Your Beef Stew Needs Tomato Sauce

Photo: Claire Lower

I have never made stew the same way twice. I’ll throw in an extra herb, or a little more soy sauce, or switch up the potato. But the one constant in my stew—besides meat, potatoes, and carrots — is store-bought ketchup.

I realise this sounds juvenile. Who hasn’t looked on in horror as a child (or childish adult) covered a meal in the bright red condiment, obscuring the dish’s more subtle flavours? But if you can push those bad memories from your mind, and stop to really think about what tomato sauce is — tomato paste, sugar, and vinegar — you’ll find that it actually is quite at home in a dish of stewed beef and vegetables.

I first learned this trick from my stepfather, who was decent at food but not much else. His stew was extremely simple. He’d chuck some chuck in a slow cooker with carrots and potatoes, cover it with ketchup, and let the moisture from the meat mix with the ketchup to form the soupy portion of the stew. It was a bit one-note, but still quite good, which was surprising to me the first couple of times. Mine is a little more involved than that, but the ketchup remains. (Note: Most squeeze-bottle varieties of tomato sauce should work fine too - just check the ingredients to ensure it has sugar and vinegar.)

In addition to ketchup, I like to add a whole burnt onion, a little fish sauce, and a lot of raw, pureed garlic. The charred bits of onion balance the tangy sweetness of the ketchup, and adds a deep, the roasted flavour that can sometimes gets lost in a wet cooking environment. I also use baby carrots, because they are the perfect size for stew, and I am very lazy.

In terms of potatoes, I like mine to be just on the verge of falling apart, so I use russets, but feel free to use a firmer potato if you prefer. I also like to cook mine in the pressure cooker — aka my Instant Pot — as I’ve found it makes the meat much more tender.

In terms of liquid, I find I don’t need to add much, particularly since there is no real evaporation when the stew is cooked in an Instant Pot or slow cooker, and I like a very thick stew. If you like something soupier, you can add a cup of beef stock. You can add ketchup to any stew recipe, just aim for half a cup for every pound of beef, or you can use my full recipe, which I will provide now.

Beef Stew

Ingredients:

  • 2 onions

  • 2 teaspoons salt divided

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 900 grams cubed stew meat

  • 3/4 cup red wine

  • 2 Russet or Coliban potatoes, chopped into 1-inch cubes

  • 450g baby carrots

  • 1 cup ketchup, preferable Heinz

  • 5 cloves garlic

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce

  • 1 cup beef stock (optional)

  • 1 cup frozen peas

Instructions:

Prepare the onions by cutting them in half vertically, then slicing each half into thin semi-circles with a sharp knife or mandoline. Set one onion aside for later, and season the other with one teaspoon of salt, tossing to coat. Heat one tablespoon of oil over high heat in a large stainless steel pan and, once it starts to shimmer, add the salted onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until each piece of onion is completely burnt on the edges. Transfer the onions to a cup with high walls, a bowl, or a blender.

Photo: Claire Lower

The pan will most likely have a nice layer of fond on it, and you will be tempted to add more oil. Do not. Instead, salt your chuck with another teaspoon of salt, then sear each side in the hot pan until it is well browned. Transfer the browned meat to the insert of your Instant Pot, along with the other onion, potato, and carrots. You can also use a slow cooker if you prefer, though I will take no blame for tough meat. (Why not sear the meat in the Instant Pot itself? I have found that the Instant Pot simply doesn’t get hot enough for a quick sear. Between that and the small amount of searing area in the insert, it’s much faster to just do it in a regular pan, extra dirty dish be damned.)

Deglaze the pan with 3/4 cup of red wine, and scrape up the browned bits with a wooden spoon or spatula. Pour the wine into the cup or bowl with the onions, then add the ketchup, garlic, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Using an immersion blender or countertop blender, blend everything together until smooth, then pour it over the meat and vegetables, along with a cup of stock, if using. Give everything a stir, then seal your Instant Pot or pressure cooker and cook for 35 minutes under high pressure.

Let the pressure release naturally for 10 minutes, the vent the remaining pressure by switching the valve to “vent.” Open the pot, add the peas, and stir for a minute or two until they are hot. Serve immediately, but get excited for leftovers, I’ve found stew is always better the second day.


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