Right, confession time.
This was meant to be a Generic Lazy Blog Post.
Oh come on, you know the sort, especially if you write a blog yourself. Sometimes us bloggers hit a brick wall and just don’t know what to write about. We just scratch and scrabble around for something vaguely interesting to cook or write about, but you can tell that there’s no heart in it.
You can spot this type of post a mile off.
Often, they involve infographics or start with ‘some random person sent me this list of questions, and I’m about to bore you with the answers’…
Some people plan for this sort of crisis, storing up a couple of posts for a rainy day, honed and perfected over months and months, just sitting there ready to push the button at times of great existential writing angst, just to tide things over until the doom of writer’s block lifts.
I’m not one of those writers. I used to be, but I ran out of Emergency Posts ages ago.
So, this was supposed to be something quick and simple to kick-start my writing and cooking brain again after a couple of weeks of being otherwise occupied.
I often use cooking as a way of creating some space in my life, as a way of relaxing and taking stock of things. There have been many times where silently plotting a new curry recipe, for example, has dragged me through the shittest of days.
I know that, even if things fall apart, I can still knock out a decent bit of North Indian fare in the evening, and sometimes, that’s all that matters.
Today was a little different, though. Today was about the simplest type of cooking, a dish of simple ingredients cooked in a simple way, with nothing more than time needed to bring it together. A dish that, if the kitchen is the heart of the house, became the soul of the kitchen as it bubbled and simmered for an afternoon on the hob.
So, beef, slow cooked in stout or porter, with dumplings.
This is about the marriage of beef and ale, so take care to get both right. The beef should be a substantial cut with some marbling – the fat will give the finished dish a superb glossy sheen. Shin is ideal.
For the beer, DO NOT use Guinness. Too big a cliché for this type of recipe, and not a particularly good beer. There are far better dark ales out there. I used a couple of bottles of Acorn Brewery’s Old Moor Porter this time – smokey, deep, rich with licorice and chocolate tones, pleasantly bitter.
Other real ales will do. Lagers will not. Dark beers like stout or porter work best.
Start with some bacon or pancetta. 250g should do, and if you can get it in a block, so much the better. I found some bacon chops and used those, but a chunk of home-made pancetta would be astonishing here.
Chop the pork into chunks about a centimetre square and fry in a large pan in a little olive oil until browned. Set aside.
Do the same with a kilo of shin beef, this time cut into more substantial chunks, a good two or three centimetres across. The usual advice applies – small batches, don’t crowd the pan, open a window to let the smoke out.
Next, and in the same pan, the one crusted on the bottom with all sorts of unctuous meaty goodness, fry 500g of peeled baby onions, the type you’d buy for pickling, until they’re browned. Don’t worry about the whole onions…they’re going to cook for so long that they’re going to fall apart and melt into the sauce.
Now the contentious part. You need to get some flour – about 50g – into the pan to help the sauce thicken. There are a couple of ways of doing this. The first is to dust the beef with flour before you fry it off, but I find that leaves a slightly burnt taste behind, and a residue of black sludge at the bottom of the pan.
The other way is to transfer some of the meat, a couple of big spoonfuls, back into the pan along with the onions, add the flour and stir everything around vigorously. The idea is to make an impromptu roux using the fat on the meat and in the bottom of the pan. It’ll be rough, but don’t worry.
Slowly start to add some of the beer in the same way you would milk to a bechamel sauce, a little at a time, stirring all the time. A sauce should start to form, thick and lump free. Add more beer.
Once about half of the required one litre of beer is in, add the rest of the meat and any juices from the plate and add the rest of the beer, stirring well.
You need herbs. A couple of bay leaves, a couple of sprigs of thyme and some chopped parsley stalks should do the trick, along with a generous seasoning of salt and pepper.
Cover the pan, and turn the heat down to the absolute barest minimum possible and leave it for eternity, or at least three or four hours, stirring every now and again. You could also do this in the oven, on a really low heat, maybe 120c. You need to get this all going just after lunch if you want to have it for your tea/dinner.
About an hour before you want to eat, chop 250g of big, flat mushrooms into 5mm slices, and quarter another 250g of big button mushrooms. Flash them in a frying pan with butter to start them cooking and then add them to the casserole. The mushrooms layer in yet another level of flavour and take the finished dish in a slightly different, more refined direction.
Or at least I like to think they do.
With half an hour to go, make up some dumplings from 100g of self-raising flour, 50g or suet, a handful of chopped parsley, salt, pepper and water. Spoon the mixture directly into the pan, seal with a tightly fitting lid and let steam for at least twenty minutes.
Please note: there is ABSOLUTELY NO POINT WHATSOEVER in making this recipe if you don’t make the dumplings too.
This is incontrovertible fact.
From Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book, but really, you could get away with calling this a ‘traditional recipe’. No reason not to buy this book, though. It’s a monster.