Winter stews and casseroles
The weather is still unseasonably warm but I have a hankering for the hearty, comforting, complex flavours that are produced by the alchemy of slow cooking.
Just as I like to call a spade a spade (or indeed say “rich” instead of “wealthy”, “pudding” instead of “dessert” and “house” instead of “home”) what I am talking about here is good old meat stews and casseroles, so we are in serious carnivore territory.
Whether you cook it covered in the oven (which makes it a casserole) or simmer it on the stovetop, making a stew or a slow braise is easy and usually done using the same procedure with variations of ingredients, depending on the meat or cuisine the recipe comes from.
Slow cooking is for the coarser, tougher cuts of meat, generally from areas of the animal that do some work, things like necks, legs and tails, preferably with bones attached. This meat has lots of tough connective tissue which is easily broken down and turned into succulent, gelatinous morsels in a rich syrupy sauce by the action of slow cooking.
Yes it may take two, even three, hours to cook, and stews are best made in advance and reheated slowly so that the flavour has a chance to develop and the meat to absorb the sauce, but that doesn’t mean they are time-consuming especially if you have a slow cooker. This kind of cooking takes about 20-30 minutes to make the flavour base of aromatic vegetables and herbs, browned meat, wine and stock or water that is necessary before it can go into the pot or casserole. It can then undergo the magic of slow cooking which will take place while you are doing something else (although you may want to stir it occasionally).
The good thing about stews and casseroles is that, because they are best made in advance, they can be reheated when needed. Choose a time when you can do some relaxed, enjoyable cooking and you’ll have a few dinners up your sleeve for the coming busy week. A stew can happily sit, covered, in the fridge for a few days. Just cool quickly and reheat thoroughly.
In European stew cookery probably the most important vegetable is the sweet but savoury onion, which needs to be chopped and gently fried in oil or butter. The other star vegetables are carrots and celery.
Ray's top tips for making stews
For a generic stew I would slow-fry diced onion, carrot, celery, garlic, herbs like thyme, rosemary, fresh sage and bay leaves in extra virgin olive oil until the onion is soft (takes at least 10 minutes), I would then add cubes of secondary cuts of beef/lamb/pork (or chicken thighs on the bone, but they will need a shorter cooking time) that have been browned in hot oil.
Sealing in the moisture by browning in hot fat is a myth, you do it to make it look and taste good. I’d then add a big splash of wine and let it bubble until it loses its raw alcohol smell, then I’d add enough appropriate stock to cover and simmer (which means a very gentle bubbling) until the meat is tender enough to eat with a spoon.
If it looks like it is getting too dry during the cooking, add a little water. You can get a lower, more even heat by using the oven. If you boil it hard it will make the connective tissue seize up and the meat become dry. If the meat is lean, I’d add fat (bacon, cubes of belly pork, pancetta or simply don’t be mean with the oil or butter). In fact I’d add something fatty anyway so the dish has a delicious richness. Stir occasionally so the fat emulsifies with the water in the stock as it cooks.
You can thicken a stew or casserole with flour, dusted on to the meat before browning, or with a slurry of cornflour and water at the end but this method of thickening cuts the flavour. I would rather get body by using bones and skin in the stew, which produces a sticky gelatinous result. If your sauce tastes like a watery Dickensian workhouse gruel, strain the stew, and reduce the liquid by about a third or more if necessary (taste it) by hard boiling then reintroduce the meat and vegetables.
Don’t salt until the end — reducing an already salted sauce just means more saltiness. You can also add raw potatoes or other hard vegetables or cooked pulses about 1 hour before the stew is ready, and peas, beans or blanched leafy vegetables in the last five minutes and let them cook in the sauce to add body and make the stew into a one-pot meal. Once cooked, let it cool for at least an hour (or better still, make it the day before) so the flavour develops and the meat absorbs the liquid it was cooked in. Remember, reheat it slowly. Here are few variations using the above method.
Slow fry chopped onions, carrots, celery, garlic, a few fennel seeds, bay leaves and a few slices of ginger in extra virgin olive oil. Add unbrowned pork hocks that have been cut through the skin almost to the flesh, add plenty of cider, let it bubble then add chicken stock to cover. Cover and braise in the oven at 175C for about 3 hours or until the meat is falling off the bones. After two hours add chunks of peeled purple-skinned kumara and apples, and in the last 15 minutes add boiled, cooled, squeezed dry, sliced silverbeet. Taste, season and rest.
Take the family to Madrid with a very easy casserole of a little extra virgin olive oil, lots of garlic, a chopped onion, a couple of sliced carrots, a big spoonful of sweet smoked paprika, the finely grated zest of an orange, a big lamb shank each, red wine, beef stock, a can of chopped tomatoes, drained canned chickpeas and a handful of currants. Ignore the formula above, put everything into a heavy casserole, mix well, cover tightly and braise for 3 hours at 190C. As if by magic it will have transformed itself into a great dinner. Serve with rice and a green vegetable.
Slow fry lots of chopped onion, garlic, lemon zest, finely diced preserved lemon, dried oregano and bay leaves. Add browned lamb neck fillets, then white wine, then beef stock, cover and simmer on the stove top for 2-2½ hours or until the meat is meltingly tender. Add peeled waxy potato chunks in the last hour, and frozen peas in the last 10 minutes, taste, season and rest. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt and warm flatbread.
Slow fry lots of 3cm diced boned belly pork, 3cm lengths of spring onion with lots of chopped ginger, garlic, some star anise pods and a cinnamon stick, add a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar, a little naturally brewed soy sauce, sliced, rehydrated dried Chinese mushrooms and some Chinese cooking wine (shao xing) or medium sherry plus beef stock to cover. Cover and place in the oven for 2 hours or until the pork is tender and the sauce syrupy. Serve with stir-fried bok choy and steamed Jasmine rice.
Get French and casserole some beef in red wine. Brown 4cm cubes of crosscut blade steak in hot oil, remove and add chopped onion, celery, carrots, button mushrooms, garlic, diced streaky bacon and thyme sprigs. Fry until the onion is soft. Add the reserved beef and plenty of red wine, let it bubble then barely cover with beef stock. Cover and place in the oven at 180C for 2 hours or until the meat is tender. Serve with a smooth puree of agria potatoes, butter and chopped parsley.
An English hotpot is child’s play, it is simply a layer of lots of fried sliced onions, then a layer of sliced raw agria potatoes then a layer of browned lamb neck chops (which in this case are best pre-dusted with a little flour), a couple of bay leaves, then more onions, and a top layer of more potatoes (be generous with the onions and potatoes). Add beef stock to barely cover and dot the top with butter. Unbelievably, it needs no other flavouring (I itch to add garlic and more herbs but they would be superfluous). Cover and bake at 150C for 2 hours then uncover and bake 30 minutes to brown the potatoes. Serve with a green vegetable.
Slow fry jointed duck legs for 10 minutes so they give up plenty of fat. Remove the legs and pour off most of the fat. Add chopped onion, lemon zest, cracked black pepper and garlic to the pan and fry until the onion is soft. Add lots of different mushrooms (buttons, browns, sliced portobellos, some rehydrated porcini) and fry a few minutes more, then add red wine. Let it bubble then add reduced beef stock to barely cover. Cover and simmer 1 hour or until the duck is very tender. Taste, season, rest and serve with a good drizzle of your best balsamic vinegar, a green vegetable and mashed agrias.