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By Emily Paster
I'm starting to wonder how I ever lived without my slow-cooker. I find myself using it once or twice a week. For example, it used to be that dinner on Wednesday nights was a haphazard affair because Wednesday is the night that Zuzu has Hebrew school from 7-8 pm. Honestly, could there be a worse time? It interferes with dinner and bedtime for younger siblings and by the time Zuzu gets home, instead of being ready for bed as she should be, she is wound up from candy and hijinks.
I always feed the kids before Zuzu leaves for the temple, but the double-whammy of having to drive back and forth and put JR to bed in between makes it hard for me to fix a nice meal for me and my husband. That is, it was hard before I had my slow cooker. Now, I can prepare a meal in the morning or early afternoon, while the kids are still at school, and time it to be ready once Zuzu is back home and the adults can finally sit down and eat.
This week, the combination of the first really cold weather and my recently acquired Umbrian pearl barley from Eataly inspired me to make a beef stew with barley in my slow cooker. My slow cooker cookbook had recipes for beef stew and for a chicken and barley soup, but not beef with barley, so I had to improvise. Slow cookers also have the advantage of being pretty forgiving. After 6 hours, it's not as if the beef and barley would still be raw.
If you are not familiar with barley, you may want to take a look at this ancient grain. Pearl barley is barley that has been polished to remove its hull and bran. You do lose some of the nutrition through that process, but the result is a product that cooks faster than whole barley and is less like eating seeds. In fact, pearl barley cooks up fluffy and tender with a nutty flavor and still is quite nutritious. We usually see barley in soup but you can actually use it to make risotto, a pilaf or eat it as a salad with fresh vegetables. Like most grains, barley is cooked in liquid until it fluffs up and becomes tender — a process which usually about 40 minutes. But it also holds its shape nicely when simmered for hours in soups and stews, as is the case here.
My beef with barley stew is thick and hearty — perfect for a cold night. And it takes maybe 30 minutes of prep work — browning the meat, and chopping and sauteing the vegetables. The slow cooker does the rest. This is the kind of recipe that can really simplify those crazy weeknights when everyone is pulled in a million directions. Your family will be amazed that in the midst of chaos, you still managed to come up with a dinner this tasty and satisfying.
Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Barley
1 lb. beef stew meat
2 TB olive oil
1/2 cup flour
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 leek, trimmed and sliced
1 tsp. dried thyme
4 carrots, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
1 cup pearl barley
4 cups chicken broth*
1/2 cup brandy
2 bay leaves
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread flour on a plate and season it with salt and pepper. Dredge beef pieces in flour until coated and shake off the excess. If your slow cooker has a stove top setting, set it to high and add the olive oil. (If your slow cooker does not have a stove top setting, you can brown the meat in a saute pan on the stove or just skip this step. However, browning the beef does enhance the flavor, so I think it is worth the trouble.) Brown the beef stew meat on all sides, working in batches if necessary so as not to overcrowd the slow cooker. When the beef is browned, remove the pieces to a clean plate. Add the onion, garlic and leeks to the slow cooker and toss to coat with the fat in the pot. Sauté the aromatics until they are softened, but not browned, lowering the heat if necessary. Season well with salt, pepper and dried thyme. When the aromatics are tender, return the beef (with any accumulated juices) to the slow cooker. Add the carrots and parsnips and stir to combine. Add the pearl barley, the bay leaves, the chicken broth and the brandy. Cover and set the slow cooker on low for 5-7 hours. One hour before you wish the serve the stew, add the can of whole tomatoes, drained and chopped. If the stew looks too thick at that time, you can add some of the juice from the tomatoes. Taste and adjust the seasonings before serving.
*You could use beef broth, but I find most commercial beef broth to be funny-tasting, especially in large amounts, which is why I prefer to use chicken broth here.
Do you have a trick for serving your family dinner on nights when the kids have after-school or evening activities?