A few years ago, I was vacationing in Barcelona and had a dish called "Estofado de Ternera" (translation = beef stew). It was unlike any stew I'd had before and was extremely good. I was not able to get the recipe and forgot about it. The only thing I remember is that the waiter told me that the secret ingredient was chocolate!
Fast forward several years, and I saw a segment of the America's Test Kitchen TV show with Catalan beef stew as the featured recipe. I got curious about it and Googled the subject, only to find dozens of similar recipes from several sources, some of them identical to the one on TV. I don't know who copied who, but I used the one from the website epicurious.com as my point of departure.
I made this a few times and came up with a few minor changes that make the dish easier to prepare and less expensive than the originals. To make a long story short, you may find that this is the best beef stew you ever tasted.
The TV show recommended using thick meaty boneless shortribs instead of the usual chuck stew meat. I agree with this recommendation, but shortribs can be expensive these days. However, you can buy them in markets that cater to Koreans or Latinos for less than half the price of the average supermarket. In addition, the orginal recipe calls for using oyster mushrooms that cost around $8 - $12 a pound, but you can use any mushroom you like, and even leave them out altogether.
Unlike most stew recipes that call for browning the meat first, this recipe relies on oven browning. It turns out that meat brought to a temperature of 300° or more will brown if cooked long enough. This phenomenon is called the "maillard reaction." Google it if you are curious.
The stew is thickened at the end with a "picada", a classic Catalan mixture of bread, nuts, garlic and parsley. As with other stews, I'm happy to serve this stew with a green salad and a great artisan bread for juice-sopping. If you have to have a starch, I'd go for rice pilaf, broad noodles or couscous.
2 Tbs EVOO
2 Large Onions, chopped fine
1/2 Tsp Kosher Salt
1/2 Tsp Sugar
2 Tbs Tomato paste
1 Tsp Smoked Spanish paprika or more to taste
2 Bay leaves
1.5 Cups White wine
1.5 Cups Water
3 Sprigs Fresh thyme or 1/2 TSp Dried thyme
1/4 Tsp Ground cinnamon
2.5 Lbs Boneless shortribs, trimmed of fat and silverskin
Salt and pepper
1/2 Lb Mushrooms, cut into bite-size pieces
1 Tsp Sherry vinegar
1/4 Cup Blanched almonds, hazelnuts or pine nuts
1 Slice Rustic bread, crust removed and cubed
3 Cloves Garlic, peeled
3 Tbs Italian parsley, minced
Preheat oven to 300°. In a large Dutch oven, preferably enameled cast iron, heat the EVOO and add the onions, salt and sugar. Cook, stirring often until the onions are caramelized to a dark brown color, about 30-40 minutes. Add the tomato paste, paprika and bay leaves, Cook, stirring often for 2 minutes.
Add the wine, water, thyme and cinnamon and deglaze the pot. Cut the meat into 2" cubes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the meat to the pot. Bring the liquid to the simmer and place the pot in the oven uncovered. After 1 hour, stir the pot and return it to the oven. Cook for an additional hour and a half. Keep an eye on the pot. If it looks like too much liquid has evaproated, add a little more water.
Meanwhile, make the picada. In a large skillet, brown the nuts in a little EVOO and toss them into a food processor. Then brown the bread crumbs in the same skillet and toss them into the processor along with the garlic. Process until the mixture is finely ground. Remove the mixture to a bowl and stir in the parsley.
Add a little more EVOO to the skillet and sauté the mushrooms until they give off their water, about 5 minutes.
Take the stew out of the oven and discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaves.. Add the picada, mushrooms and sherry vinegar to the pot and stir well to combine. Adjust the seasoning and serve at once or you can refrigerate or freeze it for later.