Wintertime Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Ciabatta
Wintertime in my home means a nice hearty stew and fresh bread hot out of the oven. One of my favorite things in the winter, especially when it has been snowing, is coming home with the house smelling of a delicious stew and delicious fresh baked bread. And when everyone is tramping in and out of the cold, coming in hungry, a warm bowl of stew and a chewy piece of bread are welcome sights.
This winter is starting out unusually warm here in Colorado Springs, but that hasn’t stopped me from creating some of my family’s favorite winter combinations. We may not be as chilly as we usually are, but it is still a welcoming sight when everyone gets home in the evening—fresh cooked stew and warm baked bread. This past weekend, I took advantage of having some extra time and made a crusty ciabatta bread and slow cooker beef stew.
I started with the ciabatta. I like a recipe for ciabatta that I found at Leite’s Culinaria. Ciabatta can be time consuming, but the finished bread is well worth the extra steps it takes to make it. The night before I started I made the biga. Biga is a starter dough used in many regional Italian breads. If a shudder just ran up your spine at the thought of having to deal with a starter, stay with me for a minute.
For a long time, just the thought that I had to have a starter kept me from making ciabatta and many types of bread at home, and I like making and baking bread. But one mention of having to deal with a starter and I had visions of the Amish Friendship Cake where you are nursing a starter along for days before you could make the actual cake. I am not that patient—not for a cake and certainly not for bread.
But I did some research and found that the biga isn’t as big of a deal as I feared, and it lends much of the flavor that you find in good regional breads. The starter only needs a couple of ingredients and about 15 minutes of my time then it is on its own until I am ready to use it. Plus I can make it the night before if necessary. Or, if I doubled an initial batch I can put some in the freezer to use in the future. Yes, that’s right, the freezer. Biga, much to my surprise, freezes well. Once frozen, it only needs a few hours at room temperature until it is bubbly and activated again. If I end up making or thawing some biga but don’t end up making the ciabatta that day, the biga will survive in the refrigerator for up to five days, which is usually enough time for me to get back around to making bread.
Once the biga is made, making the ciabatta takes about 30 minutes of me and my stand mixer, then a few of hours of rising time and about 30 minutes of baking time. The payoff is a flavorful, crisp crust, a chewy, open crumb, and a full, wonderfully tangy flavor. If you have been surviving on store-bought ciabatta bread, homemade will spoil you. Store bought, in my opinion, just doesn’t hold a candle to homemade ciabatta bread.
I paired my fresh ciabatta with a slow cooker beef stew. This particular beef stew recipe from Cook’s Country caught my attention because it cooks the vegetables cook in a foil packet. My first thought was “They have got to be kidding—why would I want to do that?” But I gave it a try based on their statement of why the recipe works:
Browning the meat before adding it to the slow cooker made for more flavorful beef as well as broth in our Slow-Cooker Hearty Beef Stew. Soy sauce and tomato paste browned in a skillet enhanced the meaty flavor even further.
To ensure the vegetables cooked gently and didn’t turn to mush, we wrapped them in a foil packet and placed them on top of the meat in the slow cooker. We finished them in the broth toward the end to let them soak up flavor. (CooksCountry.com)
Did it work, yes. The vegetables were lovely and cooked through but not mushy. The few extra minutes of cooking time in the broth kept the vegetables from being bland. Even the parsnips, of which I am not the biggest fan, were nice, tender and favorable. Would I do it the same way again? That’s a tougher question—I like mushy potatoes and carrots in my stew. But for other dishes, I see the benefit of that little foil packet sitting on top of the meat.
Fresh ciabatta and beef stew: it’s a warming combination that your family will want again and again!
What’s your favorite wintertime meal combination?
Italian Biga Recipe (From Leite’s Culinaria)
1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/4 cup (2 ounces/ 60 grams) warm water
3/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons (7 ounces/ 200 grams) water, preferably bottled spring water, at room temperature
2 1/3 cups (11.6 ounces / 330 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
- Stir the yeast into the warm water and let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the remaining water and then the flour, 1 cup at a time. If mixing by hand, stir with a wooden spoon for 3 to 4 minutes. If mixing with a stand mixer, beat with the paddle at the lowest speed for 2 minutes. If mixing with a food processor, mix just until a sticky dough forms.
- Transfer the biga to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise at a cool room temperature for 6 to 24 hours. When ready, the starter will be triple its original volume and still be wet and sticky. (The bakers I admire most advise 10 to 11 hours for the first rise, but others are very happy with the 24 hours it takes for dough to truly become yesterday’s dough. If you like sour bread, allow your biga to rest for 24 to 48 hours, or you might even stretch it to 72 hours.) Cover and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use. (If refrigerating the biga, use within 5 days. If freezing the biga, let it rest at room temperature for about 3 hours until it is bubbly and active again.) When needed, scoop out the desired amount of biga for your recipe and proceed.
Ciabatta Recipe (From Leite’s Culinaria)
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
5 tablespoons warm milk
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons water, at room temperature (if using a food processor, use cold water)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 very full cups (17.5 ounces / 500 grams) biga, rested for 12 hours (recipe above)
3 3/4 cups (17.5 ounces / 500 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tablespoon (0.5 ounces / 15 grams) salt
- If making the ciabatta in a stand mixer: Stir the yeast into the milk in a mixer bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Add the water, oil, and biga and mix with the paddle until blended. Mix the flour and salt, add to the bowl, and mix for 2 to 3 minutes. Change to the dough hook and knead for 2 minutes at low speed, then 2 minutes at medium speed. Knead briefly on a well-floured surface, adding as little flour as possible, until the dough is still sticky but beginning to show evidence of being velvety, supple, springy, and moist.
If making the ciabatta in a food processor: Stir the yeast into the milk in a large bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons of cold water, the oil, and the biga and mix, squeezing the biga between your fingers to break it up. Place the flour and salt in the food processor fitted with the dough blade and pulse several times to sift the ingredients. With the machine running, pour the biga mixture through the feed tube and process until the dough comes together. Process about 45 seconds longer to knead. Finish kneading on a well-floured surface until the dough is still sticky but beginning to show signs of being velvety, supple, moist, and springy.
- Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours. The dough should be full of air bubbles, very supple, elastic, and sticky.
- Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces on a well-floured surface. Roll each piece into a cylinder, then stretch each cylinder into a rectangle, pulling with your fingers to get each piece long and wide enough. It should be approximately 10 by 4 inches.
- Generously flour 4 pieces of parchment paper placed on peels or upside-down baking sheets. Place each loaf, seam side up, on a piece of parchment. Dimple the loaves vigorously with your fingertips or knuckles so that they won’t rise too much. The dough will look heavily pockmarked, but it is very resilient, so don’t be concerned. Cover the loaves loosely with damp towels and let rise until puffy but not doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The loaves will look flat and definitely unpromising, but don’t give up; they will rise more in the oven.
- Approximately 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425ºF (218ºC) and slide your baking stones on the center rack to heat.
- Just before baking the ciabatta, sprinkle the stones with cornmeal. Carefully invert each loaf onto a stone. If the dough sticks a bit to the parchment, just gently work it free from the paper. If you need to, you can leave the paper and remove it 10 minutes later. Bake for a total of 20 to 25 minutes, spraying the oven three times with water in the first 10 minutes. Transfer the ciabatta loaves to wire racks to cool.
Cook’s Country Slow Cooker Hearty Beef Stew
5 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-1/2 inch pieces
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 onions, chopped fine
6-ounce can tomato paste
2 cups low-sodium chicken or beef broth
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 bay leaves
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1-1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons minute tapioca
2 cups frozen peas, thawed
- Brown meat: Pat beef dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Cook half of beef until well browned all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer to slow-cooker insert and repeat with additional 1 tablespoon oil and remaining beef.
- Brown onions: Add onions, 1 tablespoon oil, and 1/4 teaspoon salt to now-empty skillet and cook until browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until paste begins to darken, about 2 minutes. Slowly stir in broth, soy sauce, and bay leaves and bring to boil. Transfer to slow cooker.
- Wrap vegetables: Toss carrots, parsnips, potatoes, remaining oil, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in large bowl. Place vegetables on one side of large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Fold foil over vegetables to form packet that will fit in slow cooker; crimp edges to seal. Stir tapioca into slow cooker; set vegetable packet on top of beef.
- Slow cook: Cover and cook on high until beef is tender, 6 to 7 hours (or cook on low 10 to 11 hours). Discard bay leaves and transfer vegetable packet to bowl. Carefully open packet (watch for steam) and return vegetables and any accumulated juices to slow cooker. Stir in remaining thyme and peas, cover, and let stand until heated through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve.