There are many Christmas Eve traditions in this country and the holiday menu is only one part of it. My childhood Christmas Eve dinner was traditionally a beef dinner. Mom would put together a simple but elegant meal of beef stew, rice or potatoes, a green vegetable, and salad. For dessert she made persimmon pudding with hard sauce. Mom steamed the persimmon cake in a clean repurposed coffee can. Why bother to buy another pan to bake one cake, when there was a perfectly useful container right at home?
One Christmas Eve stew I remember very well, is Beef Stew with Horseradish Sauce. It is different from traditional American beef stew and beef bourguignon, but no less worthy of recognition. Beef Stew with Horseradish Sauce had more pizzazz than American beef stew, not as rich as beef bourguignon. I can distinctly remember loving it upon first bite.
I get very nostalgic when I think about my childhood Christmas Eve celebrations. It has been a long time since I celebrated Christmas at 10 Barner Lane, but despite the years gone by, I can clearly visualize the evening. On Christmas Eve, Dad always wore his red plaid wool vest along with his blazer and plaid bow tie. Mom wore a long red wool skirt, white ruffled blouse with black embroidered trim, and a wide black belt. The rest of us wore our best clothes that were au courant for the season. For us “kids,” getting dressed up on Christmas Eve was never a chore, or formality. Putting on one’s “party clothes” symbolized a special occasion was here and we were going to celebrate.
When dad was all finished dressing for the occasion, he would kneel by the dining room cabinet, reach inside to turn on the record player, place Joan Baez’s album Noël on the turntable, and turn the volume up. Her soprano voice would confidently but gently sing out, “O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel … Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee Israel….” With the beginning notes of her enchanting voice the party began.
I would wait in the dining room for dad, anticipating his arrival and turning on the Christmas music. As soon as he was near the record player I would stand by his side and watch him turn on the “Victrola” as he called it. Next to the our tradition of singing Christmas Carols around a candle lit tree, playing Joan Baez’s album was one of my anticipated events of the evening. To me it signaled the beginning of our Christmas festivities and all the glory that was to come. Joan Baez’s clear voice filled our home for all to hear.
As Mom finished preparing the dinner in the kitchen, we built a fire in the fireplace, then Dad and I would sit on the couch in the living room, he with his wassail and I with my hot cider. We sipped and listened to Joan Baez sing, and waited for the rest of the family to gather and our guests to arrive. Dad was just as excited about Christmas Eve as I was. I could always count on Dad’s routines and traditions, as I could always count on him.
Mom acquired the beef stew recipe some time the in the 70’s and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. It has a simple name, Beef with Horseradish Sauce, but don’t let the simple name fool you. There are deep, subtle, and warm flavors in the stew. Hints of curry and ginger meld with the rich seared and oven stewed beef. To add more subtle layers of flavor I added orange zest and cinnamon to infuse in the stew. I also wanted to coax out additional natural sweetness and added carrots and extra onions. The warm caramelized flavors of the spiced beef contrasted nicely with the tang of the sour cream and the bite of horseradish.
Helpful Hints Making Beef Stew with Horseradish Sauce
To start the stew off, I recommend cutting the beef into three large pieces, sear the meat until golden brown, then cut the meat into smaller bite size chunks. This technique encourages the meat to sear properly and not steam in the pot. It is also a technique recommended by Serious Eats. I found this method to be very effective and not a lot of extra work.
For the most part the stew will cook unattended in the oven, but you cannot forget about it. It is possible to overcook the meat in a stew despite the fact the beef is cooking in all that wonderful liquid. If cooked too long, the beef will get very dry and stringy. It is worth the extra effort to check on the progress of the stew meat after an hour and a half of cooking, then every 30 minutes thereafter. There is a possibility that the stew meat will reach the desired tenderness before the specified cooking time is up.
If you are making this stew a day or two ahead, you especially want to pay attention to the consistency of the stew. The additional cooking to heat the beef stew up again, for at least 30 minutes, will continue to cook and break down the beef. Stew should have discernible chunky tender pieces of beef that are just beginning to break down, not shredded and falling apart, as if for a pulled meat BBQ or a meat ragu.
I am unable to find the origin of Mom’s recipe. Most likely it was given to her from a friend, and from there is anybody’s guess. I have hopes that this mystery recipe will develop into its own identity and begin a new life with all of you. A new American stew. A hodgepodge stew of many possible origins, with each ingredient dependent on the other to accentuate its best features, and gel together into one big interesting and flavorful stew. Enjoy!
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