Nov 3, 2008

Baked stew ushers in new season - Erie,PA,USA

Tapioca is processed cassava root, which is a tropical plant that serves as a staple food in its native South America, Africa and Asia. ...

Loaves and Dishes

Published: October 29. 2008 12:01AM

One of the best things about fall is the excuse to change the menu after six months of light, grilled summer dinners. I've had my fill of lemony fish, barbecue chicken and fruit salad.

I've knelt at the altar of simple skinny food long enough.

A leaf falls off of a tree and I head straight for the pot roast.

This recipe for Baked Beef Stew got me right where I wanted to go.

Five things I learned:

1. The most interesting thing I learned is that you can make beef stew in the oven. It takes about the same amount of time, so, my Dad asked, "What's the draw of that?" Well, I can't really explain it except that I just thought it was neat. It seems like less hassle. There are no hot or cold spots, no burning or scorching. Everything cooks to the same temperature. No splatters.

You take the foil/lid off the baking pan and it looks perfectly gorgeous. No dirty, cooked-on grime on the side of a pot. No soaking necessary.

I just love it.

2. The secret to this dish wasn't just in the cooking method, but also in the rich, thick sauce.

It contained a few unexpected ingredients, such as diced tomatoes, tapioca, a bread slice and sugar, in addition to the requisite root vegetables, broth and such.

The tomatoes gave it depth, the sugar tamed the acid, the tapioca I'll get to in a minute, and, to be honest, I don't really know what the bread was for.

I figured it gave the dish body, like in a strata. But I don't think it's a deal breaker either way.

3. Tapioca is processed cassava root, which is a tropical plant that serves as a staple food in its native South America, Africa and Asia.

Its roots are very starchy. It can be cooked and eaten like a potato, or dried into meal, granules, flakes or flour. Pearled tapioca is the main ingredient in tapioca pudding.

4. I found tapioca flakes in the baking aisle at the grocery store. You can also use a flour or cornstarch slurries (whisked with a small amount of liquid).

The advantage of tapioca, according to "The Science of Good Food," is that it thickens at a lower temperature than other starches, making it good for items that will be baked and not boiled, like pie and Baked Beef Stew.

Interestingly, the cassava-thickened recipes freeze better than foods made with other thickeners, because they don't break down.

5. Tapioca has no real taste of its own. In fact, "Science" says it's even more neutral than wheat flour and cornstarch.

That's pretty neutral.

JENNIE GEISLER writes about her adventures as a home cook every Wednesday. You can reach her at 870-1885. Send e-mail to

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