SEPTEMBER WAS A whirlwind month for my sweet family.
We all felt a little stunned and disconnected from so much activity and new routines.
In an effort to do some unplugging, relaxing and turning toward each other, we decided to take advantage of a three-day weekend in October and stay in a tiny, rustic cabin on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
I asked my 12-year-old what she wanted to eat for dinner at the beach, and she immediately asked for “Mama Becca’s Beef Stew.”
I should mention here that “Mama Becca” is my daughter’s godmother and my dearest friend.
She’s been in Abby’s life since our pre-3 school days.
Mama Becca and her family live on a 50-acre farm filled with orchards, gardens, chickens, turkeys, cats and the biggest dog you’ve ever seen.
When you have beef stew at Becca’s, you will be eating carrots, onions and potatoes she grew in the garden you can see from the kitchen table. The beef is from a nearby farmer.
She’ll serve it with soda bread she makes with local Nash’s flour.
You will feel warm and nourished in a way that is truly indescribable, but I’ll try anyway.
Eating her stew feels like the entire North Olympic Peninsula has just wrapped you in a generous hug.
Packing up for our trip, I thought about trying to make “Mama Becca’s Beef Stew” in a cabin with no electricity (a gas range, though) and limited kitchen gear.
I was definitely daunted.
But I knew we’d have lots of time for the stew to simmer, and though my stew can’t ever quite measure up to Mama Becca’s, I decided a meal that feels like a hug was just the thing. I went for it.
I loaded up fresh vegetables from our CSA (community-supported agriculture) share and went hunting for some local beef.
My go-to beef is Clark’s Farm stew beef. It is uniformly cut and perfect for this recipe.
Don’t be tempted by the packages labeled “stew meat” at the grocery store.
The meat is often composed of pieces of various leftovers.
Because these pieces are not always the same size or cut, you won’t get the meat to cook evenly or be uniform in your stew.
If you can’t find Clark’s Farm stew meat, chop your own pieces from a cut of beef.
When looking for stew beef, you want bands of white in the meat.
This is the fat and connective tissues that will help make certain your beef is tender and flavorful.
Generally, the tougher cuts that you wouldn’t want to grill up as a steak will turn fork-tender with low and slow cooking.
Cook an expensive cut of meat and you’ll end up with dried-out and hard-to-chew beef in your stew.
It’s counterintuitive, but the best cuts for stew are also usually less expensive.
There are so many names for various sections of cow, there are as many different names as I can come up with for pieces that make good options for stewing: beef tips, English cut short ribs, chuck, chuck shoulder, boneless chuck roast, chuck-eye roast, top chuck, bottom round roast, bottom eye roast, rump roast, eye round roast, top round, round tip roast, English roast and pot roast.
With these cuts, long cooking really is the secret.
If you try a piece of meat and it seems tough, try cooking your stew longer so the connective tissues can break down more.
The flavor is in the searing of the meat at the beginning.
Make sure to take the time to really get every side of every piece of meat browned.
When you add the stout, scrape all of the blackened bits of flavor off the bottom of the pan to incorporate the flavor into the broth of the stew.
At the cabin, we read books, played board games, ran around on the beach, poked at bull kelp, gloried in a delicious golden sunset, watched eagles fly by, went to bed early listening to an impressive windstorm and yes, I made beef stew by candlelight.
My daughter ate two bowls for dinner and another for lunch the next day.
We left the beach feeling grounded, rested and nourished.
I’ll call that a win.
I can’t promise that your stew will be exactly like “Mama Becca’s Farm Stew” or like my own “Beach Cabin Stew.”
I think that’s exactly the point.
The recipe is simple to make and long to cook.
Infuse it with carefully chosen ingredients and loving intentions for the best results.
Take a breath, and savor your own “Camping by the River Stew,” “Quiet Saturday Night at Home Stew” or “Take the Leftovers to Your Neighbor Stew.”
The folks around your table are sure to feel the cozy hug from your offering.
Carrie Sanford, who shares the Peninsula Kitchen column with Betsy Wharton, is a mother, wife, educator, artist, activist and cook.
She writes the newsletter for Salt Creek Farm in Joyce during the growing season and volunteers with nonprofits and schools in Port Angeles, where she lives with her husband, Tom Sanford, and their daughter, Abby.