The other night I had dinner with my grandfather. Not in a restaurant, not in his house. Not even on the same coast of the country. Instead we dined by telephone.
My grandfather has always lived about a thousand miles away. Tucked into a sand-toned, stucco-sided condo on the shore of Myrtle Beach. Two decades ago, the day he retired, he packed up his favorite Dockers, his beloved maroon silk robe, his extensive VHS collection, told Nana she’d need at least three housecoats, and together they headed south in their powder blue Camry from Massachusetts. ‘Enjoy the blizzards, suckers,‘ might have been their sentiment, or something to that effect. Both of them content to never shovel, salt, or slip on ice again.
For the past twenty years, the majority of my life, we’ve connected during humid summers in South Carolina and bi-weekly sparks along telephone lines. We’re still a phone call away. I imagine we could even skype if either of us were so technologically inclined. One time I mentioned to Papa that if he had a computer, we could email. He told me he had no time to be ‘monkey-ing around on that inter-whats-it,’ and then told me a story about the war for one hour and forty five minutes.
So when I call him, usually on Sunday afternoons, there’s a comfort to the predictability of his existence down south. I don’t need skype to show me that he’s sitting in the same chenille recliner, the cushions custom molded to his 83 year old form. He’s wearing the same maroon silk robe, and doing the same thing he always does at 2pm (his time) on a Sunday. Eating dinner.
This past Sunday, I joined him. Though, since it was technically afternoon, I ate lunch.
“What are you having, Papa?”
“Oh boy, you wouldn’t believe what they have now up at Kroger. A beef stew that would knock.your. socks.right.off!! It comes in a can, and I believe the woman who makes it is named Denise Moore.”
“Papa I think it’s Dinty Moore.” For the record he didn’t hear me. Denise-Dinty, tomato-tomahto. It doesn’t matter.
I should have told him to consider calling the Dinty Moore marketing team to film a testimonial of his wild amazement at the decadence inside a 15 oz can. I’d guess he’s the only soul willing to go on record positively declaring canned beef stew “somethin’ else!”
So we dined. Papa with his bowl of Dinty Moore beef stew, and me with my peanut butter and fluff sandwich. Who was dining more finely is up for debate. Though Papa probably had his glass of red, upstaging my Boku by at least 50% in the class department.
We talked. About movies, about the news, about my brother’s upcoming wedding, about our mutual reverence for retirement, the days when they made khaki pants to last…how cold we are all the time. The usual.
The thing I love about him is this: he’s a riot. And not solely in the way that I’m laughing at him and his mid-eighties antics, but more in the way of his unique dry wit. A combination of equal parts intelligence and wisdom mixed with two parts impatience and one part cynicism. A hybrid of Larry David and Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace.
He’s one of a select few people who I genuinely understand. And though he’s predictable in his surroundings, his list of worldly complaints, and the stories he tells me time and fifty times again, he’s still got the ability to surprise me. After all, who knew that Dinty Moore was such a delicacy?
In honor of my canned-soup-loving grandfather, I’ve made a beef stew. It’s pure and delicious, like Dinty used to make, except it doesn’t taste quite like aluminum and salt and gelatin. It’s hearty in a hot, rich, autumnal way. The beef is fork tender, the result of hours of slow simmering on the stove top. And the sauce…oh that sauce. Robust and savory with layers of flavor from beef to thyme to rosemary to red wine. It’s a stew that deserves crusty bread for dipping, a family, and a Sunday afternoon.
Combine all of your spices into a small bowl and set aside.
Cut your meat, chuck or any roast will do, into large 2″ chunks.
Toss the beef with 2 tablespoons of all purpose flour, coating each piece evenly.
Heat a large pot, preferably a dutch oven, over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons of oil. Add your beef in a single layer and brown on all sides. You just want to develop a nice deep brown crust on the outsides, not cook the beef through. This whole process should only take about 4-5 minutes.
Remove the beef to a plate and set aside.
Return the pot to the burner and add 1 more tablespoon oil along with one diced onion. Saute the onion in the oil and beef drippings for about 5 minutes, just until it has softened.
Add minced garlic and stir constantly for 30 seconds. The garlic should be fragrant. Take care not to let it burn, as burnt garlic makes any dish slightly bitter-tasting.
Pour in a half cup of red wine to deglaze the pan, scraping to loosen the crispy bits that have formed on the bottom of the pot. These have such rich flavor.
Now add your spice mixture and stir to combine.
Followed by 2 bay leaves.
Return your meat to the pot, along with any juices that may have collected on the plate.
Stir in 1 1/2- 2 cups beef broth.
Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and let the stew simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
Now, add your vegetables.
Cover the pot again and let the vegetables simmer for 30 minutes, just so they can soften and absorb some of that lovely flavor.
Before you’re ready to serve the stew, combine 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 3 tablespoons cold water in a small dish. Stir until the cornstarch is dissolved, adding a few drops more water if needed.
Pour the cornstarch mixture into the stew and stir. Let the mixture simmer for about 2 minutes and you should notice that it has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it hasn’t thickened enough, add more cornstarch- by dissolving more cornstarch in a small bowl with water (roughly 1 part cornstarch to 2 parts cold water).
Taste the stew. Here is where you need to adjust the seasonings- most likely, if something is off a bit- it’s the salt. Be generous and add a few hefty pinches, along with more cracked black pepper.