Pour the beef broth, wine and water into the crock of a 4½-quart or larger slow cooker. Pour the powdered gravy from the envelope into the broth mixture, and whisk until any lumps disappear. Sprinkle the garlic, bay leaves and thyme over the broth.
Cut bacon into 1/4-inch pieces. (Do not crisp bacon first.) Scatter bacon in the crock. Peel and coarsely chop the onion. Scatter the onion pieces, baby carrots and sliced mushrooms evenly in the crock. Place beef cubes evenly over vegetables, and press down and stir as necessary to make sure most of the beef is submerged in the broth mixture. Add whole onions to the crock. Cover the crock, and cook on the low setting for 8 hours. (The stew can cook on low as long as 9 hours.)
Before serving, remove lid and stir stew well. Remove bay leaves, and taste the broth and season with salt, if desired. Mix the cornstarch and 3 tablespoons of water in a jar that has a lid. Shake well until mixture is smooth and no lumps remain. Pour mixture evenly over stew. (The stew needs to be hot when you do this step.) Stir well. (Optional: Add spinach to top of crockpot after mixing in the cornstarch liquid. It will wilt and can then be stirred in as the gravy thickens.) Continue stirring from time to time until stew reaches desired thickness, about 5 minutes.
Serve in 6 bowls.
Alternative cooking method: If you don’t have a slow cooker, preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Place ingredients in a 4½-quart Dutch oven or covered casserole dish. Cover stew, and place it in the middle of the oven. Bake 4½ to 5 hours, or until beef is tender and cooked through. To thicken stew, place pot on top of stove over medium-high heat. Bring to a slow boil and add the cornstarch mixed with water according to the recipe directions. Stir gently from time to time.
Note: You could also use regular bacon cooked to the not-quite-crisp stage before it is added to the crock.
Start to finish: 10 minutes preparation, plus 8 hours unattended cooking time.
From “Slow cookers perfect for fast-paced lives”, Desperation Dinners, October 6, 2004, by Beverly Mills with Alicia Ross, syndicated by United Features Syndicate Inc.