Friday, January 30, 2009

Let It Simmer

Who would have thought that I - someone who is an aficionado of elegant fare in the kitchen - would fall head over heels in love with stew, and be the one to extol the majesty of beef stew in all its gloppy glory?

Stews are bringers of contentment to a discontented world, high in the ranks with freshly baked bread and cakes, guaranteed to fill a kitchen with such a sense of abundance. Stews are the most forgiving dishes and seem to possess an organic vitality independent of the cook. Under their tight-shut lid they can be allowed to simmer away for hours on end, and whilst the aromas of bay and wine pervades through air, benevolent unions and fusions are taking place in the pot.

Ironically, being “in a stew’ is a description of sweaty anxiety when, in fact, the food is a balm for the fretful: a slow, voluptuous yielding, long bundles of fibre softening in a gently bubbling bath of yeasty beer - in the recipe of Belgian Carbonade. Stews are irrefutably wintry comforts but they are also sure-fire proof against dirty weather, hot or cold.

Despite with promised joy in the consumption of a richly cooked stew, it is rarely featured in the menus of ambitious contemporary restaurant. I suspect it’s because their messiness doesn’t sit quite well in a plating culture that wants you to ooh and aah at presentation that are often exquisite and sublimely beautiful. Stewing meat of whatever kind is never cute; it’s the slob on a plate, leaking incontinently towards the beckoning mash and beautifully tanned bruschetta.

With winter biting and gloomy nights look set to linger, my craving for gratifying, oozing, life sustaining stews becomes irresistible, and what could be better than a nourishing Pot of Pleasure. Moreover, when left alone overnight, gathering of richness and intensification of flavour would ensued, in other words, it will just keep getting better.

Belgian Carbonade
A rich stew of beef and onions cooked in beer
Serves 2
Ready in 3 hours and 30 minutes

1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 garlic clove, finely chopped
500g beef brisket or stewing beef, trimmed of fat and cut into 3 cm cubes
50g chopped bacon or gammon
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
200g baby potatoes, halved
1 tbsp plain flour
200ml brown ale
200ml hot beef sock
1 tsp brown sugar
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Slices of crusty bread and mashed potato, to serve

  • Heat a little olive oil and butter in a large nonstick pan and lightly fry the bacon pieces till slightly coloured. Transfer to a large pot.
  • Brown the beef on all sides (don't overcrowd the pan or the meat will steam, not brown, and add a little more oil if needed). When nicely browned, tip them into the pot.
  • Cook the onion in the pan until golden. Add garlic, then the carrots and potatoes till they took on a vivid glaze.
  • Stir flour into the pan and add the brown ale gradually, stirring constantly to remove any sediment at the bottom of the pan. Heat until simmering and pour over the beef and vegetables in the pot.
  • Add the stock, sugar, bay leaf, thyme, and a sprinkle of herbes de provence (an aromatic blend of dry herbs - thyme rosemary, basil, marjoram, oregano & tarragon). Cover and wish it a happy simmer over low heat on the stove for 2 hours and 30 minutes. Do poke your nose in the pot from time to time to check for dwindling juice.
  • Add the balsamic vinegar, season with salt and pepper, replace lid and simmer for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the mashed potato and bruschetta to serve with the stew.

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