Three Stews

13th March 2006 Three Stews for Winter

It seems like there should be a whole book devoted just to stews. Every country, from Ethiopia to Hong Kong, Russia to Ireland, all have their own variant on a theme. The stew represents many things, notably, good homely cooking, often using inexpensive ingredients, it is easy to make and during inhospitably cold winters, it warms our cockles: in short, it is, quite possibly, the world’s favourite comfort foods.
Stews can be as fancy or as basic as your budget dictates. Beef shin is one of the cheaper cuts of meat and makes for a delicious, homely stew, with an almost glutinous, dark, thick gravy. My mother always throws in a handful of Pearl Barley, which puffs up and gives a nutty texture to the stew. Sliced carrots, sliced onions (and a whole onion to fight over!), maybe some swede. Served with mashed potatoes and Savoy cabbage it is the perfect meal to come home to on a cold night, and costs less than £2.00.

A variation on a stew for people on a budget would be a Hungarian Goulash (or, as I once misspelled it, Ghoulash. Well, it does come from Bela Lugosi country.) Diced beef (again, shin is perfect for it’s melt in the mouth properties) or pork shoulder perhaps, a green pepper or two, a stick of celery, a large chopped onion, liberally spiced with Paprika (I also add some Cayenne Pepper because I like my Goulash to be spicy) and simmered for as long as you like. Add some potato chunks about half an hour before you are ready to eat. The starch will thicken the sauce. I recently made Goulash on a Wednesday to serve on a Friday and each time I opened the fridge, it’s dark red, smoky/peppery scent would greet me and make me long for Friday night. By the time it was ready to eat, all the flavours had amalgamated fantastically and the beef was unbelievably tender. My husband makes little tiny egg dumplings, which he drops into the Goulash for ten minutes or until they have all bobbed to the surface. Serve with dollops of sour cream on a bed of plain boiled rice (or Tagliatelli noodles) and dusted with some more paprika – wow! The great thing about this dish is that there are many varieties of Paprika: Spanish, Hungarian, Russian...all have their own distinctive flavour, sweet, smoky, fiery. So, a Goulash can taste slightly or wildly different each time you prepare it.

If you go to France there are perhaps more types of stew than in any other country’s repertoire. Fish stews, Cassoulets, Coq Au Vin. Each recipe extracts every last ounce of flavour from its meat through slow, careful cooking. In the case of a Cassoulet, the stew is transformed into a work of culinary art. Belly Pork, Toulouse Sausages, Duck Legs or Chicken pieces and Butter Beans (or Haricot Beans) are simmered together with seasonings of fresh Thyme, Parsley, Garlic, Celery and Tomatoes, topped with a breadcrumb mixture which is baked on top to form a crust which hides it’s bubbling interior. It is a hearty, welcoming dish that takes time to prepare. According to certain strict French culinary guidelines, it must be made with white beans, duck (not chicken) and cooked in a stoneware dish (also called a Cassoulet, from the town Castelnaudry). It should be flavoured with a pig’s ear or tail. It must, unequivocally, contain only Toulouse sausages. The crust must be broken six times.
To fulfil all of these strange but charming rules would probably put most people off but the taste would surely be worth it. I made a Cassoulet this week using belly pork, Sainsbury’s version of Toulouse Sausages and some chicken drumsticks and thighs. The sausages seemed somewhat lost amongst all the other big flavours and I would just use regular good quality ones in future but the pork and chicken were amazingly tender: the chicken fell away from the bone and the pork became shreds as you cut into it. The flavour was rich and intense. A perfect dinner party stew as you can do most of the cooking the night before (as I did) and sprinkle the toasted breadcrumb/garlic/herb mixture on top for the essential crust and bake for 45minutes at 180c.

Spanish Oxtail with Prunes and Potatoes roasted with Tomatoes
I have pinched this recipe from but tweaked it slightly to suit.
A somewhat offally sounding dish, oxtail actually most resembles spares ribs, flavour-wise, although they are a bit fattier. Any sauce that they are cooked in is made gelatinously thick and luxurious. The best way to prepare oxtails in a day (many recipes suggest cooking one day, and skimming the fat off the next), stud an onion with cloves and place in a pan of cold water. Add the oxtail which should have been cut into chunks by your butcher, salt, bring to the boil, partially cover and simmer for 1 hour and a quarter. At the end of simmering time, the water will have a greyish sludgy scum risen to the top. This is good. This is the fatty, yuckmo stuff that you don’t want in your stew. Chuck away the onion, strain the oxtail pieces and dry well on kitchen paper. Toss the pieces in seasoned flour and fry in 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil until browned on all sides. This takes about 10 minutes. Keep warm in a separate dish. To the pan, add a large, finely chopped onion. Fry gently until soft and golden brown. To this add two sliced carrots, a bay leaf, a couple of twigs of thyme, some chopped parsley and 500g of prunes which have been soaked in sherry (note: I would use a lot less prunes if I made this again, possibly even half as many). Cook over a medium heat until the prunes start to soften and break up. Add 200ml red wine, 200ml beef stock, simmer for 20 minutes and then add the oxtail. I had to add a lot more water at this point because the sauce becomes very rich, sticky and reduced. Also, salt and pepper to taste. LOTS of salt because the prunes are incredibly sweet. The dish should be simmered for another 25 minutes. Served with diced potatoes roasted in the oven for 20 mins then coated in a simple tomato and garlic sauce for a further 20 minutes. I added some boiled curly kale for colour. My husband said he would have preferred it with plain boiled rice as it tasted distinctly oriental rather than Spanish, the prunes giving a sort of five-spice element.
I had never tried Oxtail before (excluding, of course, the archetypal school-hood soup) and was pleasantly surprised by it’s versatility. Whilst it is not meat heavy, what it lacks in bulk it more than makes up for in flavour. A couple of pieces of oxtail, prepared as above, boiled, seasoned and browned, added to a stew would be an economical way to make it go much, much further. After adding maybe 2 pints of water, the Spanish stew just kept on giving and could have been watered down further the next day. Any leftovers could be frozen.
Next time I prepare Oxtail, I would be interested in using more red wine, dried figs instead of prunes perhaps and more additional bulk to the dish, i.e. mushrooms, baby onions, perhaps some diced Swede to mirror the sweetness of the meat.
Incidentally, I’m having an argument with a work colleague about who makes the best chili. I say my husband (with the addition of a cube of Mexican chocolate) but my colleague insists on his wife. Such is the heated nature of chili and the legacy of family recipes.

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