The summer of youth is full of unappreciated freedom and spontaneity — road trips, river days, talking for hours with your friends in the back yard as cicadas sing. And then the babies arrive like the start of a rainy season, first with the gentle pitter-patter as a few young couples become young parents, then a deluge. At a certain point in your life, almost every conversation you have will be about ovulation, gestation, dilation, lactation and nocturnal frustration. Well-rested and dry-breasted, but with a full docket of baby-havers on my social calendar — two pregnant, three nursing — I decided to lean in. I decided to make some Mama Stew.
I hit upon this beef stew as my go-to offering for new and expecting parents because it's the dish my own mother cooks for me whenever I've been away from home too long. Spring break from college, the bitter end of a bad relationship, returning with henna covered hands from New Delhi — the smell of the stew simmering on the wood stove never fails to make my heart lift. With thick chunks of tender beef, carrots, potatoes and onions bobbing in thick gravy under downy white dumplings, this stew is rich and wholesome and nourishing: the embodiment of parental love.
I set aside a Saturday night (another casualty of the baby season, lots of free weekends, but no matter) and got to chopping. I subbed out the dumplings in favor of the pleasure of baking my own bread. In retrospect, I went a little overboard. It was well past midnight when I hung up my stained and flour-dusty apron and fell into bed. But at least I got a night of uninterrupted sleep before getting up, pouring the Mama Stew into five different receptacles and beginning my rounds. To all of the non-parents out there hovering on the periphery of the baby typhoon, wondering whether or not to wade in with a wet wipe in hand, I whole-heartedly recommend a full Sunday spent patting pregnant bellies and dawdling new infants.
The stew and bread were duly appreciated, and I returned home to my messy kitchen with a warmer heart, my love for my friends magnified by witnessing their transformations, both physical and emotional. It was rewarding to have taken part. But when I tasted the leftover stew, it tasted a little bit ... off. Not bad (and there were no complaints) but as though it were missing some essential component. Maybe it was because the water wasn't from our family spring, or the wood cookstove at home lends it something my own gas range can't, or maybe it was just missing my own mother's love. Yeah, I love my friends, but there was more than a smidgeon of spinsterly smugness sprinkled into this particular batch of stew. Next time I'll leave that out. But first, I think I need to make a trip home.
Ingredients and method:
2 ½ pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ¼ pounds red potatoes, cubed
4 medium carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 onions, quartered
1 pinch of sage
1 bay leaf
Shake the beef in a plastic bag with flour until it's coated. Heat the oil in stewpot and brown the meat. Add enough water to cover the meat by about two inches. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook covered until beef comes apart under your fork. Add the vegetables, bay leaf and spices to taste. Cook the stew until the vegetables are tender. If the gravy is thin, stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour mixed with twice as much water and simmer a bit more. The gravy will thicken over time as it cools. It's equally good cold and as leftovers.