Beef and Stout Stew

Maybe I needed to make like a potato, winnow myself down,
be a part of something that was not easy, just simple. [1]
—Julie Powell

Six weeks into the project, the entire house smelled of bacon.

Not that I had any real problem with that. It’s just a little ironic that my interpretation of “living biblically” involved such a reckless consumption of cured pork.

I’d always thought of bacon as a sort of lowbrow meat, just a step or two up from beef jerky and hot dogs, but the culinary benefits of salty grease appear to be universally acknowledged, so bacon shows up in quite a few French recipes. Martha’s beef and stout stew, for example, called for six ounces of slab bacon cut into lardons and cooked in sunflower oil, the drippings reserved for browning the meat and the lardons reserved for garnish . . . or for nibbling, should one find herself at the kitchen stove for four freaking hours.

It seems my Achilles’ heel as a beginner cook was a short list of ingredients that upon closer examination became infinitely more complicated to the untrained food prepper. Carrots weren’t a big deal. But carrots peeled and cut into fine julienne? That required some trial and error. The horseradish root proved easy enough to find, but rendering a virtual stick into fine dust with only a flimsy box grater at my disposal evoked from me a response violent enough to make Tarantino flinch. Even the onions had to be blanched and peeled—a process I’d never heard of, much less attempted, before.

Fortunately, I’d reserved the entirety of this rainy November night for nothing but beef and stout stew. I took the phone off the hook, turned Pandora to my favorite station, and proceeded to concentrate all my scattered energy like a magnifying lens into one hot beam of unadulterated intention.

Regina Spektor, Kate Nash, and Feist crooned me through the first four steps—preparing the ingredients, frying the lardons, seasoning the beef, and browning it in three batches to “avoid overcrowding.” The grease and oil sizzled and popped as I transferred the cooked meat into a mixing bowl. Next, to the soulful tunes of Adele, I reserved the leftover fat for heaven knows what, brought my homemade stock to a boil, deglazed the pot, and poured the resulting mixture over the meat.

The bacon fat was returned to the pot, where I cooked some onion and garlic and mushrooms. I think Carla Bruni was singing in French. Once the vegetables softened, I stirred in the flour and mustard, returned the beef and all its juices to the pot, and added seven sprigs of fresh thyme, three bay leaves, two more cups of stock, and a bottle and a half of dark, foaming Guinness. Just as it all came to a beautiful, brown, rolling boil, Pandora switched to Madeleine Peyroux’s silky smooth version of “La Vie en Rose.” I may have resorted to Guinness, but for about three and a half minutes, I felt thoroughly and magnificently French.

The stew should simmer for an hour and a half, which I thought would give me some time to relax and watch a few episodes of 30 Rock, but I’d waited until this point to figure out about the aforementioned slicing of the carrots, blanching of the onions, and grating of the horseradish, which along with adding  the potatoes, chopping the dill, and cooking the egg noodles (a task that required a frantic trip to Mom and Dad’s to borrow another stock pot), kept me busy right until it was time to add the few remaining lardons and serve.

Dan emerged from the basement, where he had been working late, at about eight thirty, looking cold and hungry.

“Wow. It smells great, hon,” he said before coming around the corner to get a glimpse of the sheer carnage strewn about the kitchen.


“Don’t bother me. I’m trying to cut the carrots.”

“What happened here?”

“You know what? The stew’s getting cold. Julienne can kiss it.”  

I dropped my paring knife, picked up the peeler, and shaved a bunch of ugly strings out of a carrot and placed them on top of Dan’s bowl of stew, like some kind of American.

Then we threw some Hawaiian sweet rolls and apple cider on the table along with mismatched spoons and napkins before finally sitting down to eat.

To borrow Dan’s favorite turn of phrase, the stew tasted . . . good.

Not amazing. Not terrible. Just good, and maybe a little oniony.

But I didn’t care. For the first time in my life, I’d discovered something besides writing for which I enjoyed the process as much as the result. In the four hours it took me to prepare beef and stout stew, I forgot about all the loose ends and screw-ups and unreturned e-mails in my life and applied myself wholly to the tasks of chopping and mincing, browning and frying, grating and blanching, and stirring and boiling.

It wasn’t easy, but it was simple.

The project had yielded its first truly surprising result—I loved to cook. And so despite aching feet, a terrorized kitchen, and a still-hungry husband eyeing a pack of hot dogs in the refrigerator, I did something I’d have never dreamed of doing before: I called Mom and officially invited the whole family to our house for Thanksgiving dinner.

1. Julie Powell, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes; 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2005), 22