In the cold weather of February, a stew is the perfect antidote. But a stew is also a great answer to a week’s worth of cooking from a cheap cut of meat. A slowly braised pot of beef can be: stew with potatoes; then pie, with a pastry lid; and finally, the last morsels of meat, shredded, with the remaining gravy can dress pasta. And while I’m not often keen on eating the same thing night after night, you can coax such flavour from this, that I’m happy to return. And if it becomes too much, simply freeze it – and then re-heat when the weather gets colder again.
The basic elements of a stew are repeated in every recipe you come across. Understanding the components gives you licence to adapt and adjust as you go.
Meat – the substance of the stew, essential flavouring.
Plenty of fat gives flavour, and can be skimmed from the top by chilling the stew overnight before eating (which also helps the flavour). Collagen and fibres will melt, given long, slow cooking, into gelatin, which will thicken the gravy. Cuts with bones and fibres will need much longer cooking than, for example, cubed braising steak, but will give up much more in flavour and gelatin. In Waitrose today, I notice that they are now selling oxtail, ox cheeks, scrag end of lamb and other cheap cuts ideal for stewing.
Thickener – stock, flour.
Gelatin on it’s own is rarely enough (although a jellied stock will help too) to give a silky gravy. A little flour will provide you with enough thickening to allow the sauce to smoothly coat the meat.
Vegetables – more layers of flavour.
Traditionally: carrots, celery, onions – a balance of sweet and savoury flavours. Cut into small pieces if you just want the flavour. Leave in larger chunks to eat them with the stew. I sometimes chop extra, and freeze in little bags, in the ratio of 2 onion : 1 carrot : 1 celery. You can also use leeks, parsnips, celery leaves, swede.
Liquid – stock, wine, beer. Stock gives body and extra meaty flavour – but just use water rather than an oversalted stock. Beer is good, as is Guinness. Wine could be good, but go for something fruity rather than robust – too much tannin can skew the flavours.
Flavours – herbs.
Woody herbs (thyme, rosemary) do well with long cooking. Parsley, chives – do better sprinkled over at the end.
I made this version a couple of weeks ago with braising steak from the butcher. I prefer to leave it to bubble in the oven, rather than on the stove, as it requires less attention, but either works.
Beef and Guinness Stew
Adapted from Jamie Oliver’s Steak, Guinness and cheese pie with a puff pastry lid in ‘Jamie at Home‘
[This is a great book, with lots of little tips for growing veg – and I positively covet his pizza oven]
- 500g braising steak, in 2cm cubes
–> season with salt and pepper and set aside
- 2 carrots
- 2 sticks of celery
- 1 large onion
- 1 leek
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
–> chop all the vegetables into pieces.
Heat a large casserole.
Add olive oil, and fry the vegetables to soften them, giving them a little colour.
Start with the onions & leeks, then carrots and celery, finally garlic.
Remove the veg onto a plate.
Turn up the heat, and fry the beef in a couple of batches.
Leave alone to colour, turn over to brown the other side, then take out.
- 4 large mushrooms, sliced across
–> With the heat still high, fry the mushrooms until they release their liquid and colour a little.
- 2 tbsp flour
–> Pile the meat back in, and add the flour. Stir around to cook it for a minute or so.
- 1/2 bottle of Guinness
–> Stir in the Guinness, a little at a time, scraping the bottom to dissolve the flour and browned bits. Bring to a simmer.
- Thyme sprigs
- salt & pepper
- Rosemary, finely chopped
–> Add the herbs, and season.
–> Put on the lid, and simmer very slowly for 2-4 hours, checking periodically to see whether the meat is tender. Alternatively, put into an oven at 140C.
Stew is always better cooked, cooled, put into the fridge overnight, and then reheated the next day. If you want to make a pie, put the cold stew into a pie dish and cover with a sheet of shortcrust or puff pastry. Glaze with beaten egg or milk, and cut a couple of holes in the top before baking at 200C for 30-45 minutes.