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What Southern Folks Eat: Comfort in the 'best beef stew'

By Stephanie Hill-Frazier Guest Columnist

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” ― Edith Sitwell

My mom made the world’s best beef stew. I’m sure yours is good, don’t get me wrong, but mom’s was special to our family. She didn’t make it weekly, like she did spaghetti or chicken in various forms. She made it for special occasions, and usually only during the winter months, when we were in need of some warmth and comfort at home.

Beef stew
Simmering the dumplings

Mom’s beef stew was chock full of carrots, tiny potatoes, chunks of chuck roast, and a rich gravy. After the meat simmered for a good half-hour and became tender, mom would add the carrots and potatoes, and allow them to cook in the gravy until they became tender and flavorful, too. The scent of the meat and vegetables swimming in the rich gravy filled the house with the most perfect, comforting fragrance on a cool day. We waited with great anticipation for everything to become completely tender so that mom could make the pièce de résistance: the fluffy, light dumplings.

Now, these dumplings weren’t strip dumplings, the kind that are normally paired with chicken. These were fluffy stew dumplings, and they added 20 minutes to the cooking time of the stew. But it was time well-spent. The dumplings were like tender little fluffy clouds, simmering in the gravy, becoming more and more flavorful with each of those 20 minutes. 

Mom made this delicious beef stew for special occasions, like my sister's birthday (her annual request), special family gatherings, or just a great sale on chuck roast at the Piggly Wiggly. It wasn’t that it was difficult to make; it wasn’t. It was just one of those things that seemed special so she meted it out sparingly so it would still seem special to us. It was… and it still is.

In fact, when my sister came over for our post-Christmas get together, we decided to forego ham or turkey and dressing, and make mom’s beef stew with dumplings. It was such a treat to make it, but not only because of the anticipation of the tasty meal to come. It was also like we were visiting with mom somehow, as if she were looking over our shoulder and suggesting the addition of another bay leaf, or to turn the heat down under the pot. 

We all share in our respective families' special history, going back for generations sometimes, when we cook something like this together. You don’t get that when you open a box of Hamburger Helper or drive through a burger joint. That culinary heritage and family love comes from making things like your grandma’s berry cobbler, Aunt Margaret’s buttermilk biscuits, or mom’s stew. 

When you make it, you feel their presence in your heart, memories of them floating up in your mind like the steam floats above the simmering pots on the stove. The taste of that special meal takes you back to a time in life when that food was part of your being together; you’re right back at mom’s table or at grandma’s stove. It's good to hold on to these memories, and pass them down to the younger generations. 

If you’d like to try mom’s special beef stew with dumplings, I’ll share the recipe with you, and hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as our family does! I’d love to hear about your own favorite family recipes; you can email me anytime at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com. 

Ruthie’s beef stew and dumplings

  • 2 1/2 to 3-pound chuck roast, chopped into large pieces
  • 1 1/2 pounds baby white or red potatoes
  • 1 pound baby carrots
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 small onion, halved
  • 3/4 cup flour, seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic powder

For the dumplings:

  • 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
  • 3 tablespoons shortening
  • 3/4 cup of milk

Method:

1. Pour enough canola or olive oil in the bottom of a large Dutch oven to cover the surface. Turn heat to medium-high.

2. Toss the beef chunks into the flour mixture, shake off the excess, and then drop the pieces in a single layer into the hot oil. This may need to be done in two batches. Brown each side of the beef cubes, then remove from the pan into a bowl.

3. Turn the pan down to medium. Add the water to the pan, and stir, scraping the brown goodness from the bottom of the pan as you do. Then add the bay leaves, celery seed, onion, and Worcestershire sauce. Stir in. Add the meat back to the pan, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

4. After 30 minutes, drop in the potatoes and carrots, and stir. Simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. 

5. When vegetables become tender, combine the flour and shortening in a medium mixing bowl. Chop the shortening into the flour with a fork until mixture is crumbly. Add the milk, then use a spatula to mix gently until the mixture is a soft, wet dough. 

6. Drop the dough by tablespoons into the pot, on top of the stew mixture. Do not stir. When all the dumplings are in, allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Then cover the pot, and simmer for 10 more minutes. 

Serve the stew in deep soup bowls. We often had tiny green peas alongside the stew, or a crisp tossed salad. 

Enjoy!

Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.