With a very modest income and four hungry sons and a husband to feed, my mom had a tight budget for preparing family meals when I was growing up. Things were even tighter after New Year’s because of the money spent on Christmas.
That likely explains why budget-friendly ground beef starred in many of our post-holiday meals. I remember my mom making pate chinois, a French Canadian-style shepherd’s pie, chunky cabbage soup with nuggets of ground beef in it, and something she called mush, a saucy, cooked, crumbled ground-beef mixture flavoured sort of like beef stroganoff.
Though inexpensive to make, all were quite delicious and filling — especially when my mom served them with a stack of white bread that she could buy 10 loaves of for just $1 in the 1960s, when it was on sale.
Remembering my mother making those hearty ground-beef dishes in January inspires me to do the same. Sometimes, I make the things she did, while other times I experiment and make something different. Last week, I had a craving for a rib-sticking stew. But instead of cubes of seared stewing beef, I added tender meatballs made with — you guessed it — ground beef.
Before adding them, I roasted the small meatballs in a hot oven until they were cooked and nicely coloured. The meatballs were then added to a thickened beef-broth mixture, rich with celery, carrots and onions.
My mother always added a splash of something to the ground-beef dishes she was making to bolster their flavour, using whatever she had on hand that would add a bit of savoury — umami — flavour, even it was just bit of soy sauce or a bouillon cube.
In making my meatball stew, I followed her lead, mixing in soy sauce, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and horseradish. I then covered and cooked the stew in the oven for one hour, and found those ingredients gave it that hit of umami I was hoping for.
At that point, some frozen peas and corn were added to the pot. They were heated through a few minutes, and then the stew was ready. You can serve it with mashed potatoes or egg noodles.
The recipe yields four generous servings. If that’s too many, any leftovers, once cooled to room temperature, will freeze well.
Hearty Winter Meatball Stew
Vegetable-rich stew stocked with small, tender roasted meatballs. Serve the stew with mashed potatoes or buttered egg noodles.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: About 1 hour 45 minutes
Makes: Four servings
1 lb. lean ground beef
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1/2 tsp salt, plus some to taste
• freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tsp dried thyme (divided)
2 minced large garlic cloves (divided)
3 Tbsp olive oil
2/3 cup diced carrot (see Note)
2/3 cup diced onion
2/3 cup diced celery
1/4 cup + 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp tomato paste
3 1/4 cups beef broth or stock (see Eric’s options)
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp horseradish
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 cup frozen green peas
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
1 large green onion, thinly sliced (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, unless it’s non-stick. Place beef, breadcrumbs, milk, egg, 1/2 tsp salt, black pepper, 1/2 tsp thyme and one minced garlic clove in a bowl and mix well to combine. Moisten your hands lightly with cold water, then roll beef mixture into small, one-inch balls and set them on the baking sheet. Roast the meatballs 20 minutes, or until cooked.
While meatballs roast, place oil in a Dutch oven or other, deep and wide ovenproof pot and set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the carrot, onion and celery and cook and stir five minutes. Mix in the other minced garlic clove, flour, tomato paste and remaining 1/2 tsp thyme and cook and stir three to four minutes more.
Slowly mix in one cup of the beef broth (or stock). When mixture is very thick, slowly mix in the rest of the broth (or stock). Now mix in the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Taste and season this mixture with salt and pepper, as needed.
When meatballs are cooked, lower oven temperature to 325 F. Lift meatballs off the baking sheet and set them in the pot with the thickened broth (or stock) mixture. Cover the pot, set in the oven and cook the meatball stew one hour. Uncover stew, carefully mix in peas and corn, cook in the oven five minutes more, then serve, sprinkled with the green onion, if using.
Note: Dice in this recipe means to cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes. 1 large carrot, 2 medium celery ribs, and 1 medium onion should yield the diced amounts needed here.
Eric’s options: If you find the stew has overly thickened while cooking in the oven, simply add a bit more beef broth (or stock) when mixing in the peas and corn.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Times Colonist Life section Wednesday and Sunday.