Latest Column from Tom Parker Bowles
A few years back, in the dark days of British gastronomy, stew was a dirty word. Here was a dish that seemed cheap and dreary, a bowl of mean necessity rather than delectable sophistication. So if chefs wanted to flog their slow-cooked mass of beef or lamb, they’d name it ‘casserole’. Hidden behind this veneer of Gallic élan, the humble one pot classic suddenly became the height of European chic.
But however you describe this ancient dish – braise, pot roast, hotpot or ragout – there’s no doubting its appeal. Tough cuts of meat – the ones that have actually done some work on a beast – are slow cooked in liquid until all that collagen breaks down. The result is sweet, silken and succulent strands of meat that can be cut with a spoon.
I once asked Marco Pierre White about the technical difference between a stew, braise and casserole. He paused for a second and I moved closer, so as to capture every last pearl of wisdom issuing forth. Then he smiled and said, ‘No bloody difference at all.’
Stew is a forgiving dish too, suitable for even the most cack-handed amateur. As it uses the less venerated cuts, from shin of beef and oxtail to breast of lamb and shoulder of pork, stew is a cheap dish, but should never be a mean one. And any carnivorous culture will have its own version. I’ve eaten Cochinia pibil in Mexico, where great chunks of pork are marinated in orange juice and annatto (a vivid red paste made form the seeds of the achiote tree). I’ve devoured offal stuffed kare kare in the Philippines, paprika charged Hungarian goulash, Japanese chankonabe and more versions of pot au feus in France that I can remember. Back home, there are endless regional variations; the crisp topped beauty of a proper Lancashire hotpot; Lobscouse, or Scouse, a classic Liverpudlian stew with roots in the far north of Europe. And cawl, the Welsh national dish that is as delicate and elegant a concoction as you’ll ever taste, along with the steadfastly robust steak and ale stew, best served atop a great mound of buttery mashed potato.
There are few set rules when it comes to stew. I like to brown my meat first. Not because it ‘seals’ in the juices (it doesn’t), rather it gives another layer of caramelised flavour to the finished dish. Use a searing hot pan and brown (not ‘grey’) the meat in small batches so they don’t overcrowd the pan. A good cast iron casserole is essential, As to the actual liquid, you can use anything from wine and beer to orange juice, beef stock and passatta. Many need nothing apart from water. The slow cooked meat infuses the liquid and creates it own stock. And that’s the joy. From the simplest ingredients comes edible joy, blissfully tender pieces of meat, lolling in the richest of sauces. It’s the very definition of winter comfort.
Mexican Beef Stew
This has chipotle at its heart, dried and smoked jalapenos. They have a wonderful rich depth and really make the stew. They can be bought online from The Cool Chile Co. It’s not exactly authentically Mexican, but very easy to make. Serves 4
Olive oil, a fat glug
2 lbs braising steak or shin, cut into inch cubed chunks
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
700g jar of passata
Big pinch Mexican oregano
4-8 chopped chipotles, soaked for about an hour first in warm water.
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
Big pinch of sea salt
Big bunch coriander, chopped
Pot of sour cream
Grated cheddar cheese, a handful
1. Brown meat, in batches. Then add onions and garlic and soften.
2. Add passata, vinegar, salt, chillies, garlic, bay leaves and oregano
3. Cook for 2 hours 20, covered, in oven at 150c.
4. Serve with fresh tortillas, sours cream, coriander and grated cheese.
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