This post is a tribute to Charlie Trotter, the groundbreaking restaurateur and chef – and Chicago hometown hero – who died recently. In the world of food, proclamations that someone “changed the way we eat” or “changed the way we cook” get bandied about a lot. In Trotter’s case, both are true and then some. His eponymous restaurant, opened in 1987 in a Lincoln Park townhouse, was an immediate success. And his innovative approach to cooking created a seismic shift in Chicago’s restaurant scene. As William Grimes put it in The New York Times, “In the blink of an eye, the city’s lagging restaurant culture … took a giant step into the future.”
Trotter was a self-taught chef. He became interested in cooking through a college roommate, who was an avid cook. After graduating from college, he traveled around the United States and Europe, dining at the finest restaurants, seeking to figure out how the “best” gained that title. His first cooking job was for another famous Chicago chef, Gordon Sinclair. He opened Charlie Trotter’s when he was 28.
The restaurant is credited with popularizing the tasting menu. Trotter’s cooking was locally and seasonally driven, long before the word locavore existed. He claimed to never repeat a dish, devising the evening’s menu based on what he found at the market in the morning. Along the way, Trotter received many accolades, including 10 James Beard Foundation awards and five stars – the highest ranking – from the Mobil Travel Guide. And Charlie Trotter’s was one of just three restaurants in Chicago to be awarded two stars by the Michelin Guide when it debuted here in 2010.
My own connection to Charlie Trotter was primarily through his cookbooks – and through catching an occasional episode of his PBS show, "The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter," when we stayed in hotels (we have no cable at home). This was the kind of food show that is in short supply in the age of TV cooking as spectator sport, mostly ridiculous competitions and made-for-TV histrionics. Anytime I saw Trotter cook on his show, I learned something valuable about food and technique.
His cookbooks teach something valuable, too. In his introduction to "Home Cooking with Charlie Trotter," the source for this recipe, he says the goal of the book is “elevating everyday cuisine to a higher level of sophistication.” Trotter compared his own cooking style to jazz improvisation, mixing time-honored techniques with unexpected ingredients, layering tastes and textures to create exciting new dishes. In another cookbook, "Workin’ More Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter," there is a recipe for lamb shanks with caramelized fennel and apricots. The shanks are braised and the fennel is roasted. Both dishes use both dried and fresh apricots, creating a harmonious combination with subtle differences.
This Cardamom Beef Stew with Roasted Root Vegetables combines similarly flavored (but not quite the same) celery and celery root. And rather than just adding the potatoes, parsnips, and celery root to the braising liquid – as you would with most stews – he roasts them. They’re served atop the stew, providing another layer of texture, color and flavor, appealing to multiple senses – as food should.
Usually, when working with cookbook recipes, I tend to tweak things to bring something of myself to the dish, sometimes mashing together multiple recipes plus my own ideas. With this one, the only changes I made were practical ones. Trotter’s version called for meat stock made with several pounds of beef, lamb, venison or veal bones that you roast and then use to build your stock. I didn’t have ready access to bones, so I improvised. I used unsalted beef stock, a genius new product that lets you control the salt levels of the finished dish, and added bay leaf and tomato paste, both ingredients in Trotter’s meat stock. And I reduced the wine that his stock called for, boiling it down to half its volume. I learned this trick from a Daniel Boulud cookbook – it creates the illusion that a sauce or stock or whatever has cooked for hours.
Our roasting pan is less than wonderful, so I used our beautiful oval Staub cocotte instead of the called for roasting pan covered with foil. Because the cocotte held everything snugly, I needed less stock than the recipe called for. Otherwise, everything was by the book. And it was delicious.
Cardamom beef stew with roasted root vegetables
2 cups dry red wine [editor's note: may substitute cooking wine]
20 cardamom pods, crushed (or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup sliced celery
1 cup sliced carrots
2 cups chopped yellow onions
1 pound stew meat, cubed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3-1/2 cups beef stock or broth, unsalted or reduced sodium (plus more, if needed)
1 bulb garlic, halved
1 bay leaf
2 cups large diced potatoes
1 cup large diced celery root
1 cup large diced parsnips
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra
1. Prepare the stew. Bring wine to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat to medium and cook until reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Set aside. (If the wine reduces too much, just top up with more wine.) Place the crushed cardamom pods in a piece of cheese cloth and tie with kitchen string to create a sachet.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Heat canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium flame. Add celery, carrots, and onion to pot and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid overly browning. Meanwhile, season stew meat with salt and pepper. Add to pot.
3. Quickly whisk tomato paste into reduced wine. Add 3-1/2 cups stock and wine/tomato paste mixture to pot and stir to combine. Add cardamom sachet (or ground cardamom), garlic bulb halves, and bay leaf. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and braise in the oven for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, until beef is completely tender. Check about halfway through, stirring and adding more stock if too much has cooked away.
4. Prepare the root vegetables. About 45 minutes before the stew is ready, toss the potatoes, celery root and parsnips with 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Spread them on a lightly oiled, rimmed baking sheet and roast until golden brown, about 45 minutes, tossing once halfway through.
5. Assemble the dish. Discard cardamom sachet and bay leaf. Gently squeeze garlic bulb halves to release individual cloves into stew and discard skins. At this point, the cloves are mellow and meltingly soft; they will add wonderful flavor bursts to the stew. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Spoon stew into four shallow soup plates. Top with roasted root vegetables and serve.