Cold, isn’t it? I turned the heating on for the first time this week and I didn’t once feel guilty about how early in September it was. And, when the light dips along with the mercury, my thoughts turn to long, slow-cooked things. Like stew. Not a good word that, stew. It makes me think of school, and of stringy, gristly bits of meat in a thin sauce with lumpy and oversalted mash. Give me a spam fritter any day.
We never ate stew at home, only casserole. I’m not sure if that was a class thing, habit, or a family trait, but any bit of meat cooked in sauce with vegetables was called casserole. I should add here that there was nothing posh about my family; plumber + secretary + a couple of unplanned pregnancies do not Downton Abbey make. However, somewhere between the dark heart of 1960s Lambeth and the green fields of 1970s Cambridgeshire, stew became casserole; I still didn’t like it much.
Which is why, when I worked on the new Giorgio Locatelli book, Made at Home, I was surprised a) to find a stew recipe and b) to realise that it sounded like just my kind of thing. Amazing what 40 years of distance can do for you.
This, unlike school stews, is a keeper. It’s straightforward, cheap and so much more than meat and vegetables. I’m not sure why; it seems almost retro in its lack of imagination in this world of fiddly and faffy food, yet it tastes beautifully complex and, of course, improves the next day. Use shin of beef if you can find it; it becomes lovely and tender after a couple of hours and is one of the cheapest cuts of beef you can find. I had never cooked with it before and it worked brilliantly. In Italian this dish is a spezzatino; now that sounds MUCH more appetising.
The recipe in the book serves six, which is too much for my world, so I’ve cut the amount of meat, but not the flavourings, in half. However, though technically this should make enough for three we got four meals out of it so the portions are generous. And, after making it only once, it’s already on The List of things that get repeated; it’s perfect for a weekend dinner, and the leftovers will cheer up Monday lunchtimes, or evenings, no end. In fact, I’m starting to think that the way to survive Monday evening ‘wtfdoieattonight’ dilemmas is to make extra of whatever I am cooking on Sunday. Especially as it gets colder and darker.
The book, I should add, is also a keeper; I’ve made four other things from it – vignarola, a delicious spring vegetable stew (there it is again!), green bean salad with roasted red onions, apple crumble cake, griddled chicken thighs – and I am definitely going to go over the magic five that makes it indispensable once I make baci di cavaliere (homemade Ferrero Rocher to us plumbers’ daughters), chestnut soup and pork belly with chickpeas. And, no, I’m not on commission.
Oh and thanks to one of my blog readers, Mrs Hen, for nudging me back to life on here. I hope you like this!
Beef stew with potatoes and peas (adapted from Made at Home)
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
plain flour, a few tablespoons
olive oil, a few tablespoons
tomato purée, 1 tablespoon
potatoes, 3-4 medium
frozen peas, 200g
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
celery, 1 stalk (will someone please come up with a recipe that uses more than one stalk?)
shin of beef, 1.2kg (or shoulder of beef, braising steak, any cut suitable for long slow cooking)
good beef stock, 1-2 litres
red wine, 150ml
bouquet garni (or wrap 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, 3 fresh sage leaves, 2 bay leaves and a garlic clove in a piece of muslin or just chuck them in; no one minds about fishing them out)
1. Preheat the oven to 160ºC/140ºC fan-assisted/gas 3.
2. Peel and finely chop the onion and carrot. Trim and finely chop the celery.
3. Put a couple of tablespoons of flour in a shallow bowl or plate.
4. Dice the meat into bite-sized cubes, season all over then dust the pieces in the flour. Add a little more flour to the bowl/plate if necessary.
5. Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a lidded ovenproof casserole dish over a high heat then colour the beef all over (you will probably need to do this in batches). Put each batch to one side whilst you brown the rest.
6. Remove the last batch of meat from the casserole dish, lower the heat then add the onion, carrot and celery (with a little more oil if necessary) and cook until the onion is soft and translucent. Meanwhile, warm the stock in a saucepan.
7. Once the vegetables have softened, return the meat to the pan, stir in the tomato purée and wine and bubble up for a minute or two to reduce the liquid a little (the recipe says by half; I didn’t really think that was necessary since the meat and vegetables absorbed most of the wine anyway).
8. Add a litre of stock, the bouquet garni or loose herbs and garlic and bring to the boil.
9. Cover and cook in the oven for about 45 minutes.
10. Meanwhile, peel and quarter the potatoes, cover with cold water (to stop them going brown) and leave the peas out to defrost (or you can run them under cold water if you prefer).
11. After 45 minutes, add the potatoes (but not the water they were sitting in, if used) to the casserole and more stock if it looks at all dry (I found 1 litre was plenty, but how much you need will depend on the quality and richness of the stock you use), cover again and cook for another 30 minutes.
12. Add the peas, cover and cook for another 10 minutes. Season to taste and serve.