Last Thursday, before the double playdate planned with her kids, she texted me, "Do you want to help me cook beef stew?"
Of course, I responded "yes!"
I certainly wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to watch her at work in the kitchen. Since I've never made a beef stew (or cooked with beef at all aside from hamburgers), it was an especially appealing offer.
"Here's the deal," Katherine said when I arrived with the girls after-school.
"My husband is going out of town tomorrow morning and he asked me not to cook tonight. He wants to order in because he doesn’t want to come home tonight to find the place a mess and me stressed. But I promised that wouldn’t be the case. So we have to be neat and methodical.”
In other words, the pressure was on. It was the culinary version of "Mission Impossible."
"Basically, I'll need you to read the recipe to me and guide me through it. Cook’s Illustrated magazine is notoriously high maintenance and persnickety," said Katherine, referring to the winter 2010 issue of Cook's Illustrated and specifically, a recipe for:
Belgian Beef, Beer, and Onion Stew (Carbonnade a la Flamande).
The magazine recommends using Top blade steaks (also called blade or flatiron steaks), but said that any boneless roast from the chuck will work.
If you end up using a chuck roast, look for the chuck eye roast, an especially flavorful cut that can be easily trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces. Buttered egg noodles or mashed potatoes make excellent accompaniments to carbonnade.
As someone who has never cooked a steak and almost never cooked meat, I certainly don't know anything about cutting it.
"Meat has a grain and you want to cut with the grain," explained Katherine. "You can also get the butcher to do it for you."
I'll go for the second option.
"I’m pretty sure I’m cutting it wrong," said Katherine, who was using chuck eye roast rather than top blade steaks. "I'm trying to trim as much fat as I can without shredding the meat."
It was challenging enough for me to read and understand the recipe. I can't imagine actually trying to cook it myself.
I watched in awe as Katherine sliced the onions with machine-like precision.
Instead of using Chimay (the recipe's first pick for beer), Katherine settled on Guinness Extra Stout.
She would live to regret that decision.
Amazingly, she got the stew in the oven with more than enough time to neaten up before her hubby arrived home. What a domestic goddess!
The following morning, after school drop-off, Katherine invited me over to try some of the stew leftovers and to teach me how to chop onions.
We both agreed that the meat was tasty and tender, but the sauce was overpowered by the taste of Guinness.
Katherine suddenly remembered that she had never gotten around to teaching me how to chop an onion.
"Learning how to chop an onion is so essential," said Katherine. "If you are methodical, you will end up with uniform bits."
She set me up with an onion and a knife and told me to "Trust your instinct."
I nearly sliced off a finger. Who said I had any natural instincts when it comes to cooking?
"To keep the onion in place when cutting, don't forget to use the cutting board to steady the knife," she reminded me.
Okay, I'm starting to get the hang of it, but I'm not sure I can do it without Katherine standing next to me cheering me on.
Fully stuffed, we both headed off to a Pilates class to work off some of the carbonnade.