Revisiting winter 1979
Sounds like you had some nasty weather back in Illinois last week. Here in New York City, that particular weather system wasn’t bad, although further north, New England was inundated again. Boston has been particularly hard-hit. Just before I visited my son, Robb, there last month, his car was so buried that he had to use his key-alarm to discover which snow-covered mound was his. It took more than eight hours over three days to dig the car out – and that was with help from friends.
I had a strong sense of déjà vu during my Boston visit. It felt as if I’d returned to another time in another snow-drenched city: Chicago, 1979.
The winter of 1978-79 wasn’t so much memorable for a single blizzard as for the total amount, and that the snow didn’t melt between onslaughts. Chicago’s normal snowfall is 33 inches and rarely exceeds 40 inches. But that winter, the total was 88.4 inches. By the end of January, there were 47 inches on the ground, most of which was compacted ice. Roof collapses were common. Folks shoveled out parking spots and filled them with chairs. Fistfights often broke out if someone attempted to “steal” a spot. President Carter declared 23 northern Illinois counties disaster areas. It destroyed the career of then-mayor Michael Bilandic. A 1:44 minute YouTube video, www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-vzgnfXsyI provides an idea of what it was like.
My husband, Peter, was in his senior year of dental school. I was singing in the Chicago Symphony Chorus, which fortunately didn’t have any concerts scheduled during the worst of it. Daughter Anne was three, and I was expecting again. We had a garage space behind our Oak Park apartment, but the alley was impassible – it wasn’t plowed until April – so we parked in a hospital parking lot a couple blocks away. Peter and the rest of his class were trying frantically to fulfill their graduation requirements – no easy task, since the patients they were treating and their instructors were more often than not unable to make it to the dental school. Everyone was winter-weary and edgy.
Despite several major snowstorms, things haven’t been too bad here in Brooklyn. Sidewalks are quickly cleared, and there’s a wonderful grocery only steps away. I feel guilty whenever I call home. Back in Springfield, Peter has had to deal with stuck cars and water seeping in from ice buildup that’s ruining our dining room floor – and he’s having to do it alone. His latest challenge is Chucky – a groundhog that somehow found its way into our basement, presumably from a crawlspace. So far, Chucky’s resisted the humane trap that Peter’s baited with (supposed) groundhog treats.
Soon I’ll be heading back to Springfield. Hopefully the weather will be better – and if not, at least Peter won’t have to go it alone. But I just hope Chucky’s out of our basement by then!
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
This classic is perfect for long snowed-in days. You can’t go anywhere, so why not leisurely put it together, then let the aroma of long-simmering casserole fill the air for hours? Like all stews, it’s even better the next day.
- 3-4 lbs. beef chuck roast or stewing beef
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 c. flour
- 6 strips thick-cut bacon
- 5 T. olive oil, divided, plus additional if necessary
- 1 1/2 c. chopped onion
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 2 T. tomato paste
- 2 tsp. dried thyme leaves (not ground) or 2 T. fresh thyme
- 2-3 c. beef (preferred), chicken, or vegetable stock (use low sodium if purchasing stock), plus additional if needed
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 parsley sprigs
- Thyme stems (if using fresh thyme)
- 1 1/2 c. carrots, sliced into ½-inch thick rounds, halved if necessary for consistent-sized pieces
- 1 bottle red wine, such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, Merlot, or Pinot Noir
- 24-30 unpeeled small onions, such as pearl or boiling onions
- 3 T. unsalted butter, plus additional if needed
- 1 lb. button or cremini mushrooms, cleaned and halved or quartered as necessary for consistent size.
- Chopped parsley for garnish, optional
Cut the beef into approximately 2-inch pieces, removing any excess fat. Pat dry with paper towels, then sprinkle with salt and pepper (use about 1 T. kosher salt, 2 tsp. table salt). Let stand for about one hour.
Cut the bacon crosswise into lardons (matchsticks about ¼-inch wide and thick and 1 ½-2 inches long).
Sprinkle the meat with the flour and toss to coat. This is most easily accomplished – and makes less mess – by putting the flour in a paper bag, adding the meat, folding the bag shut and shaking.
Heat a large flame and ovenproof pot or casserole with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and sauté, stirring frequently, until the lardons are browned. Remove with a slotted spoon, and reserve.
Preheat the oven to 250°.
Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pot, then add beef pieces in a single layer. It’s essential to not crowd the pan; otherwise the meat won’t brown. Brown on all sides, and reserve. Repeat until all the pieces are browned. You may need additional olive oil.
Add the chopped onion to the pot – you may again need to add additional oil – and sauté, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic, tomato paste and thyme, and cook a few minutes longer.
Tie the bay leaves, parsley sprigs, and thyme stems, if using, into a bundle with kitchen string or other cotton twine. Add the bundle to the pot, along with the lardons, beef and carrots.
Pour the wine over all, then add just enough stock to barely cover. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then cover and place in the oven. Check after about half an hour: the liquid should be barely simmering; if not, increase the heat to 275° - 300°.
Cook for 4-6 hours, or until the meat is meltingly tender. Check occasionally, adding more stock if necessary.
While the stew cooks, prepare the onions and mushrooms.
Remove the scraggly roots from the onions without completely removing the root end. Fill a large saucepan half full of water and bring to a boil. Add the unpeeled onions and simmer for five minutes. Drain the onions and cool until they can be easily handled. Peel the onions, leaving on the trimmed root end – this keeps them from falling apart.
Heat 2 T. olive oil and 1 T. butter in a skillet large enough to hold the onions in a single layer (or do this in batches in a smaller skillet) over high heat. Add the onions and sauté, shaking the pan to roll them around, until they are golden brown. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
Return the skillet to the heat, adding another 2 T. olive oil and 1 T. butter. Add the mushrooms – again in a single layer, in batches if necessary, and sprinkle with salt. Sauté, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms are cooked through and browned (you will hear them “squeak” when they’re done). Reserve them separately from the onions.
When the meat is tender, add the onions to the pot and return it to the oven for another 20 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook another few minutes to warm them.
If the stew liquid seems too thin, ladle off as much liquid as possible and reduce it in a saucepan over high heat, then return it to the casserole. If the stew is too thick, thin it with additional stock. Remove the herb bundle and taste for seasoning.
Let the stew stand for about 15 minutes, then blot any fat that has risen to the top with paper towels.
Serve with potatoes or noodles, garnished with the parsley if desired. Serves 6-8.