Stewing in the snow

We’ve just emerged from more than a week of snow and ice. This is unheard of for the UK – a cold snap that has the newspapers reaching back into the archives for tales of ‘the worst winter since I were a lad’.
I’m suddenly feeling kinship for big sections of the world – Scandinavia, the North-Eastern US – that have to deal with this stuff every year.
It focuses your mind on thick, warming dishes – soups with beans or potatoes in, stews, mashed potatoes.
I started out aiming for a beef and Guinness pie, but when the snow came down, and there was no Guinness in the house, I realised that this was a slap-your-forehead moment. A beef stew is adaptable and forgiving, so going out to buy special ingredients, in the snow, when I could do it all with what was in the house was a very special example of foodie blindness.
All we really need for decent beef stew are a few basic elements:
The beef – fortunately I’d got this in earlier in the week – 1 kg of cubed beef shoulder from my favourite butcher (they’re really so nice, and not intimidating at all). Not really optional this part. I like the shoulder because it has plenty of fat in (did you know that if you remove the fat completely from meat, you can’t taste the difference between pork, lamb and beef? Flavour is all in the fat).
Flavourings – onions, leeks, carrots, herbs, celery all add lots of flavour to the stew. You also need to make sure the beef gets nice and brown at some point, to give you lots of really beefy flavour (browning breaks the long beef proteins into shorter aminos and polypeptides – shorter molecules are where you get all the flavour).
Liquid – I originally shot for Guinness, until I realised I have a cupboard full of red wine. Beer also works well. Stock is also good – adds more meaty flavour.
Thickener – not an absolute, but stops it from being a broth. Flour works well, and can be added to coat the meat before it is cooked, or stirred into the fat before you add the liquid. Irish stew uses potatoes. Gelatin is also important.  One of the reasons for choosing beef shoulder over other cuts is that it also has some bits of connective tissue – silverskin, tendons, cartilage – which doesn’t usually sound like a good thing, but these are all substances that when cooked slowly in liquid will dissolve and become gelatin. And gelatin is what makes stock wobble (and jelly for that matter) so it helps to thicken the gravy, without you having too add too much flour. Adding stock as a liquid (at least homemade stock) adds some more gelatin too.
Time – for all of the flavour to work its magic, and to allow the gelatin to emerge, you need to cook it slowly (which means barely simmering) and for a long time (3 hours plus).
The recipe below is what I did on this occasion. Having set out the principles above, can I trust you to guess that you can substitute all you want here? Bacon is fine instead of pancetta. I had chicken stock in the freezer, so used that – stock from concentrate or one of those little jellied pods is fine too – in fact, beef better than chicken. Just keep an eye on the salt if you use one of those.
Rich Beef Stew
——
1kg beef shoulder, cubed
4 tbsp plain flour, seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, in a ziplock bag.
Shake the meat, a batch at a time, in the bag to coat it.
Heat a casserole. Add a good layer of vegetable oil (don’t worry too much about the amount – you can pour off the excess later).
Take each batch out, and shake off the excess flour.
Brown the meat a batch at a time. Flour the next batch while you’re waiting for the first to brown.
Once all the meat is browned and set aside, pour most of the fat out of the pan and into a small heatproof bowl or jar.
1 packet cubetti di pancetta (100g)
Add to the hot casserole on a low heat, and start to melt the fat, as well as scraping at the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.
1 onion, chopped small
Add the onion once the fat is flowing, with a little olive oil if there doesn’t seem to be quite enough fat. Cook slowly with the bacon until the onion is translucent, using the liquid given off by the onion to help you scrape up and dissolve the brown bits from the beef.
2 small leeks, sliced into thin rings, and washed well
1 large carrot, chopped small
2 sticks of celery, chopped small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme (it was too snowy to go out and get fresh)
Add the rest of the vegetables, and continue to fry gently and stir until they are all softened. Turn up the heat as the cold vegetables go in, and back down once everything is sizzling gently again.
350ml pinot noir
Add the wine and simmer just for a few minutes to reduce a little and boil off some of the alcohol.
2 bay leaves
400 ml chicken stock
Add the stock and bay leaves and bring back to the boil before adding the browned beef back in. Once it’s all simmering again, put on the lid, and place in a 130C oven for about 2 hours.
Chestnut (crimini) mushrooms
2 large field mushrooms
Quarter the chestnut mushrooms and chop the field mushrooms into slices, then across into small pieces. Heat a fresh frying pan over medium heat, then add olive oil and butter, and toss the mushrooms in. Fry until they are starting to brown in places, keeping the heat fairly high. It will take a few minutes, as the mushrooms need to give up their water and shrink before they will brown.
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tbsp Marsala
Add the garlic, and a splash of Marsala and continue to cook for a couple more minutes. Turn off the heat and leave in the pan.
1 large carrot, sliced
After the stew has had 2 hours, remove from the oven, and taste. Adjust the seasoning if necessary, and add in the carrot and mushrooms. Return to the oven for a further hour.
Serve with mashed potatoes.

We’ve just emerged from more than a week of snow and ice. This is unheard of for the UK – a cold snap that has the newspapers reaching back into the archives for tales of ‘the worst winter since I were a lad’. I’m suddenly feeling kinship for big sections of the world – Scandinavia, the North-Eastern US – that have to deal with this stuff every year.It focuses your mind on thick, warming dishes – soups with beans or potatoes in, stews, mashed potatoes.
I started out aiming for a beef and Guinness pie, but when the snow came down, and there was no Guinness in the house, I realised that this was a slap-your-forehead moment. A beef stew is adaptable and forgiving, so going out to buy special ingredients, in the snow, when I could do it all with what was in the house was a very special example of foodie blindness.
All we really need for decent beef stew are a few basic elements:
The beef – fortunately I’d got this in earlier in the week – 1 kg of cubed beef shoulder from my favourite butcher (they’re really so nice, and not intimidating at all). Not really optional this part. I like the shoulder because it has plenty of fat in (did you know that if you remove the fat completely from meat, you can’t taste the difference between pork, lamb and beef? Flavour is all in the fat).
Flavourings – onions, leeks, carrots, herbs, celery all add lots of flavour to the stew. You also need to make sure the beef gets nice and brown at some point, to give you lots of really beefy flavour (browning breaks the long beef proteins into shorter aminos and polypeptides – shorter molecules are where you get all the flavour).
Liquid – I originally shot for Guinness, until I realised I have a cupboard full of red wine. Beer also works well. Stock is also good – adds more meaty flavour.
Thickener – not an absolute, but stops it from being a broth. Flour works well, and can be added to coat the meat before it is cooked, or stirred into the fat before you add the liquid. Irish stew uses potatoes. Gelatin is also important.  One of the reasons for choosing beef shoulder over other cuts is that it also has some bits of connective tissue – silverskin, tendons, cartilage – which doesn’t usually sound like a good thing, but these are all substances that when cooked slowly in liquid will dissolve and become gelatin. And gelatin is what makes stock wobble (and jelly for that matter) so it helps to thicken the gravy, without you having too add too much flour. Adding stock as a liquid (at least homemade stock) adds some more gelatin too.
Time – for all of the flavour to work its magic, and to allow the gelatin to emerge, you need to cook it slowly (which means barely simmering) and for a long time (3 hours plus).
The recipe below is what I did on this occasion. Having set out the principles above, can I trust you to guess that you can substitute all you want here? Bacon is fine instead of pancetta. I had chicken stock in the freezer, so used that – stock from concentrate or one of those little jellied pods is fine too – in fact, beef better than chicken. Just keep an eye on the salt if you use one of those.
Recipe——1kg beef shoulder, cubed4 tbsp plain flour, seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, in a ziplock bag. Shake the meat, a batch at a time, in the bag to coat it. Heat a casserole. Add a good layer of vegetable oil (don’t worry too much about the amount – you can pour off the excess later). Take each batch out, and shake off the excess flour. Brown the meat a batch at a time. Flour the next batch while you’re waiting for the first to brown.
Once all the meat is browned and set aside, pour most of the fat out of the pan and into a small heatproof bowl or jar.
1 packet cubetti di pancetta (100g) Add to the hot casserole on a low heat, and start to melt the fat, as well as scraping at the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.
1 onion, chopped small Add the onion once the fat is flowing, with a little olive oil if there doesn’t seem to be quite enough fat. Cook slowly with the bacon until the onion is translucent, using the liquid given off by the onion to help you scrape up and dissolve the brown bits from the beef.
2 small leeks, sliced into thin rings, and washed well1 large carrot, chopped small2 sticks of celery, chopped small2 cloves garlic, minced1 tsp dried thyme (it was too snowy to go out and get fresh) Add the rest of the vegetables, and continue to fry gently and stir until they are all softened. Turn up the heat as the cold vegetables go in, and back down once everything is sizzling gently again.
350ml pinot noir  Add the wine and simmer a little to reduce and boil off some of the alcohol.2 bay leaves400 ml chicken stock Add the stock and bring back to the boil before adding the browned beef back in. Once it’s all simmering again, put on the lid, and place in a 130C oven for about 2 hours.Chestnut (crimini) mushrooms2 large field mushrooms Quarter the chestnut mushrooms and chop the field mushrooms into slices, then across into small pieces. Heat a fresh frying pan over medium heat, then add olive oil and butter, and toss the mushrooms in. Fry until they are starting to brown in places, keeping the heat fairly high. It will take a few minutes, as the mushrooms need to give up their water and shrink before they will brown. 1 clove garlic, minced3 tbsp Marsala Add the garlic, and a splash of Marsala and continue to toss around. Turn off the heat and leave in the pan.1 large carrot, sliced After the stew has had 2 hours, remove from the oven, and taste. Adjust the seasoning if necessary, and add in the carrot and mushrooms. Return to the oven for a further hour.Serve with mashed potatoes.

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louise-marston

I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

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