The other day at work I was stewing about what to serve on a weekday evening for company. I needed to have something readymade to reheat, and that meant no á la minute (don’t you just love how the French make stressful jobs such as last-minute cooking sound chic?) prep or cooking. I needed something light that would stand up to being refrigerated for 24 hours, and that meant no salads (which don’t really qualify as company fare). Then I remembered a childhood favorite family stew: Hessian Beef-Paprika Stew with Caraway. It is hearty but light and good all year long: spring, summer, fall and winter.
I did a little research and found out that the region of Hesse is in central Germany and borders on my great grandfather Herman’s home region of Westphalia, and I bet he was familiar with Hessian beef stew. When you consider that the whole country of Germany is roughly the size of the state of New Mexico, you can see how a dish from New Mexico would be familiar to people in bordering states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. Hesse also has a climate similar to Chicago, where my grandfather settled and founded the Berghoff Restaurant, and the main ingredients in the stew—onions, peppers, beef and tomatoes—were common in both places.
The stew is naturally gluten-free, the way we made it, because no flour is used for thickening. It is also lighter because the beef is not browned in fat. There is also no added liquid (stock or water), because the stew makes its own gravy.
I have, I hope, improved the recipe somewhat over the years. Instead of green peppers, traditional in Hesse, I use the widely available and sweeter red, orange and yellow Bell peppers.
And because ripe summer tomatoes have so brief a season, I substitute canned crushed tomatoes except in midsummer.
But two essentials I wouldn’t dream of changing are fresh paprika and a big heavy gauge pot. Paprika, like the caraway seeds and all spices, must be fresh. So I recommend buying imported Hungarian paprika and refrigerating or freezing the container after opening. The paprika is added off the heat to prevent burning, which makes it bitter.
Lean beef, such as round steak, becomes dry with long cooking, so choose well-marbled chuck and trim away any large solid chunks of fat.
The stew makes it own rich gravy from the vegetable juices, which reduce during cooking slowly over low-medium heat without burning. Enameled cast iron is ideal.
Serve the stew with boiled baby potatoes, or rice or warm squares of gluten-free Cornbread (there’s a great recipe in Cooking for Your Gluten-Free Teen). It can be made up to three days ahead and reheated, and it can be frozen.
- 5 tablespoons olive or canola oil
- 3 pounds yellow onions, peeled
- 6 bell peppers (red, orange, yellow)
- 4 pounds well-marbled chuck, cut into 1½-inch chunks, trimmed of large, solid visible fat
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons sweet Hungarian paprika, preferably Szeged brand
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon caraway seed
- In an 8-quart heavy-gauge pot over medium heat, heat oil.
- Chop the onions and add one by one, stirring occasionally.
- Seed and core the peppers, one by one, chopping each into 1-inch pieces. Add to the pot, one by one, stirring occasionally. When all the onions and peppers have been added to the pot, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are translucent but not brown and have begun to release their juices, at least 30 minutes.
- Uncover and add the beef and salt; increase the heat to medium. Cook, stirring, until the beef becomes opaque.
- Remove the pot from the heat and add the paprika, stirring to mix. Return to the heat and add the tomatoes and caraway. Stir to mix. Bring stew to a simmer. Decrease heat to low and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until beef is fork tender. If the gravy is not thick enough, then reduce by cooking, uncovered, for an additional 30 minutes, stirring occasionally from the bottom.
- To serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with boiled red-skinned potatoes, or a scoop of cooked white rice, or a square of gluten-free cornbread.
- For a spicy stew, substitute one tablespoon of hot paprika for sweet.
- To finish the stew in the oven, use an oven-safe pot. Cover and transfer to a preheated 325°F oven after all the ingredients have been added to the pot. Cook, covered for 2 hours.
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