I love these crisp frosty mornings —fortunately my commute is just two or three minutes across the courtyard to the converted apple barn that has housed the Ballymaloe Cookery School for more than 20 years now, so I don’t have to worry about icy roads. Instead I daydream about the unctuous stew or casserole I’ll make for supper, so this week I thought I’d share some of my favourites.
Can you imagine anything better to look forward to than a bubbling pot of deliciousness, if you have a magic slow cooker or crock pot the aroma will greet you when you arrive home, battle-weary, after a day’s work — what could be more comforting?
There are a couple of golden rules to making a really good stew, choose the less expensive cuts of meat, more muscular such as shoulder or breast of lamb that benefit from slow cooking, flank or shin or beef, chicken thighs rather than breast which dries out easily.
Some cubes of fat streaky bacon or pickled pork add richness and a base of aromatic vegetables adds sweetness. Onions, carrots, celery, perhaps a few cloves of garlic or a sprig or two of woody herbs are key.
Keep both the vegetables and the meat nice and chunky so they don’t disintegrate during the long slow cooking. Sear the cubes of meat in a little goose fat or olive oil on a hot pan to start with. This simple step caramelises the meat juices and adds extra flavour, then toss the vegetables in the pan before adding to the stew pot or casserole, stock will add so much more flavour than water but a dash of wine, cider or beer, though not essential, adds complexity.
The seasoning is all important; a generous sprinkling of good salt and freshly ground black pepper early on will be absorbed in to the dish. You can taste and correct the seasoning at the end but it’s difficult to get it right if you’ve forgotten to season earlier.
For stewing and braising, the cooking temperature is crucial, it must be slow cooking, reduce the heat the moment the liquid comes to the boil, cover the pot and keep it at a mere simmer until the meat is meltingly tender, 80°C is perfect — what food writer Jane Grigson called “a mummer” with the liquid swirling gently but only bubbling now and then. Boiling ruins a stew.
Remember, traditionally only the meat from older more mature animals was used for stewing. The flavour was richer and during long slow cooking the connective tissue dissolves into gelatine which adds a silky texture to the finished dish. I also like to include some bone in the stew, it adds an extra depth of flavour — ask your butcher for a couple of slices of marrow bone to add to a beef stew; it adds really magic. Now at last we can get more mature animals, chat to your family craft butcher they’ll know the provenance of the meat.
Here are a few of my favourite winter warmers ideal for batch cooking, for you, your family and friends to enjoy. Happy New Year!
Vegetable and Tofu Curry
You’ll love this curry, even ardent curry haters can’t get enough of this deliciously spiced dish. It’s also an excellent base for other additions such as chunks of cooked potato.
Combine the garlic, chilli, citrus zest, chopped coriander leaves and stalks, cashew nuts, ginger, turmeric, cumin and 1 teaspoon of salt in a food processor and whizz to a chunky or smooth purée, depending on your preference. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, stir in the garlic and ginger purée and cook for 3–4 minutes, stirring.
Whisk in the coconut milk and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 8–10 minutes. Add the chunks of sweet potato or pumpkin and return to the boil. Cover the pan with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cauliflower florets and tofu chunks and bring back to the boil, then cover and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
Add the French beans and simmer for a further 2–3 minutes, uncovered, until all of the vegetables are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper, and squeeze over a little lemon or lime juice, to taste. Sprinkle with lots of coriander and serve with lemon or lime wedges.
Lamb and Pearl Barley Stew and Fresh Herb Gremolata
A substantial pot of stew fortified with pearl barley, this is really good with lots of gremolata sprinkled over the top. It is a variation of Irish stew, which is the quintessential one-pot dish — the recipe for the original Ballymaloe version can be found in my Forgotten Skills of Cooking book.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.
First make the stew. Cut the rind off the bacon and cut into approx 1cm (½ inch) cubes. Divide the lamb into 8 pieces and roll in the well-seasoned flour.
Heat a little oil in a 25cm (10 inch)/3.2-litre casserole over a medium heat and sauté the bacon until crisp. Remove to a plate. Sauté the mushrooms, season well and set aside. Add the lamb to the casserole in batches, with a little more olive oil if necessary, and sauté until golden.
Heat control is crucial here: the pan mustn’t burn, yet it must be hot enough to sauté the lamb. If the pan is too cool, the lamb will stew rather than sauté and as a result the meat may be tough. Remove the lamb to a plate. Add another splash of olive oil to the pan and sauté the onions, carrots and parsnips until golden. Return the bacon and lamb to the casserole, together with the pearl barley. Season well, pour in the stock, add the thyme and bring to a simmer.
Cover with a lid and transfer to the oven for 1–1¼ hours until meltingly tender; the cooking time will depend on the age of the lamb and how long it was sautéed for. Add the mushrooms about 30 minutes before the end.
Meanwhile, make the gremolata: Mix together the chopped herbs and garlic in a small bowl, add the lemon zest and season to taste with a little flaky salt.
Once the casserole is cooked, remove the thyme and season to taste. Leave the casserole to sit for 15–30 minutes to allow the pearl barley to swell. (If necessary, the casserole can be reheated later in the day, or the next day.) Serve bubbling hot, sprinkled with the gremolata.
Venison and Parsnip Stew
If time allows, get this started the day before, the flavour will be even better. Baked potatoes work brilliantly with venison stew but a layer of potatoes on top provide a wonderfully comforting meal in one pot. Scatter lots of fresh parsley over the top.
Season the venison well and soak in the marinade ingredients for at least an hour or better still overnight. Drain the meat well, pat it dry on kitchen paper and turn in seasoned flour. Meanwhile, brown the pork or bacon in olive oil in a heavy casserole, cooking it slowly at first to persuade the fat to run, then raising the heat.
Transfer to a large bowl. Next sauté the mushrooms in batches on a high heat, season with salt and freshly ground pepper and transfer to a plate, keep aside to be added later. Add a little more olive oil to the casserole, brown the venison in batches and add to the bacon.
Add the onion, carrot, parsnip and garlic to the casserole, with a little more olive oil if necessary, toss and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add to the bacon and venison in the bowl. Do not overheat or the fat will burn. Pour off any surplus fat, deglaze the casserole with the strained marinade, bring to the boil.
Add back in the venison, bacon, vegetables and garlic and enough stock to cover the items in the casserole. Put in the bouquet garni, bring to a gentle simmer on top of the stove. Cover tightly with the lid of the casserole. Transfer to the oven and cook until the venison is tender.
Test after 1½ hours, cover the entire stew with the peeled potatoes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, cover with a paper lid and the lid of the casserole and continue to cook for another hour approx. until both the venison and potatoes are cooked. Add back in the cooked mushrooms, return to the boil for 2-3 minutes.
Finally taste the sauce, it will need seasoning and perhaps a little acidity, use lemon juice or a couple of spoons full of crab apple jelly. Serve with a nice big dish of brussels sprouts, calabrese or cabbage and some horseradish sauce. Scatter with lots of freshly chopped parsley.
Good to know: For the best results, cook this kind of dish one day and then reheat the next, this improves the flavour and gives you a chance to make sure that the venison is really tender.
Sausage and Beans with Tomato and Rosemary
A gorgeous pot of bean stew, so warm and comforting for an autumn or winter supper. Use your favourite juicy heritage pork sausages.
Drain the beans and save the cooking water if you have cooked them yourself.
Meanwhile, sweat the chopped onion gently in olive oil in a wide saucepan until soft but not coloured, approx 7-8 minutes add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, add the chopped tomato and their juice, add the cooked beans, and chopped rosemary.
Simmer for 5-6 minutes add some of the bean liquid if necessary and season well with salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar. Fry the sausages in a few drops of olive oil, on a medium heat, when coloured on all sides, add to the bean stew.
Continue to cook for 5-6 minutes or until the sausage is hot through. (Chorizo does not need to be cooked ahead.) Scatter with lots of flat parsley and chervil and serve with a salad of organic leaves.
Note: The mixture should be juicy but not swimming in liquid.