You can't beat a good beef casserole, can you? When I was growing up, this -- ideally served with rhubarb crumble and custard to follow -- was pretty much my favourite dish. To this day, if there's a vaguely beef stew-type recipe on the menu, you can be reasonably assured that that's what I'll be ordering: goulash, boeuf bourguignon, hotpot...whatever, that's what I'll have (unless there's pie. You also can't beat a good pie). When I go to visit my parents, there's a better than even chance that my mum will have cooked me a casserole.
Funnily enough, even though I like to cook, it's not really a dish that I have ever prepared myself. Back in February this year, the Guardian ran an article on beef stew with dumplings in their "best ever...." cooking series. I don't know if you've ever seen them (and last week they did chile con carne, so it's well worth a look - I'll definitely be trying their 'no tomato' chili), but this is where they take a classic dish, try a number of variations and then come up with their definitive recipe. The comments below the articles are usually pretty good too, with readers offering their own tips and advice for cooking the dish in hand.
The discussion on the best ever beef stew seemed to largely focus on which cut of beef to use, in the end coming down firmly on the side of shin. The meat can be pretty sinewy, but when slow cooked for a long period of time, this sinew breaks down and helps to add depth and thickness to the gravy. There was also some discussion about whether or not beef stock or stout was the best liquid to add, concluding in the end that a mixture of both worked pretty well.
I saved the recipe, but it wasn't until I was at the farmer's market on Saturday morning and saw some Aberdeen Angus shin on sale that I actually decided I should give it a go. I love slow cooking dishes, and prepared this on Saturday evening to eat for tea on Sunday (like chile, this is one of those dishes that tastes better on the next day, and can there be a more satisfying meal to end the weekend?).
The texture and flavour of the shin was delicious as the meat dissolved right down into the sauce, but I'm still convinced that this can be improved. I seem to remember that Nigella uses anchovies in her beef stew recipe, and they disappear in the cooking but help to add a depth of flavour. I'll be cooking this again, but now I've done it once, I'm inclined to experiment around the edges a little.
I should cook more often. It's very therapeutic to spend some time in the kitchen preparing a meal with a glass of wine whilst listening to a bit of music.
If you're interested, here's the recipe. I thought the dumplings needed longer, and so simmered the last bit for an extra half hour or so, and I subsituted swede for turnip, but apart from that I made the dish as is (well, it looked a bit dry, so I added an extra 200ml or so of Guinness and a drop more beef stock too):
Perfect beef stew
Serves 4 – 6
800g shin of beef
2 tbsp flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
Beef dripping, butter or oil (I used butter)
2 onions, sliced
300ml beef stock
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs of thyme
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunky slices
2 small turnips, peeled and cut into chunks (I used swede)
For the dumplings:
100g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Small bunch of chives and parsley, finely chopped
1. Trim the beef of its outer sinew and cut into large chunks. Toss with the seasoned flour to coat. Heat a heavy-bottomed casserole or pan on a medium flame and add a knob of dripping or butter, or a couple of tablespoons of oil. Brown the meat in batches, adding more fat if necessary – be careful not to overcrowd the pan, or it will boil in its own juices – then transfer to a bowl. Scrape the bottom of the pan regularly to prevent any residue from burning.
2. Once all the meat is browned, add some more fat to the pan and cook the onions until soft and slightly browned. Add them to the beef and then pour in a little stock and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze it. Add the beef and onions, the rest of the stock and the stout, season, and add the herbs. Bring to the boil, then partially cover, turn down the heat, and simmer gently for two hours.
3. Add the carrots and turnips, and simmer for about another hour, until the meat is tender enough to cut with a spoon. Leave to cool, overnight if possible, and then lift the solidified fat off the top and bring to a simmer.
4. Meanwhile, make the dumplings by sifting the flour into a bowl and adding the rest of the ingredients and just enough cold water to bring it together into a dough. Roll it into 6 dumplings and add these to the stew. Partially cover and simmer for 25 minutes, then check the seasoning of the gravy, and serve with steamed greens.
I'm always interested in tips if you've got any you'd care to share. Proper soul food.... at least it is for me, anyway.