meat and vegetables to the pot, heat through and finally serve forth on a bed of your choosing.

For 6-8 people.

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