Beef stew was never something I liked much growing up. Nor was pot roast. We didn't have them all that often, though my Grandmother–a superb cook–liked to make pot roast. Boiled beef just always tasted like boiled beef and not much else, except for soft hunks of carrot and potato.
Since returning to carnivory about 6 years ago, I've learned a great deal about how meat flavors can be intensified and how stews can be made into sumptuous feasts rather than drab dinners that old people eat. The key is to use other ingredients that have lots of umami and/or umami-boosting qualities. For those squeamish about adding too many foreign-sounding things to their stew, or afraid that picky family will recoil in horror at the same, the trick is to use them in small enough quantity that nobody can tell they're there. The difference is pretty astonishing.
So next time something in this genre seems like a good idea for dinner, try this. Take the recipe you usually use for beef stew, pot roast, or similar, and just add the following as well, making no other changes:
1. Trim any silverskin or gristle from the meat before beginning. The trimmings can be used to make stock. Brown the meat all over after trimming if you don't already.
2. Add three anchovies at the outset when you sweat the onion, etc. (the small kind that come in little jars of oil).
3. Mince a few dried porcini, shiitake, morel, or black trumpet mushrooms–about a tablespoon, or more to taste–and add it to the mix.
4. Use homemade chicken or beef stock, ideally made with a charred onion.
5. Tie one star anise pod, one clove, a quarter stick of cinnamon, and five black peppercorns in a bit of cheesecloth and put them in along with the stock. If your stock wasn't made with charred onion, add half a charred onion to your bouquet.
6. Add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste as well, and about as much soy sauce.
7. If you don't have a pressure cooker, make sure that it has a solid two hours or more to simmer low so the meat is really tender. Nothing is worse than dry, chewy stew meat.
8. Before serving, thicken the liquid with beurre manié (equal parts of softened butter mixed with flour). For extra wonderful, add minced fresh herbs (parsley, rosemary, oregano, etc.) and garlic to the paste. A couple of tablespoons should work well; all of these approximate measurements are for a stew made with roughly one pound of meat.
Now if you have the sort of family members who might be inclined to lunge for the phone and speed-dial the pizza place if they knew there were anchovies in their stew, do it on the down low. I promise you that nobody will notice anything other than how unbelievably good your stew has become all of a sudden. If their reactions are not sufficiently effusive, try again, using exactly the same techniques, but this time have everybody do a couple of bong hits before dinner.