This is pretty a pretty unglamorous meal – well, I guess it’s kind of 1960s/70s glamorous – but it’s really so very nice, and who need constant glamour in their food anyway? I have no use for glamour in food if the food itself is boring. Incidentally, the 1960 and 70s get a pretty bad rap for their cuisine but I don’t much care for bashing the tides of fashion in food – if it’s good, it’s good, even if it is naff.
Okay, when I say I don’t care for bashing food fashions this is something of a small lie. For a start I believe whole-heartedly that there’s no excuse for anything in aspic. Particularly not fried chicken drumsticks and peas. Or peas, carrots and ham. It seems like I have a problem here with peas, but I love peas, they just should not be jellied. Nothing should. I really don’t like jelly. If you look at basically any cookbook from the 70s there will be at least 15 recipes for stuff in jelly. I secretly believe that the reason the food in recipe books from the 70s was so awful is because everybody was doing so much coke that they never bothered to actually eat the food, it was all just for display. That said, there is plenty of food synonymous with that period that, although dated, is really great. Like everyone making everything a quiche. And the fact that any French food, no matter how provincial, was the epitome of glamour and good taste.
Which brings us rather conveniently back to stew: the French have a many, varied list of them which are sold rather short by the bloody awful english word, stew. To be perfectly frank stew is sold short by the word stew. I’m a big fan of the one pot meal–I’m an eternal lover of soups despite Andy’s insistence that soup is not a meal–but I have a strong preference for a clean, unthickened broth, without that velvety, gelatinous quality so often prized in soups and stews. Did I mention that I don’t like jelly? I’d just like to be clear about this. So I prefer to lengthen the stock a little and leave out the flouring of the meat. If this is your bag add it in, by all means. This is sort of half way between a Boeuf Bourguignon and a Pot au Feu. With caraway seeds. It makes a lot.
Note: This takes a long time, allow four hours (although it probably won’t take that long), it’s a thing to do on a rainy weekend day. Also, don’t chop up the celeriac until you want to use it as it discolours quickly when exposed to the air. I wouldn’t bother farting around with an acidulated bowl of water, but if you have to that would be fine.
A delicious Melange for 6
1.5 kg gravy beef
15 small onions, pickling sized onions if you can get them
1 cup red wine (or whatever you’ve got left in the bottle)
2 tsp whole caraway seeds
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of thyme
2-3 parsley stalks
a strip of orange zest
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 litre beef stock
18ish small field mushrooms, or swiss brown if they’re not too expensive
3-4 good sized carrots, peeled and cut in wide, angled slices
1 celeriac, peeled and cut in chunks about the same size as the carrot
olive oil (maybe)
Cut the beef into large chunks, at least twice the size you would normally expect a chunk of meat in a stew to be – four or five inches, say. Trim off any excess fat, but don’t go crazy. Heat a large, enamelled pot. Fry the pieces in batches, aiming to brown all over. You may have to put a little oil in the pot depending on how fatty your meat is – just enough for a thin film on the bottom. This takes a good bit of time and you will get a much better result if you don’t crowd the pot. It will smoke quite a lot, accept it. Put the browned meat on a plate that will catch any juices.
While you are browning the meat peel that onions but leave them whole, trimming the ends. If there is lots of fat in the pot after frying the meat pour off most of it, if there’s almost nothing add a little olive oil. Brown the onions as you did the beef, in this case you can just do them all at once. You just want a little colour, but it’s not critical.
Return the beef and any juices to the pot and turn up the heat until you can hear a loud sizzling. Add the wine and let it bubble and quickly reduce a little in the hot pot. Use a wooden spoon to loosen the nice crunchy bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Put in the caraway, the herbs, orange zest, and garlic and as much freshly ground pepper as you personally like along with 3/4 of the stock. Bring up to the boil and skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to a mere simmer, press a piece of baking paper onto the surface of the liquid, put the lid on and leave it alone for 2 hours. If your stove really only differentiates between ON and OFF then you may prefer to put it in a preheated oven at 160-170°C instead. Also a useful option if you want to use the stove for a few other things like making eternal children’s meals (which they won’t eat).
After two hours check the meat to see how tender it is, if it’s still at all tough or chewy, put it back on the heat for at least another 40 minutes before bothering to check it again. Once it is tender enough to be edible add in the mushrooms, carrots, and celeriac. Check the level of the stock, making sure the vegetables are covered enough to cook properly. If not, use the reserved stock to top the pot up a little. Put the baking paper and the lid back on then put on the heat until the vegetables are cooked through – about 40 minutes. Taste the broth and add some salt if you think it’s needed. Serve sprinkled with freshly chopped parsley and, for my taste, heavy brown bread. you want plenty of the broth too, it’s lovely, like an unclarified consommé.
Ironically, because of the cooked out sinews in the meat, the broth, when cold, will become jelly. It reheats very nicely though and in fact might be even better the next day.