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Chef Michael Smith: Old-fashioned beef stew Add to ...

The holidays are not quite over, and chances are you're still talking about the table full of friends and the menu full of flavours you enjoyed over the past week. Your fridge is full and you'll probably have three good meals today.

Count your blessings, because some of your neighbours are not so fortunate.

In every community across Canada there are hungry families. Kids who eat everything put in front of them because they know they don't have the luxury of choice. Parents slowly starving themselves so their kids can have a bit more on their plates. Senior citizens subsisting on little more than crackers and water.

Imagine not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Imagine mastering the ever-changing schedule of which food bank is open on which day. Imagine having no food options at all. Now imagine doing something about it.

For several years, I have been the national spokesman for the Children's Emergency Foundation. This experience has taught me a lot. Canada's food-based charities are in trouble. A perfect storm of rising demand, feeble government support, a faltering economy and diminishing donations have combined to weaken the stance of those among us on the front lines of poverty every day. Our food banks need our help.

Please don't feel guilty about your own success, but take a moment to consider what you can do to help in your community. A cash donation is a great place to start. Then find out what your local food bank needs. Maybe you can drop off a bag of extra groceries every week. Maybe you can spend one day a month helping out in the kitchen of a meal centre or serving tables. Maybe you can head for your nearest food bank or homeless shelter and help them cook up a batch of hearty beef stew. Because the true spirit of the holidays is quietly celebrating the bounty in your life and sharing it with those who need it more than you do.

OLD-FASHIONED BEEF STEW

I love the way braising transforms inexpensive, tough cuts of beef into tasty, tender stew. The earthy flavours of root vegetables combine with the full body of the beef stock and aromatic red wine to form a rich flavour base. The secret, though, to a great beef stew is patiently browning the meat.

What you need

2 pounds or so of stew beef

A sprinkle or two of sea salt and freshly ground pepper

A splash of vegetable oil

A few carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

A few stalks of celery, roughly chopped

A few potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped

A few parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped

A few onions, peeled and roughly chopped

1 turnip, peeled and roughly chopped

28-ounce can of whole tomatoes

½ bottle or so of hearty red wine

3 or 4 cups of homemade or canned beef stock or water

A few bay leaves

A few sprigs of fresh rosemary

Another sprinkle or two of salt and pepper

What you do

Preheat a large, thick-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.

Pat the beef dry with a clean towel, then cut it into large cubes and season it.

Add a splash of oil to the pot - enough to cover the bottom with a thin film - then toss in enough meat to form a single sizzling layer.

Sear the meat on every side until it is evenly browned. Be patient when you're browning the meat; it takes a little time but it's worth every minute. The caramelized flavours are the secret to a rich, hearty stew.

As the pieces brown, remove them from the pan, adding more oil and meat as needed. Once the meat is done, discard the remaining oil - but keep all the browned bits in the pan. They'll add lots of flavour to the stew.

Put all the meat back into the pot and add half of the vegetables (reserve the other half). Add the tomatoes and enough wine and beef stock to just barely cover the works. Add the bay leaves and rosemary, and bring the pot to a simmer. Continue cooking until the meat is almost tender, about an hour, then add the remaining vegetables. Adding the vegetables in two batches allows the first to dissolve into the stew and the second to retain their shape, colour and texture. Continue simmering until the meat and veggies are tender, another 30 minutes or so. When the stew is tender, taste it and season as you like.

Freestyle variations

You may use any combination of root vegetables you have on hand and any cut of beef that is labelled for stewing, simmering or braising. Try using fresh thyme instead of rosemary. At the last second, you can also stir in a sliced green onion or two or a few handfuls of frozen green peas for a burst of colour and flavour.

Serves 4 to 6, with leftovers

Michael Smith is the host of the Food Network's Chef Abroad, Chef at Home, Chef and Large and The Inn Chef. He is based in Fortune, PEI.

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