An old English proverb recorded by John Heywood in 1546 (and who may or not have been a distant relative of mine) has it that: “It is indeed an ill-wind that blows no one good.” The ill wind that blew COVID-19 from Wuhan, China, was pretty bad, and in the U.S., from Washington State to Washington D.C., government policies have made it all even worse. Over time, that ill Wuhan wind blew on-again-off-again travel restrictions, quarantines, mask mandates, restaurant shutdowns, and school closures. It blew very real supply-chain failures and bred vicious vaccine vigilantes. But it also blew some good, forging newfound appreciation for liberties long taken for granted and forcing cabin-fever consumers to reevaluate their values and become creative in satisfying, or at least accommodating, simple pleasures. For me, my decimated kitchen pantry and limited access to grocery stores had me leafing through family recipe collections dating back to my great-grandma Sarah Amanda Howard (née Coldiron), the mid-1800s, and the hollers of southeastern Kentucky.
Over the past two years, I’ve “rescued” and shared a few of my family’s favorites: scripture cake, water pie, skillet sourdough cornbread, barreled eggs, and even frog legs, cooked lettuce, and duxelles. More than a few readers have suggested that much of great-grandma’s repertoire has more in common with toque blanche restaurants and la haute cuisine française than the piney woods and Li’l Abner clichés of backwoods ‘pones, black-eyed peas, and clinch meat cakes.
Be that as it may, her sophisticated treatment of 19th-century farm staples nourished and satisfied her extended family while providing an artist’s palette of dishes to please the eyes (after all, “the eyes eat too”) and pleasure the palate.
Possibly my favorite find in the whole pile of yellowed and stained recipe sheets is labeled (or mislabeled) “Beef and Sweet Potato Stew.” True, if you make a big batch and wind up reheating some for tomorrow, it does take on more the appearance of a traditional stew, all thick and blended together. And if you wind up serving it a third day, it can develop into a delicious but rather homogenous distinctly porridgy-looking mash-up — still good, and still nutritious, but definitely not white tablecloth ready.
On the other hand, if you follow the recipe and serve it up as soon as the sweet potato is fork-tender, it passes for an authentic Beef and Sweet Potato á la Matignon that could have come right out of Larousse Gastronomique, (especially with the addition of garlic — my only contribution to great-grandma’s original recipe). It plates up gorgeous, braised into a complementary whole, without obscuring the flavors of its individual components — beefy, savory, sweet; hearty and delicate — and so absolutely delicious that the chances are there won’t be enough left over to turn into a real stew tomorrow, never mind a third-day porridge.
(Beef Sweet Potato à la Matignon)
1 pound or so of affordable beef steak cut into a medium dice — tougher cuts work well
1 medium to largish sweet potato, peeled and cut in a large dice
2 tablespoons of fat (bacon fat, vegetable oil, duck fat if you can get it)
1 yellow onion cut in a medium dice
2 celery stalks cut in medium dice
2 carrots cut in medium dice
8-10 field or button mushrooms, brushed and halved (if large cut in quarters, if small, use whole)
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
2 heaping tablespoons flour
2 even tablespoons tomato paste
2/3 cup red wine
4-5 cups water* added sequentially in the various stages
Salt and pepper**
2-3 fat fresh sage leaves OR***
3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme,
1 large bay leaf
One palm-full of freshly chopped curly (or straight) parsley to finish.
In a large (at least 10-inch) cast-iron skillet, melt/heat the fat, and brown the diced beef over medium-high heat. No need to crowd the pan, you want a nice even brown. Remove successive batches to your stew pot and reserve. When all the beef is in the stew pot, add 1 cup of water and bring to a slow simmer while braising the vegetables.
Reduce heat and add carrot, celery, and onion — grind or shake in salt and pepper to taste and stir gently, until onions are translucent (around 4-5 minutes).
Add mushrooms and garlic with ½ cup of water and cook until most of the fluids have evaporated or been absorbed (4-5 minutes). Stir in the tomato paste until incorporated, sift in the flour, and stir gently until the flour cooks in (around 3-4 minutes). Add in the wine and cook just long enough to burn off the alcohol and deglaze the skillet (just a few minutes). Add contents of skillet to the beef in the stew pot. Add two more cups of water (if there is a lot of fond left in the skillet use the water to finish the deglazing), sage or thyme, and bay leaf. Stir well, bring to a low simmer, and cook covered for 30-40 minutes until meat is tender — checking to see if you need to add a bit more water.
Check for seasoning, add sweet potatoes and a bit more water if necessary, and cook for another 20 or so minutes until sweet potatoes are just tender.
Adjust seasonings, discard herb stems and bay leaf. Finish with parsley and serve.
This recipe can serve six, and while it freezes well enough (if you like a more traditional stew) I think it is at its very best served just as the sweet potatoes reach fork-tenderness. In fact, I often make the stew ahead of time — not adding the sweet potatoes in until 20 minutes before the sit-down supper.
*Most cooks advise using broth, beef broth, chicken broth, duck broth, ANY broth, to stews and soups to deepen and enhance the flavor. To keep this dish bright, and not muddy the flavors, I advise water, at least the first time. You can always try broth, and even add Worcestershire sauce or a few dashes of tabasco sauce (both, along with Crisco, were known to my great-grandma) to play with/“enhance” flavors in successive batches. You could even add turnips and/or rutabagas, parsnips, or even potatoes — but try this classic version first.
**I think it is important to salt and pepper this dish throughout the various phases (tasting as you go).
***To keep this dish bright, I suggest keeping the herbs and spices to a minimum. Either sage or thyme — not both. Once you’ve tried this “virgin” version, feel free to play with other spices — rosemary, oregano, etc., singly or in combination. But again, try this cleaner version first.