Beef stew is among the most comforting of comfort foods. During all but the hottest months, a bowl of homemade stew and a slice of fresh bread make up a sturdy and homelike meal. The fork-tender meat and dark gravy, scented with a handful of fine herbs, make an appealing combination of rich and light flavours.
The foundation of a stew is laid in stages. First heat some oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot and sauté a mixture of onions, celery, diced carrot and garlic. Once these are softened and aromatic, scoop them out of the pot and turn up the heat to brown and sear the meat in small batches. This makes the stew more savoury and richly flavoured. Scoop the beef out of the pot, too, and use some red wine or beef broth to dissolve the browned-on juices. Return the beef and vegetables to the pot, add some broth, and the stew is under way.
The Standard Herbs
The stew's basic flavour notes of beef, vegetables and wine or broth have all been established. The two herbs that are most often added at this stage are bay leaves and thyme. Bay leaves are the aromatic foliage of a bush native to the Mediterranean region, though it is used in temperate zones as well for culinary and landscaping purposes. The flavour is subtle and provides a complementary note to almost any beef dish. Thyme has a distinctive flavour all its own, but is much appreciated for its ability to improve the flavours of other ingredients.
Traditional Herb Blends
A handful of traditional herb blends go well with beef stew. French "fines herbes" is a mixture of parsley, tarragon, chervil and chives that lends a fresh and lightly herbal note to the stew, complementing its richness with subtle depth of flavour. Herbes de Provence is a French mixture with more assertive flavours. The choices vary from chef to chef, but usually include some combination of bay leaves, oregano, summer savoury, fennel, rosemary or lavender. If you have dried herbs, add them early in cooking; fresh herbs should be added at the end.
Building a Personal Selection
Ultimately, the choice of herbs in the stew rests with each cook. Most consider bay leaves indispensable, but if you don't them, don't put them in -- and the same holds true for any other herb. The best approach is to try herbs one at a time, evaluate which you liked, and why. Herbs widely used with beef include tarragon, oregano or marjoram, rosemary, fresh anise or fennel and fresh sage. Try them alone or in combination until you're confident in your selections.