In these depressing and difficult times, it is sometimes beneficial to return to encouraging and positive subjects, and in my opinion, there is nothing quite as welcoming as “Comfort food”. A fellow Puffin signalled their despair recently, insofar as they have “Lost the knack” of making a decent beef stew or casserole, hence the inspiration for this piece. While this article may be considered to be of the genre “Teaching grandmother to suck eggs”, or indeed, a treatise on how to transport ecologically immoral fuel to the North East, I steadfastly refuse to be deterred. As Miss R has not shown much interest in culinary skills, and Mrs R has rightfully moved aside to allow a more fastidious and idiosyncratic chef to dominate the kitchen, I desperately need an audience. What celebrity chef doesn’t?
I am deliberately going to be a bit obtuse here, and not give exact measurements. This recipe, like all dishes served at Chez Rookwood, are prepared on a “Handful of this, a dash of that” basis. While I admit to using measuring implements when baking (a skill in which I am woefully inadequate), “Cooking” holds no such terrors for me. I work on the basis of taste, and adjust accordingly throughout the process. I would recommend that you do likewise. I will, however, give rough measurements and ratios, and of course, unless clearly irrational, please feel free to adjust these quantities to suit your own palate. That said, salt is a big bone of contention in this house. Mrs R waves the salt packet at everything, believing that a dish will be seasoned my merely seeing the fleeting presence of a label during cooking. I actually add it to my dishes, and as a consequence, I seem to have a much higher tolerance to it than Mrs R, for what I consider adequately seasoned, she will sometimes dismiss as “Too salty”. This causes considerable consternation, for every good chef knows that seasoning food after cooking, especially vegetables etc, is a pointless exercise, as only the top layer is affected rather than the whole ingredient when it is properly cooked in a seasoned liquid.
The cooking vessel and method
You might not think this is important, but it is indeed a fundamental part of the process. A stew or casserole can be cooked on the hob, while some purists would suggest that it cannot be considered such a dish unless cooked in the oven. There are pros and cons to each method, and modern technology confuses this further with the addition of the pressure cooker. The traditional method requires the browning of the beef (adequately seasoned and coated with flour) either in butter, oil, or a combination of both, to allow a fond to build up on the casserole dish. The meat is then removed, the vegetable components fried off, and the resulting fond used as the basis for the sauce, once deglazed with stock, wine, beer or even water. The meat is returned to the dish, topped up with more stock etc, and slowly cooked, either with a tight fitting or slightly vented lid for a number of hours. For this to work as nature intended, you really need a heavyweight casserole dish, preferably enamelled cast-iron. These are heavy, expensive and are an absolute pain to wash up, as you really shouldn’t put such dishes in the dishwasher as the salt wrecks the enamel. You also run the risk of burning the stew, if you have used too much flour or do not stir and scrape the bottom of the pan sufficiently. While you can walk away and leave it, unless you are really confident of the process, you may not end up with the result you expected. The “Lid ajar” method allows for more evaporation of sauce, and the casserole will be more unctuous, thicker, and denser than if you fit a tight fitting lid. The latter method prevents evaporation, so the sauce will be runnier, possibly requiring thickening with a cornflour and water slurry later. The results though are very similar, if not indistinguishable, from the other methods, provided these are carried out properly. In the hands of a competent chef, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference, in my opinion at least.
The stovetop method is identical in process to the casserole dish method, and indeed you can use a heavyweight casserole dish if you prefer, rather than a deep skillet or large pot. The only real requirement here is that you use something with a heavy bottom, for lightweight pans are hopeless at retaining heat, something that is essential to achieving a decent braise, which is what we want, rather than boiling the meat. Timing wise, the stovetop method is comparable to the oven, the greatest variable being the quality of the meat and the thermal capacity of the dish used. The hob method also allows you to give the cooking dish a stir from time to time, and you can easily check the tenderness of the meat with a fork. This is considerably less hassle than donning oven gloves and manipulating a heavy, scalding, cast iron pot. As with the classic method, depending on how thick you like your gravy, you can leave the lid on fully or ajar. I’d recommend leaving it on full at least for the first hour, as the amount of latent heat on the stovetop will be considerably less, especially if you are using a skillet rather than a heavy cast-iron dish.
The pressure cooker method is identical to the stovetop method, but with two caveats, which will upset the casserole purists no end. The first is you cannot flour the meat prior to browning, as this will cause a major build up of excess fond on the base of the pressure cooker which will burn and ruin the dish. Secondly, depending on your pressure cooker, you may need to add a lot more stock than for the other methods, but this generally is only a problem with a very large pressure cooker and smaller quantities. Depending on how thick you like your casserole gravy, you may also need to thicken it after cooking. This can be done with a cornflour and water slurry, with twice the water to cornflour, about 3 tablespoons in total. There are other ways to get round this though, and I’ll cover them later on. The only down side to this method is that it all takes place out of sight, and you have to “Best guess” the time for the meat to cook thoroughly. You also can’t get inside the pot if anything starts to burn! The one benefit of this method though, is time. The two previous methods take at least 90 minutes, not including the time to prepare, pre-heat the oven etc, and that would be based on smallish chunks of high-quality beef being used. A pressure cooker will achieve acceptable results in half that time, although I tend to go for at least 60 minutes as I prefer my beef “Melt in the mouth” tender. Again, like sauce consistency, this is a matter of personal preference.
This section, like the debate surrounding pineapple and pizza, will be as contentious as the previous one. Most people would consider beef, stock and a few vegetables to be the entry level, the most vociferous debate surrounding what vegetables gain entry to the hallowed pot. I am going to throw a few curved balls in here, and no doubt the traditionalists will have my guts for garters. Certain things we can agree on though. Mirepoix, a finely diced mixture of onion, carrots and celery, is essential. At a push, you can just about get away with omitting the celery, while it adds body and savoury-ness (Is there such a word?), I have prepared many an excellent casserole without it. If you don’t have any, it is not a show-stopper, but if I’m shopping for that dish, I will definitely get some. The type of onions are also flexible, brown, white, red, just make sure there is plenty in the base sauce, the minimum I would go for is a very large Spanish one to 450g of beef. I’d also want a couple of large carrots left over after their inclusion in the mirepoix, so we are looking at least four large ones, with a couple of sticks of celery.
I also add a touch of garlic, 2 or 3 crushed cloves are fine here. You can also use garlic paste in oil (the jarred variety uses vinegar, which, in my opinion, really shouldn’t be added to a beef casserole). If you are going to be preparing my garlic and tarragon dumplings (more on these later), I’d err on the side of stinginess here, maybe even omit it. If not, I’d add a touch more. The meat and the gravy is the star of the show, so the garlic is really just there to add something special, not to dominate. You can also get away with a good quality garlic powder (Sainsbury’s one is excellent), but some are a bit on the bitter side, so caveat emptor. The dumplings though, really need the paste, as it gives them a lovely texture.
Next up, I’d also add some washed and trimmed button mushrooms. You don’t want the regular sliced mushrooms, as they will darken the stew as the fronds dissolve, go all misshapen, and sliced vegetables are a no-no in a stew. We want chunky or completely dissolved, and the same applies to frozen peas. Add them a couple of minutes from the end to keep their colour and bite, and they will explode in your mouth, like the baby mushrooms, with a fountain of flavour. Any other veg is verboten, apart maybe from some turnip, which will add a lovely sweetness. Forget spinach, broccoli, greens of any description, apart from maybe the peas. If you really crave those, add them as a side. I’ll be giving them a miss, preferring some crusty bread to soak up all that goodness. Some potatoes cut into quarters are also an excellent addition, when cooked for such a length of time, they will break up and dissolve into the sauce, naturally thickening it, when stirred passionately.
Then we have the stock. Some people will go to great lengths to make their own from bones, but this practice has very much died out as butchers are loathe to sell them to you due to previous BSE scares. If you have a friendly butcher, go for it, but having paid a ridiculous price for them at a well known supermarket, to be honest, it is law of diminishing returns. I prefer to add a bottle of beer, maybe Guinness, and a beef stock cube (Oxo of course). Red or white wine is acceptable, provided you would be happy drinking it. If you want, you can add some tomato puree, although you don’t want to go overboard, probably a tablespoon is enough. Canned tomatoes are clearly out as well, this is not an Italian dish. A good dash of Lee Perrin’s and some Maggi liquid seasoning will add some depth. A pinch of white pepper and a teaspoon of salt will balance the gravy nicely.
As to the beef, you definitely want some fat in there to add to the gravy emulsion, but no gristle. The higher quality the better, some foodies will buy a joint and cut it up, rather than using the pre-packed supermarket variety, which inevitably are the leftover bits sold at a premium. The exact cut and choice is down to you, your bank balance and availability. The key is that all the pieces should be uniform in size, well seasoned, and that you bear in mind the poorer quality cuts of beef will take longer to cook. That said, a decent beef stew is a forgiving dish, but it has its limits. Frozen beef chunks from Iceland or tinned “Casserole” beef will not be welcome here.
For me, it has got to be creamy mashed potatoes , dumplings, and crusty, home-made, buttered bread to soak up the gravy. If it is a rush job, I’ll skip on the potatoes and bread, and rely on the dumplings for extra bulk.
The secret to a perfect creamy, mash is a potato ricer, lots of butter (and I do mean lots), a splash of milk and decent seasoning with salt, maybe a touch of pepper and garlic powder. It should have the perfect consistency, dense enough to hold shape, but not sloppy. You don’t need to go to the faff of heating the milk or butter. While you can use a traditional potato masher, the ricer will give you a smooth, luxurious, mash. If you are feeling posh, add some freshly chopped parsley or chives.
Home-made bread I’ve covered previously, no-knead bread is simplicity itself. Bake this before you add the casserole to the oven, and by the time it is cooked the bread will have firmed up nicely inside. You would struggle with oven temperatures (unless you have a double oven), to get the bread baked at the same time the stew finishes.
Tarragon dumplings are a breeze. 100g self-raising flour, 50g suet, 1/3rd of a tube garlic paste (measured from the rectangular end), 1/2 a small jar of dried tarragon. Add a generous touch of salt and pepper, a splash of water (maybe a couple or three tablespoons), and mix to a firm, but pliable dough. Cut into 4, then roll into balls, and add to your oven casserole 20 minutes before serving, or cook them for 10 minutes in the pressure cooker. You should gently “Float” the dumplings on top of the stew, and let the steam cook the top part. They should swell to at least twice their size, and be moist and full of garlicky, tarragon goodness. Note though, that some flour will probably leech into the gravy, and will give it extra thickness. You may need to add some additional stock or water to compensate, before cooking the dumplings.
Any other sides are up to you.
In a suitable bowl, add the stewing beef, and generously season with salt, pepper and garlic powder (if desired). If you are going to cook this on the stovetop or in the oven, dust with sufficient plain flour to coat the meat so that it absorbs all the moisture but is not overly “Caggy”. About a tablespoon will do 450g of beef. Omit this step if pressure cooking.
In the vessel of your choice melt a generous knob of butter and a tablespoon of olive or vegetable oil. Over a high heat, fry the meat off in small batches, trying not to over-crowd the pan. Remove meat to bowl, add some more butter and a touch of oil to the pan, and fry your finely diced carrots (2), large onion (1), and celery (if using) over a medium heat until softened. Meanwhile, wash and trim the button mushrooms, and dry on some kitchen roll. Peel and chop the remaining 2 carrots and cut into 1-2cm rounds. If adding other veg, prepare as necessary.
When the mirepoix is ready, fry off the crushed garlic for a minute, add a can of Guinness, a bottle of beer, or the equivalent amount of beef (or in a desperate push, chicken), stock. Clean all the fond off the pan by stirring and scraping with a spatula or a metal spoon, depending on your vessel. Add the carrots, mushrooms, other veg (if using), meat and season well (Lee Perrin’s, Maggi seasoning, tomato puree, salt, pepper and Oxo cube etc.). Stir well, and cook, covered, in a preheated medium oven, Fan 180, for at least 90 minutes, on the hob (on lowest, simmering heat), until the meat is tender to your liking, or in a pressure cooker for 60 minutes. Half an hour before serving, prepare and cook your sides, dumplings, veg and mash (if serving), adding the dumplings to the stew 20 before serving or 10 minutes if pressure cooking. If adding frozen peas, add 5 minutes before serving. If the stew is too thick, add a touch of stock. If too thin, thicken with some cornflour and water. Either way, remove the dumplings and heat the stew through to simmering, sitting continuously, to prevent the gravy splitting.
© Rookwood 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file