By DENISE HERSCHEL
Tinton Falls resident Nikki Harris believes that cooking requires three important things – knowledge, skill and experience. She has all of the above having been a cook for more than 34 years but said she has to admit that there are days when she literally has no desire to cook anything, for anyone.
“I am the primary cook in my house. I got married when I was young and my husband can do almost anything but cook. He is handy when it comes to anything with the house but ask him to step foot into the kitchen and it is like he was dropped off from another planet,” she laughed. “It is not to say that he has not tried but when he did it was kind of a disaster!”
Harris learned to cook from her mother as well as her maternal grandparents, who were both “old-fashioned cooks” and made almost everything from scratch.
“I was lucky when it came to cooking lessons in life. I had three people in my family who taught me pretty much everything I knew. My grandfather was a very good cook. He helped my grandmother in the kitchen and did not believe that cooking was a woman’s job like most men did of his generation. Breakfast was his specialty and whenever we went to their house for a sleepover as kids he would be waiting for us in the morning with any request we had for breakfast.”
Harris calls herself “a cold weather lover” which is why she relishes the fall and winter months the most so she can make her favorite recipes for soups and stews.
“There is nothing like a filling bowl of soup or stew with a good loaf of bread to make a meal. I have so many cookbooks with these type of recipes but they never get old to me. I inherited my love of these from my grandmother. She made the best stew and soup. I have never really been able to replicate them but I have tried over the years,” she said.
Harris cooks about four or five times a week and the remaining two days she either orders out or goes out to dinner.
“We are lucky to have good restaurants all around us in this area. I go into Belmar, Bradley Beach and Asbury Park because they seem to have a good choice of different places to eat,” she said. “I will try almost anything once before I say I don’t like it.”
Here is a filling recipe for Best-Ever Beef Stew which Harris said she serves with warm cornbread.
Best Ever Beef Stew
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
2 pounds of beef chuck stew meat, cubed into 1 inch pieces
1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
2 stalks of celery, chopped
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
3 cloves of garlic, minced
One quarter cup of tomato paste
6 cups of low-sodium beef broth
1 cup of red wine
1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon of dried or thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
1 pound of baby potatoes, halved
1 cup of frozen peas
One quarter cup of freshly chopped parsley, for garnish
1. In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, heat oil. Add beef and cook until seared on all sides, 10 minutes, working in batches if necessary. Transfer beef to a plate.
2. In the same pot, cook onion, carrots, and celery until soft, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add garlic and tomato paste and cook until garlic is fragrant and tomato paste has darkened, about 2 minutes.
3. Add beef broth to Dutch oven then add broth, wine, Worcestershire sauce, thyme and bay leaves.
Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and let simmer until beef is tender, 30 to 45 minutes.
4. Add potatoes and simmer, covered, until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
5. Remove bay leaves. Stir in peas and cook until warmed through, 2 minutes. Season stew to taste with salt and pepper, then ladle into serving bowls and garnish with parsley.
Yield – 8 servings.