I had friends from England coming to stay for the weekend and wanted to invite more chums for dinner on the Friday night, but didn’t want to spend too much precious time away from my guests preparing the meal. I needed a menu where I could prepare much of the meal well in advance. The obvious choice for the main course is a stew, which will only improve by having a day or two in the fridge to enable its flavours to deepen. My style of cooking is to keep it as simple as possible without compromising on flavour, so a well flavoured beef stew which only needs the accompaniment of a plain boiled potatoes or noodles, fits the bill.
In the storecupboard are some lovely dried ceps and chanterelles that my friends Ali and Peter brought back from one of their trips for me, so they will add richness and depth to my stew.
While checking through my storecupboard, I came across some mini pastry tartlets left over from Christmas, so I thought they could make the basis of the starter. Prawns bound together with egg custard and flavoured with chives fresh from the garden. There are plenty of fresh green leaves in the garden, rocket, coriander and various endives, with which to surround the tartlets.
And why not continue the storecupboard theme in the pudding? As fruit on the farm comes into season, we generally eat as much as possible fresh, but there are nearly always surpluses which if there is a lot would get preserved in syrup in jars, and if a small amount would be cooked and then frozen. Of the frozen there is a choice between red plums or caramelised pears. I fancy the tart plums with a crumble topping made in the usual way but with the addition of oats and crushed hazelnuts to add some extra texture and flavour. I did the crumbles in little individual ramekins so that once cooked all I needed to do was add a scoop of plain ice cream to them.BEEF AND CEP STEW
Pork fat, cut into tiny cubes
Stewing beef, preferably with some streaks of fat in it
Flour seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper
Stew vegetables – onion, carrot, garlic, celery, leek.
I have been deliberately vague about the amounts that you need in this recipe, as it depends on how many people you are feeding, and what size of appetites they have. Plus stew making is not an exact science, so you can add and substract depending on ingredients available and personal taste.
For this stew I wanted the flavour of plenty of vegetables in it, but without being able to see them. So to begin with cut up all the stewing vegetables and added them to the stock in a large saucepan. Heat and then leave to simmer for at least half an hour or until the vegetables are very tender. Put the stock and vegetables through the coarse disk of a mouli so that you have a thin vegetable puree.
Put your mushrooms in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to just cover them. Leave them to soak and reconstitute.
Next render the pork fat in a large shallow pan on a very low heat until all the fat has melted out of the pork. Pork fat is great for giving extra flavour, so when you are trimming pork of its excess fat, cut it into little cubes as you go along and keep it in small amounts in the freezer.
Cut the beef into pieces roughly 5 cm by 3 cm. Dust liberally with the seasoned flour and then brown and seal the pieces in the fat, turning to make sure that they are sealed on all sides. If you are cooking a large amount of beef, then brown the pieces a few at a time.
Once all the beef pieces are browned return them all to the pan and put in the stock enriched with vegetables to almost cover the beef. Drain the mushrooms reserving the juice and add them to the beef. Stir in. Add enough of the mushroom juice to just cover the beef, saving the rest in case it will be needed later to moisten the stew. Note that quite often there is a bit of grit in dried mushrooms, so when using the juice let any sediment settle to the bottom of it, and then pour the good carefully from the top leaving the last bit in the container.
Bring the stew to a simmer and cook very slowly for at least four hours. I have to admit that here is where I have a secret weapon, the wood burning oven featured above. I get this up to 180 degrees centigrade, put my stew in and let it bubble for a while and then I don’t add any more fuel at all. I let the stew cook all night in the slowly cooling oven. The result is a richness to the stew and a tenderness to the meat that is just superb. So do do try to replicate this method, and don’t be afraid of cooking your stew over a long period of time. Modern ovens are well insulated, so bring your stew to a simmer on the hob, put it in the oven at the above temperature for 40 minutes, then turn off the heat and go to bed. Try not to eat the stew for breakfast.
The next day once the stew is cool enough, put it in the fridge until needed. It will be fine for 2-3 days.
I like to serve stews with a Gremolata. Which is simply finely chopped parsley, garlic and finely grated lemon rind. Put a bowl of it on the table for your guests to season their stew with.