Rich French beef stew is made healthier

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When it comes to making beef stews, the French are clear winners.

French beef stews - from wine country's Boeuf Bourguignon to southern France's Daube a la Provencale - get their unmistakable flavor from onions, red wine, chunks of beef, herbs and often bacon or fatty pork that simmer together for hours, creating heady, delicious aromas. My entire family can identify French stews bubbling in the oven from the moment they waltz into the kitchen. Immediately, their eyes light up and their lips form into a knowing smile in anticipation of one of their favorite meals.

So, dare I make a healthy version of a dish that celebrates my (Marseille-born) husband's heritage, especially given he grew up eating a truly-perfect version of stew made by his mom? I treaded lightly, but found a few tricks that kept the flavor while vastly improving the nutrition profile.

The good news is that the main source of richness - red wine - stays. The tweaks were actually quite simple. I cut nearly all of the bacon, keeping one slice for flavor, and boosted the smoky quality by adding calorie-free smoked paprika. The flavor held up enough that my family didn't notice, even if I confess I did (still worth the trade-off.) I doubled the veggie quantities (and added more American-stew carrots), boosting vitamins and fiber, and reduced the meat by about 25 percent compared to my normal stew, slashing fat, and no one even noticed.

Regarding the vegetables, I cut them a little larger than usual - just slightly bigger than bite-sized - so they would remain bulky, even after long simmering. Bulkier vegetables meant a less compact stew visually, which meant a nice big bowl of stew per serving. Last tweak was to make the stew a day ahead, chill it, and skim off the congealed fat before reheating. Whatever silkiness the stew may have lost by the missing fat was more than made up for by the extra time the flavors had to marry. You can also let the stew cool a bit on the counter and spoon out liquid fat as best you can, if your family is like mine and simply can't wait to dig in.

FRENCH-STYLE BEEF STEW WITH VEGGIES

Servings: 8

Start to finish: 24 hours, including inactive marinating and chilling time

2 1/2 pounds lean stew beef, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces

3 medium yellow onions, sliced lengthwise, about 4-5 cups total

1 1/2 cups red wine

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 slice of bacon, cut into small pieces

3 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

4 carrots, chopped into slightly larger than bite-sized pieces, about 2-3 cups

1 stalk celery, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup

1 pound white mushrooms, sliced thickly (or quartered)

6 cloves garlic, smashed

1 cup beef broth

4 stems fresh rosemary and thyme, tied together with kitchen string

2 bay leaves

Water

Place the beef cubes in large glass bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper and pour over the red wine. Let marinate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours, chilled. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Remove the beef from the marinade (reserving the marinade) and dry gently with paper towels.

Heat 1 teaspoon tablespoon of the oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat, and cook the bacon until crisp. Sprinkle the bacon with smoked paprika, and cook another minute until fragrant. Remove the bacon, and set aside, reserving the fat in the pot. Add the remaining two teaspoons of olive oil in the Dutch oven, and brown the beef on all sides. You may need to work in batches.

Remove the beef from the pot and set aside. Add the onions into the pot, and cook over medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes. Increase the temperature to medium high, and add the rest of the vegetables and the garlic. Once the mushrooms are softened, about 10 more minutes, add in the reserved marinade and bring to a simmer. Add the browned beef, the bacon, beef broth, herb bundle, bay leaves and enough water to just barely cover the meat. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop, then cover tightly and cook in the oven for 2 1/2 to 4 hours, until the meat is tender.

Check the stew every hour, and add a little more water if the stew looks dry. Remove the lid for the final half hour of baking to allow the sauce to reduce a little. Remove the herbs. Cool the stew on the counter, and spoon off and discard fat collecting at the top. (Even better: chill for several hours or overnight. Scrape off congealed fat from top of stew, and reheat to serve.)

Nutrition information per serving: 284 calories; 80 calories from fat; 9 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 83 mg cholesterol; 176 mg sodium; 14 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 32 g protein.