Sometimes, I eat because it tastes good. I eat because the caramelized skin of a well-roasted chicken triggers a pleasure mechanism in my brain, because pureed kabocha squash tastes like everything that’s good about the earth itself, and because a good stinky cheese sings up into my nostrils as it hits the heat of my tongue.
Of course, I also love eating things that look good. Chomping into a well-made pain au chocolate reveals (literally) thousands of microscopic layers, culminating with the perfectly dry, crisp shatters that envelop the exterior. Just a week or two ago, I had a charcuterie plate at Mistral Kitchen made up of whimsical piles of thinly shaved meats, each a little porcine tornado almost (but not quite) too pretty to eat.
Food can feel good, too. I’m drinking tea right now, and I like the way the peach flavor rolls down the center of my tongue, while the ginger flavor unfurls toward its edges. I like the way a good braised hanging tender separates in my mouth, each thread of beef so soft I don’t really need my teeth. (Still, I’m glad I have them.)
Then, every once in a while, I eat for my heart. I’m not talking about eating by cereal box claims, or eating however the Senate says I should. I’m talking about eating because it’s calming and emotionally nourishing. We all do it.
Take last May, for example. I’d just been released from the hospital, where I’d had a kidney biopsy. The doctor had said he’d call back in a week or two. We decided to go out, my husband and son and I, for a special meal that would let us sit and forget the previous 48 hours, if only for a few minutes. But when we walked into Spur, they informed us they didn’t allow kids. We got back into the car, and the phone rang. It was my nephrologist–already. My kidneys were on the verge of failing, and I needed treatment. I’d start infusions the next day.
That night, we ended up eating pho. We were confused, and nervous, and scared. It tasted good, but it wasn’t food for the heart. The next day, I started a six month-long course of induction therapy.
And guess what? It worked, people. The kids are healthy again.
Last week, the night before my treatment stopped, we went back to Spur, this time with friends. We drank, and laughed, and ate course after course, sharing each plate slowly and thoughtfully. The food was good, I think—but I’m not sure I really tasted it. That night, I was eating because it felt right to be in that restaurant, quietly celebrating an internal achievement.
You might agree that Thanksgiving is a heart meal, too. Whether you’re the cook or the dishwasher, there’s something about eating the turkey and the gravy and the mashed potatoes that’s . . . centering.
This year, we went to Colorado Springs, for a banquet hall Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by my grandfather. I thought I’d survive, not planning a big meal this year. Turns out I was wrong. I have trouble enjoying Thanksgiving without entering a kitchen. Turkey from a buffet table—even an incredibly impressive one—erases all the conduits of conversation that a Thanksgiving meal preparation necessarily provides. It’s fun, like a good dinner out, but to me, it sort of misses the point of Thanksgiving, which is not just to eat, but to eat together, and solve problems together, and make mistakes together. It also neglects Thanksgiving’s most important side effect: leftovers.
I’d planned to be a big girl about the whole no cooking thing. I even roasted a turkey the night before we left, and held a mini Thanksgiving here at home, just to be on the safe side. But I gave away the leftover turkey; there were no sandwiches. Digging through the refrigerator for a late-night dinner on Friday night, it was inescapable: I felt like I’d missed the holiday entirely. We’d had a giant meal on the allotted day, but there hadn’t been anything comforting about it.
When I came back to my kitchen this week, I only wanted comfort food. I made hot and sour soup, and huevos rancheros, and this buffalo stew. It’s the simplest of stews, made with the buffalo meat my husband gawked over when I sent him to the grocery store with a carte blanche for dinner foods. With only ten ingredients, it seems almost undercomplicated—but sometimes, simple is all my heart wants to eat.
I thought I might be alone. But when I phoned my neighbor today–a neighbor who had a thorough home-cooked family Thanksgiving–I happened to ask her what she was doing for dinner. “I don’t know,” she said. “But all I want to eat is beef stew.”
Made with buffalo stew meat and a good, hearty beer, this version of the traditional Belgian dish is quite stripped down—it’s delicious, but in no way fancy. I made mine with my husband’s homebrew (made with hops from our back yard, naturally), but any high-quality beer with some good body will do.
Note that this isn’t a recipe for a crowd—it’s just enough for two hearty servings. Double or triple it if you’d like, searing the meat in batches, then serve the stew over buttered noodles or polenta, with steamed or roasted carrots.
Time: 30 minutes active time, plus plenty of simmering
Makes: 2 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound buffalo stew meat, cut into 1 1/2” pieces (beef will also work)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 large onion, halved and sliced
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 cups good beer
1 cup beef stock
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Heat a medium-sized soup pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Coat the stew meat with the flour on all sides, and season with salt and pepper. Add the meat to the hot oil, and cook until the pieces are browned on all sides, turning them only when they release easily from the pan, about 15 minutes total. Transfer the beef to a plate and set aside.
Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan, then add the onions, and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often and scraping any brown bits up off the bottom of the pan, until the onions are deep golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Add the garlic and thyme, and cook and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the beer and beef stock, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Slide in the beef, cover the pot, reduce the heat to its lowest setting, and cook at a bare simmer for another 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is extremely tender. Remove the lid, and simmer another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the liquid is thick and glossy. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if necessary. Stir in the butter, and serve hot, over buttered noodles or polenta.