The concept of “comfort food” intrigues me. It has the same definition for all of us, but we all have different foods that we put in that category. Comfort foods make us feel good emotionally when we eat them, usually because it gives us a healthy dose of nostalgia. I’d say that most (if not all) comfort foods are labeled such during our childhood. Maybe a particular soup that Dad made when we were sick, or a grilled cheese sandwich Mom made on rainy days – whatever the cause, the memory is permanently associated with that food. Even if every cookbook – or Alton Brown himself – condemned the use of Velveeta in scrambled eggs it wouldn’t matter because that’s how Mom makes it, and it tastes “right”.
This concept of tasting “right” has led me to create what I’ve been calling Cooking Rule #1: The way Mom* makes it is the correct way. I’ve been pretty happy with this rule until recently when I’ve been pondering whether or not this rule applies to anyone else. What if your Mom doesn’t cook? What if you like her spanakopita but not her zucchini bread? Then I realized that this rule isn’t even 100% true for me. My Mom is an excellent cook, but I never grew attached to pizza on whole wheat dough. (Sorry Mom!) If this rule doesn’t fit me perfectly, it’s certainly not going to be true for everyone else!
I recently made beef stew & dumplings for the first time and I called Mom for advice on how to make it. While she didn’t have a favorite recipe for the stew, she did have a tried-and-true method for making dumplings: Bisquick. I remember eating stew & dumplings fairly often when I was growing up and I knew exactly what my mouth wanted out of these dumplings, and that was Bisquick.
Now, several of my friends are what we now call “Foodies”, and I’ll confess that I was reluctant to admit to them that I used a mix instead of making my own from scratch. But this was for beef stew – a food that surely lands on many people’s Comfort Food list! And then I remembered Cooking Rule #1 – this is how Mom makes beef stew & dumplings.
This led me to realize that Cooking Rule #1 is actually better used as a defense than a charter. So I’ve reengineered the rule to be: “That’s how Mom makes it” is an irrefutable defense for any cooking choice.
Taste is a completely subjective feeling anyway. What tastes “right” to me might not taste “right” to you, but that’s what I want and you can’t tell me I’m wrong.
*Mom, Dad, grandparent, favorite uncle, etc. In this case “Mom” means “the person who influenced your eating habits the most.”
Kim & Mom’s Crock Pot Beef Stew & Dumplings
I called Mom and she looked through a couple of her cookbooks and this is what we came up with.
2 lbs beef (I used flank steak)
1.5 large russet potatoes (2 wouldn’t fit in the crock pot)
2 med-sized carrots
½ large yellow onion
2 med-sized tomatoes
1 6oz. can tomato paste
1/2 c. frozen green beans
1/2 c. frozen peas
3 c. Water
2 T. oil (to cook the meat in)
1-2 t. salt (for the meat)
1 t. black pepper (for the meat)
1 1/2 t. garlic powder
1 t. rosemary
1 t. oregano
1 t. basil
1 t. ground marjoram
2 bay leaves
2 c. Bisquick
Since this was a crock pot dish, I did the prep work the night before.
Cut the meat into approx. 1” cubes. Cook the meat in a little vegetable oil in a hot skillet until it’s lightly browned, then remove. Mom’s advice: cook the meat in small batches (approx. ½ lb), otherwise the cold meat will cool off the pan and it won’t brown properly. Mom also said to lightly bread the meat with flour mixed with salt & pepper first, but I forgot and it still had good flavor. I did put salt & pepper on the meat after I cooked it while it was still hot, before I put it in the crock pot.
Peel & cut the potatoes and carrots into bit sized pieces. Chop onions and tomatoes. Put all the veggies in the crock pot. Note: you’re going to put this in the fridge overnight, so if your crock pot doesn’t have a removable bowl you’ll want to put this in a stewpot or something.
Add the meat, tomato paste, water and spices to the mixture. Mom’s recipe also called for 1-2 T. Worcestershire sauce, but I forgot that and it still tasted good, but I’ll probably add that next time! Put the lid on and stick the bowl in the refrigerator.
Note: I’ve heard that if you put grains in your stew you shouldn’t add the water (or maybe even the grains) yet because they’ll start absorbing the liquid overnight and be mush long before you eat it.
Put the bowl back in the crock pot. Set to “low”.
Stir up the ingredients.
Make the dumplings.
Mix the Bisquick according to directions on the box for “dumplings”. Ladle some of the soup liquid from the crock pot into another pan and add some water (should be about 1”-1.5” deep). Put on low heat and cook until there’s a few bubbles. Mom’s note: the dumplings will absorb a lot of water, so make sure there’s enough liquid and space between dumplings (because they basically double in size). Make golf-ball sized balls out of the dough, put them in the pan and cover. Cook for 10 minutes with the cover on, then 10 minutes with the cover off.
When the dumplings are done, either put them on top of the stew in the crock pot or serve separately so people can add them to their own bowl.
P.S. Yes, I forgot to take pictures of the dumplings. Actually, I almost forgot to make them and my guests got to watch me run back into the kitchen and whip them up with what remained of the stew. (Pro tip: never forget the dumplings!)