As the temperature falls and the nights get darker, my mind turns to the ‘winter warmers’. This is comfort food at its finest and a real time saver for the cook. I’ll sometimes make a batch at the weekend, eat some, keep some and freeze some.
The depth of flavours and the length of cooking for a winter stew make it ideal for adding ingredients purchased on a whim. They are also ideal for using some of the cheaper cuts of meat and so they are economical too. My Saturday morning visit to Nigel’s butchers resulted in some lovely looking pieces of shin of beef. At Fresh Choice the greengrocers the heritage carrots looked terrific. Finally, Sainsbury had a deal on Spitfire beer so the die was cast.
This is one of the fun challenges of cooking for me – finding some nice looking ingredients and making something simple but tasty out of them. I’ve got a cupboard full of good stew fillers – red, yellow and green lentils, canned chickpeas when I don’t have the time or planning to soak some, rices, canned beans and even couscous to thicken up the sauce a bit. For this particular effort I wanted to start with a good base of browned onions and beef shin so I took plenty of time over the onions and a couple of cloves of garlic – all roughly chopped. I once went to some curry cooking Evening Classes in Leicester and the thing I took away was that the preparation of the browned onions and the spices made the dish and shouldn’t therefore be rushed – like the base of a good pasta sauce. As a result most of the class was spent watching a large pan of onions slowly brown. My favourite prepared curry packs – Rafi’s Spice Box – include some dried brown onions which make them special and are packed with flavour. If I could find a large resealable container of them anywhere I would love to add them to the cupboard (suggestions anyone?). Anyway I digress… Once the onions and shin are browned I sprinkled some plain flour over them to assist the thickening of the sauce. It doesn’t need a lot because the lentils, the rendered fat from the meat and vegetables will do some of this for us.
The vegetables need preparing according to how the stew is going to finish. It’s going to simmer for the best part of two hours so any vegetable is going to end up as pulp by the end of it. The bigger the pieces, the more body they will have and you might want to hold some back to add them further through the cooking. As winter stews are about root vegetables you might want some to add to the broth and then others to add a little texture, I put the red lentils and chickpeas in from the start along with a can of chopped tomatoes and some chicken stock to top up the bottle of beer. I added a sprig of thyme (because I love it) and a couple of bay leaves. I have no idea why because I can never remember thinking how good the bay tasted in a meal but it’s part of the classic combination so in it goes! Who am I to argue?
I added the carrots and some parsnips with about 40 minutes to go and then checked whether it needed reducing by boiling with the lid off a little nearer the finish. Seasoning is crucial with plenty of salt and pepper. The idea is that the meat is very tender at this point – you could eat it with a spoon – and the fat has rendered into the sauce. I’m looking for some texture from the veg and a consistency which means you can more or less serve it up with a slotted spoon without it all running away. Ideally the last of the sauce can be mopped up with a chunk of bread leaving the casserole clean. This is just basic, reasonably healthy fare which can be served with bread or dumplings or given some zing with lemon juice, chilli flakes, or paprika. I don’t apologise for its lack of sophistication – it fills the house with a lovely smell and is just the thing at this time of year. It’s even better on reheating and doesn’t suffer through freezing.