By Jessica Mozo
In our spring 2007 issue, columnist and Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation Director of Communications Pettus Read lamented about another popular down-home dish – beef stew – and its tendency in many eateries to lack much of the most important ingredient – beef. Now we’re well aware there are some great Southern cooks among our readers, so in our summer 2007 issue, we announced the sequel to our dumplings competition: The World’s Greatest Down-Home Beef Stew Cook-Off.
Once again, the recipes poured in, and we painstakingly narrowed them down to five finalists. Armed with cast iron pots, hearty vegetables and plenty of beef, the five finalists battled it out in October at the Music and Molasses Festival in Nashville. Plenty of spectators looked on, including George Lindsey, better known as “Goober” from The Andy Griffith Show. In the end, Opal Bohannon of Cookeville was named our grand prize winner and awarded a trophy – a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven.
Here, we present our winning recipe, as well as the four runners-up.
Opal Bohannon’s beef stew has been a dinnertime staple in her family for more than 60 years.
“In 1945, my aunt came down from Michigan and made beef stew, and it was so good. She told me how to prepare it, and we would make it on weekends with cornbread,” Bohannon says. “When we couldn’t afford beef, we used pork. Later, when I married my husband, I got him liking beef stew too.”
Growing up, Bohannon was the oldest girl of 10 children, so she learned to cook by helping her mother in the kitchen. Her mother also taught her the art of canning.
“After she got diabetes, my mother depended on me to do the cooking and canning,” Bohannon recalls.
She honed her skills professionally by working in the Cookeville High School cafeteria for 15 years, before retiring in 1989.
“We would make big amounts of chili and beef stew there, and we baked yeast breads and rolls,” Bohannon says.
Even at age 80, Bohannon maintains a garden and continues to can tomatoes and make her own tomato juice – the “secret” ingredient in her beef stew.
“I have fixed it for neighbors, and I take it to church potluck dinners. I serve it with cornbread or cheese and crackers,” she says. “So many people have commented on my recipe.”
That includes her 4-year-old granddaughter.
“She’s the joy of my life,” Bohannon says, “and she loves my stew.”
Betty Griffin created her beef stew recipe specifically for this contest, using all the ingredients her daughter loves. So it’s no wonder she named the recipe Daughter’s Delight Beef Stew.
“My daughter doesn’t like celery or many vegetables,” explains Griffin. “I told her about this contest, and she told me what she’d like in a beef stew. I made it so she’d like it, and I found I liked it too.”
The culinary concoction also impressed Griffin’s husband.
“He’s not a big beef stew eater, but he thinks it’s the best there is,” she says.
Griffin learned to cook as a child growing up in Arkansas.
“I had five people in my family, and my mom was sick a lot, so I cooked most of the meals,” she says.
Griffin thinks what makes her beef stew recipe so good is the Ro-tel tomatoes and the combination of seasonings.
“I’ve always made soups using Ro-tel tomatoes,” she reveals. “The stew has cinnamon and nutmeg in it, which makes it taste good. It has a kick to it.”
Her recipe also calls for more beef than most.
“The secret is lots of beef and tomato,” she says. “And I cut up the beef pieces really small.”
Freda Forsythe remembers when her late mother would call all six of her grown daughters and their families and invite them over for a beef stew dinner.
“Mom would always say, ‘It’s the best I’ve made yet,’” recalls Forsythe. “The aroma was so good when you walked in her house. She always made enough to send each of us girls home with a quart of beef stew.”
When Forsythe’s mother died in 1996, she and her five sisters divided up their mother’s cookbook collection.
“Mother probably had 30 or 40 cookbooks when she passed away, and she had more than 40 spices in her cabinet,” Forsythe says. “I found this recipe, and I’ve been making it for about five years.”
Like her mother, Forsythe cooks the stew in a cast iron pot and adds a unique combination of seasonings.
“The allspice gives it a really good smell and flavor,” she says.
One of the tricks to Forsythe’s recipe is to brown the pieces of beef in a pot before adding all the other ingredients.
“It locks in the tenderness and flavor so the beef melts in your mouth,” Forsythe says.
She serves the stew with garlic toast, rolls or cornbread.
“I have four boys and four grandsons, and the whole family loves it,” she says. “They say I can experiment on them any time.”
If you’re looking for country cooking, you’ll find it at the home of Linda Valentine.
“I’m from the country, and my mom was a country cook. So it just comes naturally,” says Valentine. “Cooking relaxes me – it’s therapy. I simply love to cook.”
In addition to beef stew, Valentine loves to make meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, pinto beans, okra and all kinds of other country dishes.
“I never measure,” she says. “I just add a little of this and a little of that.”
Valentine started making her beef stew more than 40 years ago, and it’s become a favorite with her husband, two daughters and three grandchildren.
“I just put meat, vegetables and tomato juice together,” she says. “The recipe just came to me.”
Valentine’s husband believes so much in her recipe that he was the one who entered her in the contest.
“He said he knew I’d win, and so did my daughters,” Valentine says. “All the guys my husband works with love my stew and cornbread too. His boss said, ‘Linda’s already won, hands down.’”
Valentine serves her beef stew with slaw, cornbread and sliced tomato and onion on the side.
“The sweet Vidalia onions are wonderful,” she says. “My family loves it.”
Paula Hope confesses she’s never really been a great cook. But that began to change when Hope and her husband relocated to Nashville from New Orleans two days before Hurricane Katrina dumped 14 feet of water on their Louisiana home.
“There are great restaurants in New Orleans, and we ate out there more than we cooked at home,” Hope says. “But here, restaurants are more spread out, so we are trying to cook more.”
Hope obtained her beef stew recipe from her sister-in-law, Jamie, after she saw the contest announced.
“My sister-in-law is a really good cook,” Hope says. “This recipe is so simple, anyone could do it. You just throw it all together and let it cook. You can add whatever spices you want to make it your own.”
Like her family in New Orleans, Hope serves the stew over rice or noodles with French bread on the side.
“I think it tastes even better the next day after you make it,” she says.
Making beef stew has awakened Hope’s inner cook – she’s already planning to experiment with the recipe.
“I’m going to try it with sweet potatoes next,” she says.
After tasting a dish Hope recently prepared, her sister-in-law told her cooking was “in her genes.” And it should be.
“My mother was a wonderful cook,” Hope says. “She could take vegetables and make them taste great.”