April 08, 2008

Cooking Stew

I bought some beef at the store a week back, intending to make beef curry. Instead, I had a pot of spoiled rice (that I neglected on my kitchen counter for four days as it cultured Bacillus cereus most likely) and I realized... I've never actually made stew before! I mean, I've helped my dad cook stew when I lived at home, though my role was washing and chopping vegetables, not running the show from start to finish. Then, as I dug through my closet to search for the curry packet I discovered that it was a ready made meal -- you're supposed to just toss it into hot water to heat it up and then cut it open and pour it on top of rice. Serving size: one. Lame!

Tasty Planner is a great website for recipes, meal-planning and assembling a shopping list so I thought I'd give it a go. I found a recipe for beef stew and got my shopping list together.
All I need is some beef broth, mushrooms, an onion, tomatoes and potatoes... how hard can that be?
As I wandered through Safeway, I started buying ingredients for future meals thinking to myself "Oooh, that sounds tasty!" My mind wandered through the aisles. When I got home and started cooking, I realized I was missing a few key ingredients -- namely potatoes and tomatoes! "Ah well... it'll still come out OK," I reassured myself.

As I added in all the ingredients in for my final stew, it looked more like soup. "Thickener! Oh, so THAT'S why the recipe said to roll the beef in flour before cooking it... whoops." My kitchen isn't fully outfitted, in spite of the full pantries. I knocked on a few of my neighbor's doors but seeing how it was noon, no one answered. No corn starch, no flour... what to do, what to do.

I went online to look for some ideas and someone said "add any sort of starch. Rice or potatoes are good."

Rice! I just cooked a batch of fresh brown rice to go with my meal, so I added that in. My goodness. It is the best tasting stew I've ever eaten! Of course, being the chef might influence my opinion somewhat, but the red wine certainly jazzed it up. That's an ingredient my family stew neglected to use.

The funny thing about my whole thickener experience was that when I read the recommendation to use "starch," I made the connection that oh yeah, corn starch is a starch. And hey, the reason why it thickens is identical to extracellular matrix (ECM)!


ECM is a mixture of polysaccharides (which includes starches) and proteins that surround cells. One of its functions within joints is to trap water and provide a cushion... basically thickening it up into a gelatinous mush.

Science to the rescue! I lack a lot of common sense when it comes to things like cooking, but boy, I like it when something esoteric like knowing about ECM actually provides an explanation for everyday things. :)

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