Return to the Kitchen

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Like bears who know when to hibernate or geese whose internal radar signals the time to fly south, every October I respond to some primal imperative to make beef stew.

I dust beef cubes with flour and sauté them in oil in my heavy green Dutch oven, slice onions as thin as my mediocre chef’s knife and technique allow, and throw in fresh thyme sprigs and a large bottle of Duvel, a Belgian ale. Later in the season I might get fancy and make boeuf bourguignon. But my first stew of the season is always an easy one, designed to sate the craving rather than impress a crowd. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I might make a simple loaf of bread, and I almost always serve a green salad.  As my husband cleans his plate, I challenge him with the rhetorical question my family likes to pose when we’ve made a particularly good meal: “How much would you pay for that in a restaurant?”

I’m a devoted home cook, but for the past half-dozen years or so, I’ve eaten out regularly on a professional basis. In that time, I’ve tried new trends like ducks’ tongues (pass), grown tired of bread pudding and crème brûlée and eaten my weight in gourmet hamburgers.

During weeks when I was dining out a lot, I’d long for a plate of simple pasta, a BLT, a bowl of soup all made in my own modest kitchen. But even in a restaurant scene bursting with lobster mac ’n’ cheese, homestyle fried chicken and upscale meatballs, I don’t think I ever was offered something as homey or home-kitchenesque as my autumn beef stew.

Perhaps that’s appropriate, as our motivations for dining out rarely include hunting down a home-cooked meal. We go to restaurants for a treat, to celebrate something special or nothing at all. We go for the theater of spectacular cooking, flawless service and an ambience we won’t find at home. We go for convenience after a film or on those nights when even making toast seems like a chore. We go to meet friends or simply to get out of the house and be social. And if we do it right, restaurant dining in places other than our hometowns nearly guarantees an adventure into the world of regional cooking, be it Maid-Rites and pork tenderloin sandwiches in Iowa or haggis and neeps in Glasgow.

These days, I find myself suffering from a bad case of the law of diminishing restaurant returns. And so I’ve taken a break—a hiatus, if you will— from the role of professional restaurant eater in order to return to my previous life as a devoted amateur cook. I’m heading back to the kitchen. Here are three reasons why you should, too.

You make the rules. In my own kitchen, I’m not at the whim of an establishment that legislates no substitutions— even if I don’t want hard-boiled egg in my salad or mayonnaise on my chicken sandwich. I can make pesto or Russian dressing, even if they’re out of fashion. I can eat hot soup in summer and cold soup in winter. I can prepare the foods that I wouldn’t, or am unable to, order in a restaurant, things like creamed chipped beef and sauerkraut. If I want to eat only cheese and bread and a glass of wine, no one makes me feel guilty for not ordering enough. Or for lingering.  Among my eating-out pet peeves are the general address of a table as “guys” and the move to clear plates before everyone has finished eating. At home, the people around my table address each other by name. We linger over plates, have seconds, open another bottle of wine and take our plates to the kitchen when we are truly done.

You get to create. Though years of cooking have made me a decent home cook, I can always be better. So aside from the feeling of accomplishment I have from rolling out pie crust or making meringue, my kitchen allows me the opportunity to practice, to get a more perfectly minced onion or more flavorful gravy, to dump the pasta into the colander in the sink without burning an appendage (still need to work on that one). There’s always a new dish to try, a new cuisine to explore, a cassoulet to tackle, a jam to perfect.

As someone who loves to work with her hands, I’m drawn to cooking’s active nature, which is, to me, so much more dynamic (and satisfying) than the static gesture of placing your order with someone else (except after an extremely long day or a special celebration, when going out is welcome). Like writing, cooking is a little magical, a kitchen conjuring, and the joy of a dish turning out as you expected— or maybe even better than expected— made for someone you love is hard to match. So I bake lemon meringue and pecan pies for my mother and sister, popovers for my father and fry soft crabs for my husband, small culinary gifts for people I love.  Sure, not every meal is a work of art or deserving of a Bon Appétit photo shoot. Sometimes we just have to eat.

You save money. I admit to occasionally having a case of the cheaps, but even when I’m feeling extravagant, it’s still much more cost-efficient to eat at home. A pound of lump crabmeat can make crabcakes for four; a pound of dry aged beef grilled at home will cost you far less than in a steakhouse, homemade mashed potatoes and creamed spinach included. If you need convincing, look at your grocery bill and ask yourself: “How much would I pay for that in a restaurant?”

If eating at a restaurant is a beautiful fantasy that sometimes breaks your heart, eating at home is the reality— the sometimes frantic meal of almosts, old favorites and come-from-behind winning dishes. The kitchen is the lab, the heart of the home, the place where everyone hangs at parties. I can’t wait to return to it.

Beef Stew a la Jacques Pepin

The original recipe calls for a Belgian-style pale ale, and I often use Duvel or Brewery Ommegang’s Hennepin. Pepin also calls for baby carrots in his version, but I prefer regular carrots chopped into small sticks. Sometimes I also throw in a few potatoes. Serve over egg noodles or, if not using potatoes in the stew itself, mashed potatoes.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds stewing beef cut into small cubes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thickly sliced
3 tablespoons flour
2 12-ounce bottles Belgian-style pale ale
3 bay leaves
½ cup chicken stock
5 fresh thyme sprigs
5 carrots, cut into 1-inch batons
1 cup frozen baby peas

In a large casserole or Dutch oven, melt 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil until sizzling. Sprinkle meat with salt and pepper and brown in batches over high heat around 2 minutes per side or until meat is lightly browned on both sides. Transfer meat to a dish. Repeat until all meat is browned, adding extra butter and oil if necessary.

Add the onion to the casserole and cook over moderately high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the onion and stir well. Stir in the pale ale and bay leaves, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken stock and thyme and return the beef to the casserole along with any accumulated juices. Bring the stew to a boil, skimming the surface occasionally. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Add the carrots, cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the peas and simmer for 5 minutes. Season the stew with salt and pepper, discard the bay leaves and serve.

Make Ahead: The beef stew can be prepared through Step 2 and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat the beef stew gently before proceeding.

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