Beef has never played a big role in my kitchen. While I enjoy a juicy-to-my-elbows burger as much as the next person, a hunk of steak or a giant roast has never made me swoon the way it does for so many others. It’s too plainly reminiscent of the animal it used to be, I think, and the flavor itself isn’t something I’m terribly fond of. A nice brisket, however, something where the meat’s so tender it’s falling apart and no knife is required, smothered in caramelized onions and rich brown gravy—well, that I’ve always relished. I just never bothered to cook it since the quantity was so vast, too much for one person. Add in concerns about fat and I had myself one beef-free kitchen. As long as there was chicken and fish to be cooked, I was happy. What could be better than a simple piece of oven-roasted cod served over garlicky kale?
Then along came S, who loves cow flesh, but hates fish. And had a cholesterol level that prompted red-meat warnings from his doctor. When I moved in with him, my de-beefed kitchen shifted from Astoria to Williamsburg, and was also transformed into a fish-free zone. Toss in the remnants of my kosher upbringing—no pork, no shellfish—and you can see how limited the options have become. We’ve been living together nearly ten months, and the strain of finding interesting things to do with chicken—which appeared to be our only viable pure protein—was starting to show. There are plenty of vegetarian options, to be sure, but neither of us was ready to give up on meat completely.
And then, salvation appeared at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. While shopping there recently I noticed Elk Trails Bison Ranch. I knew from the tent cards on tables at local diners that buffalo (also called bison) tastes like beef but without the fat and cholesterol, plus it’s higher in protein, so I went over to check it out. Charlie (I think that was his name) was very generous with his time, and gave me a handout with a cholesterol-comparison chart. Some astonishing figures there:
(cholesterol milligrams per 100 grams)
Lean Beef 77
Lean Veal 128
Light Meat Chicken (no skin) 72
That’s right, it has less cholesterol than my beloved cod! And it has less fat than white meat chicken, I’ve since discovered. All this was very exciting news, but there still remained the fact that I had absolutely no idea how to cook it. Charlie told me that because it has so little fat, it cooks and dries out quite quickly. It could be substituted in any beef recipe, he said, but skip whatever browning might be called for—it would overcook and toughen the meat. He gave me a second handout, with cooking tips. The most interesting part: “Buffalo must be cooked with less heat for a shorter time. For pan or oven broiling decrease normal cooking time by 25%….Very slow, moist heat works especially well with less tender cuts such as chuck….With slow-cooking you don’t have to worry about overcooking—just let it go until it falls apart.”
I left Charlie’s kiosk with two pounds each of stew meat and ground buffalo, and skipped home in search of the ideal recipe. Stew. Just the word made me feel cozy. S and I would feast on stew, delighting in its luxurious flavors and mellow slow cooking. I’ve mentioned before my binder filled with clippings and my cookbook collection, but even with all those recipes I’ve never paid much attention to meat. There wasn’t a single beef recipe in my clippings binder, and the beef pages in my cookbooks were pristine and unread. It took the better part of an afternoon to peruse them all, narrow the selection, and decide what to cook. The winner: Beef Stew with Tomatoes, Cinnamon, and Cloves, from Pam Anderson’s The Perfect Recipe. I’ve had this cookbook for a while now, but have yet to cook from it. She’s the former executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated, and that was reason enough for me to buy it, but most of the time when I’m looking for something new, her recipes don’t sing to me. In this case, though, it sounded wonderful, spicy and exotic and still comforting, and I loved one aspect of the technique—once everything’s browned on the stovetop, the whole pot goes into a very low oven for hours, no checking necessary.
There were two things I didn’t like about the recipe, though, one of which I pretty much ignored and the other of which I have solved below on behalf of you, my dear readers. The first was that, in all Anderson’s CI-style experimenting, she claimed that steaming any vegetables separately and adding them for just the last five minutes retained the most flavor, and provided the best vegetal punch. While this is likely true, it struck me as just another pot to wash. The recipe I’d selected didn’t call for carrots, but I had some on hand and their sweetness seemed to meld with the other flavors in the dish, so I threw them in at the beginning, as in a more “normal” recipe. The second problem was trickier, and didn’t become apparent until I started preparing the dish. Because the book follows the CI method of experimenting to create a master recipe and then offering variations, the ingredients for the version I’d chosen came six pages after the instructions for the recipe itself, with only changes to the main instructions written out on the ingredients page. (For example: “Follow steps 1 and 2 of recipe for Hearty Beef Stew, browning meat in 2 to 3 tablespoons oil, and stirring in tomato paste after flour has colored in step 2.”) It wasn’t impossible to follow, but man was it confusing. In the end, I wished that I’d taken the time to write out the whole thing separately—but that seems sort of silly, doesn’t it, when you’re using a cookbook? Not to worry, though, since the recipe that accompanies this post is indeed written out in its entirety.
As for the finished dish, it tasted wonderful, but the texture of the meat was disappointing. Even after cooking a full hour longer than the recipe said, the meat never really reached the falling-apart stage that is the hallmark of any good beef stew. This may have been a result of the buffalo meat, but according to Charlie’s handout and everything I’ve seen online, it should’ve behaved exactly like beef in a long-cooking recipe like this. Except for the toughness, though, it was a big success: the flavors were lovely, vaguely middle-eastern: very slightly sweet but still hearty and definitely savory and, well, beefy. The first night I served it alongside some roasted small potatoes and crusty bread for the sauce. And the next day, I simmered the leftovers on the stove for a half-hour (I added some water to keep it from burning) before serving over noodles, and it was much better.
I would definitely make this recipe again, but I’d use the version I’m typing out here, and I’d let it cook even longer.
Cinnamon-Scented Buffalo Stew
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds buffalo chuck, cut into 1 ½-inch cubes
Ground black pepper
2 T. vegetable oil
2 medium-large onions, chopped (2 cups)
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 T. all-purpose flour
2 T. tomato paste
1 cup full-bodied red wine [I used Syrah, but Cabernet, Cotes du Rhone, Zinfandel, or Barolo would all work]
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup chopped canned tomatoes [I use Pomi brand, in the juicebox-box]
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/8 t. ground cloves
2 bay leaves
1 t. dried thyme leaves, or 2 t. fresh
3 carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/3 cup dried currants [I used plain ol’ raisins]
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
1 T. cornstarch mixed with 1 T. chicken broth (optional)
Preheat oven to 200. Place meat in a large bowl. Sprinkle with 1 ½ teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper; toss to coat.
Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large nonreactive soup kettle; add onions and saute until almost softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add garlic; continue to sauté for about 30 seconds longer. Stir in flour and cook until lightly colored, 1 to 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, 30 seconds more. Stir in wine, scraping up any browned bits that may have stuck to pan. Add chicken broth and tomatoes, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, and thyme; bring to a simmer. Add buffalo meat and carrots and return to a simmer. Cover and place in oven, and simmer until meat is nearly tender, 2 to 3 hours [I’d say it needs more like 4-5!]. When meat is almost tender, add currants or raisins. Cover, return to oven and cook until meat is fork-tender, 20 to 30 minutes longer. Stir in parsley, adjust seasonings, and serve.