Foxcroft Ragout with Prunes

Charmed, I was completely charmed by this spiral bound gem of a cookbook. Foxcroft School, Middleburg, Virginia was founded in 1914 by Miss Charlotte Noland and continues to be a private boarding school for girls. The girls ate very well. My neighbor is a 1969 graduate and her firsthand accounts of the delectable meals sent me into a culinary trance. Then wonder of wonders, she loaned me her battered copy of The Foxcroft Cookbook (1969) less spiral bound, more tethered by two rubber bands. I spent hours pouring over it making notes of pages to copy. Then I got on ol’ eBay and another wonder, there was a 1969 copy for $50. It’s the most I have ever paid for a cookbook. It benefited some charitable group, although I didn’t need an excuse. If one recipe was worth it, this is it. You will be hearing more from Foxcroft, it’s one of my top three spiral bound. The scope of the recipes is what puts a twinkle in this cookbook. Good news, you can order a reprint from the school, information to do so at the end of the post.

A timeless excerpt from the foreword written by Harriet Aldrich Bering, Editor:
“I feel that Miss Charlotte and Foxcroft had few cooking secrets. Anyone can have food like theirs, superlative food. Just follow a few simple rules. Never use any thing but the finest possible ingredients. Use butter, sweet is best. Serve vegetables and fruit in season. Make bread at home. Use country ham and real cheese, not processed. Don’t bother with frozen meat and poultry. Freeze made dishes like stews instead. Cook things lovingly and well and serve immediately.
Miss Charlotte never used frozen food at all, except daiquiri mix.”

Miss Charlotte

Miss Charlotte

Here is the recipe presented in the 1969 Foxcroft Cookbook as submitted by Carol Mitchell Look ’18.

1 ½ lbs. stew beef cut in 2” cubes
Several stalks of celery (cut fairly small pieces – leaves may go in too)
4-5 onions, cut up
2 or 3 cut-up carrots
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Rosemary and marjoram (pinch)
2 cups hot water (red wine is better)
12 or more uncooked prunes
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
Brown beef and put in casserole, add vegetables, prunes, seasoning and liquids. Cover and bake in slow oven 300 for 3 hours. One-half hour before serving add butter and flour mixed into a creamy paste, stir well. Also small potatoes or large ones cut, boiled previously for 10-15 minutes and any left-over green vegetable you have on hand. This recipe can also be used with left over steak or roast beef, then only cook two hours.”

Vic’s Version:
This recipe is quite forgiving, a little more of one ingredient and a little less of another will not seriously affect the outcome. The extra time you spend trimming the meat is time you will not spend skimming fat.

Canola oil, or preferred vegetable oil
3 Pound Chuck Roast, trimmed of fat*
2 Yellow Onions, medium to large, diced
4-5 Celery stalks, coarsely chopped
4-6 Carrots, cut into ½” chunks
1 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary, fresh if you have it
1 Teaspoon Dried Marjoram or Thyme, fresh if you have it
24 Prunes, now recognized as “Dried Plums”, cut in half
1 bottle of Dry Red Wine, a blend preferably (get two, you’ll want something to drink with this and you might cook off more than a bottle)
28 Ounce can of Diced Tomatoes, or fresh
Salt and Pepper
6 Tablespoons of Sweet Butter
5-6 Tablespoons of Flour

16 Ounces of Pearl Onions
10 Ounces of Petite Peas

To Prepare:
Trim the roast of obvious fat. Seam* the meat as you break the roast down into muscle components. This is necessary to remove the silver fat, that see-through membrane-like stuff that serves as connective tissue between specific muscles. It will not cook down as the marbled fat running through the meat does in a long slow braise. Silver fat is the material that your guest will struggle to extract from her mouth and place discreetly on the side of the plate. Don’t let this happen. Take the time to do it right and make some nice dog treats while you’re at it. Cut the trimmed meat into 2 inch chunks. As you trim and cut toss the cleaned meat into a bowl. When finished season generously with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Prep the vegetables and set aside in a large bowl.
Open the wine.
Warm an 6-8 quart Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add about three tablespoons of oil and just enough meat to cover the bottom of the pot. If the meat chunks are crowded they will steam instead of browning, therefore it is preferable to cook the meat in smaller batches hot and fast adding oil as needed. The cooked meat can be set aside in the same bowl as the vegetables, trust me on this.
When the last batch of meat is browning pay attention and let it stick to the pot a little. Look for the brown fragrant stuff that clings to the bottom of the pot. This is the “fond” and we are fond of it. Do not let it burn! When things are getting real sticky grab the wine and deglaze the pot with just enough wine to free up the fond. It’s okay to leave the meat in there.
Now toss in the reserved already cooked meat and the vegetables. Add the herbs. Stir.
Open the tomatoes and add them. Stir occasionally as you cut the prunes.
Add the prunes and the wine, less the glass you poured because this is going to be good.
Put a lid on it and place on the middle rack of the oven at 300°F. Bake for about 3 hours.
(When it heats up the kitchen will smell rather boozy, it’s just the alcohol cooking off of the wine. Stand back when you open the oven door to take a peak – whew! When the fragrance turns to something like culinary perfume you will know you have done a good thing. Do check on the ragout to adjust herbs and make sure it has enough to drink, add more wine, some broth, beef, chicken or vegetable, or water, to keep the liquid level even with the meat and vegetables.)
Melt the butter in a small frying pan and remove from heat. Add the flour smoothing into the butter with a spatula making a roux. Add this to the ragout along with the pearl onions and peas. Replace the lid.
Then turn the oven off and serve within the next hour or, preferably, allow ragout to cool in the oven and then chill until ready to reheat and serve in the next day or two. It gets better as it rests and the flavors meld.
I have served it over whipped potatoes, smashed potatoes, home-fried potatoes, and hot buttered egg noodles. Every which way is delicious. A sprinkling of chopped parsley is a classic serving touch.Serves 12

Serves 12

*Seam Butchery is a French technique where muscles are separated unlike American butchery where most cuts are quicker to achieve as muscles are not disconnected. The T-Bone steak is a classic example of American butchery.

Guests at the closing day of the Glenmore Hunt enjoyed Foxcroft Ragout

Guests at the closing day of the Glenmore Hunt enjoyed Foxcroft Ragout, not shown in this picture.

Vic Notes:
• Yes, you can buy 2 ½ – 3 pounds of trimmed stew meat, but I like the freshness a whole cut affords. “Stew meat” frequently consists of perfectly good disassociated bits of beef. Some pieces might not be braising meat (intended to be cooked slowly in liquid to break down the marbled fat yielding fork-tender meat) but rather trimmings from less fatty cuts that will toughen with slow cooking.

• Wine: please, for all of your effort, do not cook with a wine you would not be pleased to drink. You will reduce it in cooking and thereby make bad worse, or good better. Blends work well as some varietal jumps in and takes the stage.

• The pearl onions and peas? They’re of an era and that era whispers to me. This recipe is just that.  As of this post the Foxcroft Scool Store is not taking orders. Hopefully this is a temporary situation.

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