On Friday mornings I wake up a little earlier than usual to visit the weekly greenmarket that sets up just a block from my apartment building. I don't always make it, but when I do it seems to brighten my mood for the rest of the day. I breathe the cool morning air, surrounded by fresh-from-the-farm vegetables and fruits, chat with purveyors and greenmarket-loving neighbors, and my faith in humanity is restored.
On a recent trip, I picked up some pastured beef stew meat, planning for one final braise before the heat of summer turns my attention to lighter dishes. A few days later, though, a record-breaking spring heat wave arrived in the northeast, with temperatures soaring into mid-90s. I thought my braising days were over for now, and every time I spotted the stew meat in the freezer, I worried that I might not get to it until fall (I worry about strange things).
But then, as I should have expected, this being my thirty-third mid-Atlantic spring, the weather pendulum swung dramatically to the opposite end of the spectrum. Forties and low fifties, cloudy, windy, drizzly. Not great for my beloved Central Park wanderings, but (yippee!) braising weather was back! Inspired by the chill in the air and a bottle of Sicilian red wine I picked up on sale during the week, I spent a lovely, lazy Saturday afternoon braising beef in a sweet-tangy bath of red wine, vinegar, orange zest, cinnamon, apricots, and herbs -- a kinda-sorta Sicilian beef stew.
orange apricot braised beef
We had this over mashed potatoes, so I did not add potatoes to the braise itself. But, if you prefer, just add some cubed potatoes at the same time the larger carrot chunks go into the pot, and they will both be tender by the time the beef is done. Asparagus, lightly sauteed and tossed with butter, was a delicious side.
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 lbs beef stew meat, cubed
1 medium onion, chopped
3 carrots, peeled (divided: 1 carrot chopped, 2 carrots cut into bite sized chunks)
2 celery ribs, chopped
3 stalks of spring garlic, white and tender green parts sliced (tougher green tops discarded) (can substitute 1 leek or 2 shallots)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup plus 1/4 cup dry, spicy red wine (I used a dry Sicilian; a Syrah or Zinfandel would also work well)
1 tsp red wine vinegar
7 or 8 dried apricots, quartered (I used unsulfured Turkish)
bouquet garni (1 sprig rosemary, 1 sprig thyme, and 2 dried bay leaves, bound with kitchen twine)
2 cinnamon sticks
2 strips of orange zest, each about 1 by 4 inches in size (preferably from an organic orange)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
freshly ground black pepper
- Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Blot beef cubes with paper towel to remove excess moisture, season liberally with salt and pepper, and saute until well-browned (I did this in two batches to avoid crowding the pan).
- Remove beef from pot with a slotted spoon. Add onion, chopped carrot, celery, and spring garlic to pot, and a pinch of salt. Saute for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly caramelized. Add tomato paste and cook for another minute or so, stirring constantly.
- Add 1/2 cup red wine and red wine vinegar, and scrape up brown bits from bottom of pot. Lower heat and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, until liquid is almost completely evaporated. Return beef to pot, and add 3 cups of water, apricots, bouquet garni, cinnamon sticks, orange zest, red pepper flakes, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook at a gentle simmer, partially covered, for about 2-1/2 hours. Keep an eye on the liquid level and add more water if the sauce is getting too thick (and/or cover the pot for a while to slow down the evaporation).
- Add the remaining carrot chunks to the pot and simmer for an additional 30 minutes until the carrots are tender. At this point, the beef should be fork-tender. Remove bouquet garni, cinnamon sticks, and orange zest. Stir in the remaining 1/4 cup red wine (adding wine at the end really brightens up the finished dish), season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.