M was feeling kinda puny today, so I figured pulling out all the stops for comfort food was Job One. It’s a crisp fall day here, with reasonably warm days and chilly mornings and evenings. On top of that, the garden is in fine fettle, churning out lots of great veggies. If ever there was a day for a hearty stew, this is it – so I went for her absolute fave, beef and barley.
This dish is often attributed to ‘colonial times,’ which is missing the boat by a wide margin. The origins are Pictish, and harken back thousands of years, to the Iron Age. Today in Scotland, it’s called Scotch Broth, a pottage (soup or stew) containing beef, (or mutton), barley, onion, carrots, peas, neeps, rutabaga, and so on – it’s anything but a broth, but there ya go – a perfect fall/winter dish that will shine with whatever you have, love, and/or need to use.
This stew isn’t really designed to be cooking all day low and slow, because of the barley – you can and will end up with mush if it’s allowed to cook much longer than 45 minutes to an hour. As such, you may find you want add liquid to your stew, especially the next day – unless you really like porridge, of course.
There are plenty of versions out there, but it really is meant to be personalized every time. Make what you love, and use what’s fresh, available, or needs using – you’ll not go wrong in any iteration.
Toasting the barley isn’t required, but it is delightful – by itself, it’s not particularly tasty, so adding a greater depth of flavor and nuttiness is well worth the effort. Many folks call for doing this in oil, I don’t – a dry toasting gives better flavor and avoids adding unneeded fat.
What makes this a stew rather than a soup? in a word, viscosity. Employing a roux and the barley assures you end up with something that can’t ever be accused of being thin – and thats as it should be.
M’s Fave Beef & Barley Stew
8 Cups Stock (whatever you like, and water will work too)
3/4 Pound Stew Beef
2/3 Cup Pearl Barley
1 medium Onion
2 stalks Celery
2 medium Carrots
3-5 medium Tomatoes
1-2 mild Chiles (or bell peppers)
1 Cup whole Peas
2-3 cloves Garlic
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
2 Turkish Bay Leaves
3 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
3 Tablespoons AP Flour
3 sprigs fresh Thyme (1-2 teaspoons)
2 sprigs fresh Greek Oregano (1-2 teaspoons)
2-3 dashes Worcestershire Sauce
2-3 shakes Tabasco
Salt & Pepper to taste
If not done already, cut beef into roughly 1/2” cubes.
Peel, end trim and dice onion.
End trim and cut carrots and celery into roughly 1/4” thick rounds/slices.
End trim, deseed, and dice chiles and tomatoes.
Peel, end trim, and mince garlic.
Strip leaves from thyme and oregano, and mince – If you’re using dry, portion 2 teaspoons of each and set aside.
In a stock pot over medium heat, add the oil and heat until shimmering.
Add beef and cook, turning steadily, until all sides are nicely browned, about 3-5 minutes.
Add onion, carrot, celery, and chiles and cook, stirring steadily, until the onion starts to turn translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add garlic and cook until the raw smell dissipates, about 1 minute.
Add stock and deglaze the pot, scraping any fond loose from the bottom of the vessel.
Add tomatoes, peas and bay leaves, and stir to incorporate.
Bring the stew up to a low boil, then reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer.
In a dry cast iron skillet over medium heat, toast the barley, stirring/shaking steadily, until it’s golden brown and fragrant, about 3-5 minutes.
Remove barley from hot pan and set aside.
In a 16 oz measuring cup, combine room temperature butter and flour and stir to a paste with a fork or spoon.
Let the stew simmer uncovered for 1 hour – if you lose too much fluid volume, replace it with fresh, hot stock or water.
Add herbs, a three finger pinch of salt, 10-12 twists of pepper, a few drops of Worcestershire and a few shakes of Tabasco – stir to incorporate.
Ladle two cups of stock into the flour/butter mix and stir well to fully incorporate – pour this back into the stew, and scrape/rinse to measuring up to get all your thickener into play. Stir well to incorporate.
Add the barley to the stew and stir to incorporate – Simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the barley is done, (it should be soft, not chewy, and notably fatter)
Serve with biscuits, crusty bread, or cornbread – it’ll be even better the next day.