Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"Grace the Table - Stories & Recipes from My Southern Revival" - Country Beef Stew

Date I made this recipe: February 18, 2007

Grace the Table – Stories & Recipes from My Southern Revival by Alexander Smalls
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 0060174870
© 1997

Recipe: Country Beef Stew – p. 219

Some of my friends like to tease me about being all “matchy matchy” with my clothing and accessories. What can I say? I just like my earrings and/or bracelets to match the color of my blouse or top if at all possible.

Similarly, I like to “match” a menu item or cookbook to what’s going on in my life. In some of my earlier blogs, I cooked from my selection of Green Bay Packer cookbooks during Packer football season and from some of my politically-oriented cookbooks during election season.

And so, when I recently attended an opera event, I wanted to find an “opera” cookbook.

For the past 54 years, the Metropolitan Opera of New York holds regional and then district auditions for opera singers who are hoping for their chance to hit the big time – a chance to sing at the Met. Every year in February, the district (all upper Midwest states) finals are held, and for the past 10 years or so, my girlfriend, Carol, and I have been front row and center. (And trust me you must come early for best seats). We do so in part to hear the voices (we’re both musicians and I am also a singer who started out being classically trained) and (shamefully) to conduct our own version of What Not To Wear (to An Opera Audition.). In my book, if you want to be a diva, you must dress like one, but trust me, not every singer gets the memo. (I always think of the song from the musical, A Chorus Line“Dance: Ten: Looks: Three.” Let’s just say there’s some work to be done.)

Anyway, the winner of each district competition gets airfare to NY to compete in a semi-final and then the winners of that are showcased in a grand finale concert on the Met stage.

If you’re raising your eyebrows at this point at the mention of “opera,” let me just say that getting onstage to sing a) in a packed concert hall and b) before a panel of judges, one of whom is from the Met, is not for the feint of heart. Opera singers have to be in tip top upper physical strength in order to belt out those hits, day after day, night after night, in front of the bright lights. Even beginning opera singers can sing Brittney Spears or Kelly Clarkson under the table in a heartbeat (not that I listen to these ladies, but I do try to keep up on pop culture). When I first started my lessons, I learned that nothing happens with the voice that doesn’t happen from the diaphragm and as you watch these singers on stage, you can see every muscle in that region working to get those notes out.

Every one of district finalists deserves an Olympic medal but a big shout out to this year’s district winners, Joshua Kohl (tenor) and Lindsay Ammann (a fabulous mezzo-soprano—you heard it here first). Carol and I sat behind Lindsay’s family and you would have thought that Lindsay won an Academy Award as her mom and voice coach were just in tears, jumping up and down with excitement. It inspired me to find just the right opera celebration meal.

Now, you’re probably wondering what a book with the title of Grace the Table – Stories & Recipes from My Southern Revival has to do with opera. Well, children, the cookbook’s author, and former restaurateur, Alexander Smalls, is an African-American opera singer who, among other things, starred in the Houston Grand Opera Production of Porgy and Bess. The book is loaded with fun anecdotes about his life as an opera singer and his culinary adventures while touring with the opera company. Alexander says that this recipe, Country Beef Stew, was created during some down time between gigs. As he said “I still dreamed of greatness on the stage—with a pairing knife in my hand.”

You’ve gotta love a guy who can cook and sing (no doubt at the same time when home alone in the kitchen), and you’re going to love this recipe as well.

Country Beef Stew – serves 8
¼ c. flour
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine
6 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar
¼ cup tomato paste
6 cups beef broth
1 large green pepper, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the flour, salt and pepper. Dredge the beef in the seasoned flour. (Note: reserve 1 tablespoon of the flour when finished) Heat the oil in a Dutch oven and brown the beef on all sides. Add onion, celery and garlic. Cook 5 minutes. Deglaze with red wine. Add herbs, brown sugar, and tomato paste and cook 5 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the dredging flour and mix well. Add beef broth, bring to a boil, and simmer 1 ½ hours. Add vegetables, and salt and pepper to taste, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve with rice or noodles. (Note: I served this without rice or noodles as this was a hearty meal in and of itself).
Notes: I just realized as I was writing this that I forgot to add the bay leaves! Oops. Well, it still tasted great without them. I also substituted a red pepper for a green pepper as (go figure this) my grocery store was out of green peppers. (Was there a green pepper cook-off I didn’t know about?). I also ended up adding a lot more broth and wine to prevent the mixture from cooking down too much. This seems to happen anytime I have a recipe that is supposed to “simmer” for a long time. I ran out of beef broth so substituted chicken broth. Nobody was the wiser.

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