Sunday, 9 October 2011

In a stew about gravy

Some things are best forgotten; left well hidden in the attic of memory, buried away behind the other clutter.

But memories, no matter how deeply interred, have a habit of popping up unexpectedly and coming back to haunt you.

Slouched in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon, wind rattling the plane trees outside, i was delighting to the joys of Nigel Slater's Eating for England, when a brief section suddenly threw the words 'gravy granules' out from the page and directly at me.

From the tender comforts of nostalgia for custard creams and mint cracknel - the latter of which I hadn't hear of in years, the former of which the same book has had me wanting instantly - I found myself slapped across the face by the wet fish of embarrassing memory.

I have to admit that there was a time when the kitchen cupboard housed tubs of beef, chicken and vegetable gravy granules.

That was bad enough, but then more detail flooded through: memories of serving Birds Eye frozen chicken burgers (the breadcrumbed ones, not those with something like Rice Crispies over them).

I felt mortified at the thought. But at least it serves as an illustration of what a difference a decade or so can make.

Mr Slater has a lot to answer for. But he also provided me with the roots of an interesting challenge this weekend.

The first chapterette in the aforementioned book talks of stew - of the great English stew a creation of diced meat, diced vegetables, a jug of water and a bay leaf, all of which comes together as something that is, almost at best, bland.

He compares it, pithily, to the casserole traditions of France, Italy and Spain, with the addition of booze (in the first case, at least) and the use of various herbs and spices.

Returning to the attic of memory - but deliberately this time, and with care - I rooted around for memories of maternal stews.

She cooked a stew rarely and, when she did, it was on a Saturday for a late lunch: it would have some meat of other, together with assorted veg, pearl barley and liquid.

I remember nothing more specific - except the slices of bread that we mopped up with at the end.

As I've mentioned before, she didn't believe in onion - not in an atheistic way, of course, but I have never known her have one in the house, whether a cooking onion ordinaire, one of the red variety or even the milder shallot.

Her culinary belief system did seem to understand that onions were occasionally required, but that was achieved by rehydrating some Whitworths dried fragments in an old, enamelled tin mug and then popping it in the cooking pot.

Well a least that's how I remember things - and I'm not getting the ladder back out and going back into that attic right now to see if I can find more detail.

But all this set me to considering a stew for Sunday, instead of the pot roast I had been contemplating as a way of christening the Le Crueset oval casserole.

I wanted to cook without any specific recipe, but that didn't mean a lack of research before I stepped into the kitchen this afternoon.

Elisabeth Luard's European Peasant Food offered clues in a number of recipes for classic dishes that seemed a tad more authentic than most versions I'd seen before.

For instance, meat was usually caramelised in lard or dripping instead of the currently obligatory 'healthy' option of oil - Which? magazine actually once criticised a Rick Stein book for including dishes involving cream and butter.

And the cooking time was also often considerably longer than I'd usually seen: for instance, I'd never seen a recipe for a daube that saw it cooked for four hours at 120˚C. That was information that I stored for use.

I've also got poor - albeit gradually improving - understanding of cuts of meat. More research suggested that for such a dish, I should use blade (or chuck, as it's also) known. Sure enough, Matthew had some.

It was beautiful meat, delightfully marbled (see picture at the top). This afternoon, I cut it into pieces (large bite size) and then diced onion, celery and carrot - the holy trinity of the mirepoix - plus parsnip.

The meat was browned in dripping first, then removed and replaced with the vegetables.

Once they were softened and a little golden, a tablespoon of plain flour was added, stirred in and allowed to cook through for. Minute, before I started deglazing with Wychwood's Scarecrow organic golden pale ale.

Once it had stopped thickening, I added a couple of springs of thyme, some seasoning and then the meat, topping up the liquid to just cover.

Then it went into the pre-heated over at 115˚C, since I was using a fan oven.

After tasting on 90 minutes, it was a rather bitter - but not in the way the beer would have been if you'd been drinking it out of a glass. I sprinkled in a little demerera, drizzled on a little Maggi sauce, stirred in a decent squirt of tomato purée and turned up the temperature about five degrees. An hour later, this seemed to have sweetened matters - a little.

Later still, something hit me: all the remaining bitterness had gone, leaving something with lovely layers of developing flavour, a general sweetness at the front and a hint of sourness later.

In the past, I've wondered whether I've done something wrong when I've tried meat 'n' beer dishes: they always seemed to have that bitterness. Is that really what the Flemish intended with the traditional carbonade?

The problem, I now realise, is that most modern recipes in the UK seem to regard 'long, slow cooking' as meaning two hours at the max. Presumably, British cooks are assumed to be somehow incapable of cooking anything for any longer – are we too impatient?

For the final 45 minute's cooking, I added dumplings, made of self-raising flour, mustard powder, shredded suet, seasoning, chopped parsley and a little chilled water.

Having left this dish for over four hours, it took a mere one bite to realise that there's a substantial difference when you seriously cook for longer.

I've been curious about slow cooking for some time, but had been struggling to find recipes that seemed to involve anything that was genuinely slow – apart from a Heston Blumenthal belly pork dish that took nine hours.

What a shame I hadn't bothered studying Luard's book earlier and in more detail! With the feeling that I've enjoyed a really tasty success today, I'm going to be studying the book further and actually trying some of the specific recipes - not the least the daube. No wonder my previous efforts have never tasted as I know, in my gut, the dish should!

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