I was hoping to have a nice long piece to write today about the Colchester Oyster Festival (not to be confused with June’s Oyster Fayre) but sadly it seems that I don’t have enough nice things to say about it to do so. It was a shame, as I’d been looking forwards to it for some time. I’ll sum up with ‘disappointing’ and carry on, however look out in coming days for a whole piece on some lovely bee-keeping honey pedlars we met there.
Moving on with our tale, I had been planning on a Saturday night dinner of beef and oyster pie- which would have been a first for me. But there were no oysters to be had, well, not to take home anyway, so a quick revision was required. I already had a large amount of cow in the fridge and a bottle of Château Clarke begging to be consumed, so the story pretty much wrote itself from this point on. Beef Stew.
Beef stew is a personal and wider family favourite in my world, for numerous reasons, and it’s been a very long time since I made a beef stew I didn’t like. Not to say I have only one in my repertoire- au contraire as they say in Peckham, there are many strings to my bovine bow. A Flemish flamande with lots of dark beer, or a bourginon style with red wine and a creamy mash side, mayhap a Mediterranean take with lots of tomatoes and slow cooked chorizo lurking in the herby depths of the liquor. The options are somewhat boundless, which is one of the reasons I do so love this generic dish. In dire situations, all you need is a quick trip to the butchers and some store room staples. Or you can go all out, with trimmings and extras galore. You can go nuts with a beef stew, or dumb it down right to the bare essentials and still end up with a glorious and satisfying dinner.
Drooling yet? Well you should be, they’re all marvellous. But what follows is my current preference on the dish in question- honed from adaptations of Hairy Bikers’ instructions, tips from my father’s legendary Christmas Eve Beef Stew and years of strenuously tested little quirks and additions of my own. Please insert acknowledgement here to the older male sibling who has put in quite a bit of feedback over the years to aid the below recipe, which I can happily confirm as a crowd pleaser.
Before I get to the nitty gritty, I’ll take a moment of homage to the only cut of beef that ever makes it into my pot for such a meal, and that is shin. And it is always from my local butchers– good luck finding it shrink wrapped and pre packed in Sainsbury’s. Shin is for the win in my books as it is fantastically tasty and, when cooked properly, beautifully tender it really does melt in the mouth. But it does take a long time to cook- in raw form it’s as tough as a Glasgow granny- which makes it ideal for any kind of slow cook recipe but for heaven’s sake don’t ever expect it to make up a nice stir fry. It’s a thrifty choice too, generally a lot cheaper than your standard stewing steak cuts and so much nicer. Now that that’s done, we’ll begin.
Beef Stew with Horseradish Dumplings and Glazed Carrots
1 Kilo beef shin
4-5 Tbsp plain flour
Butter and olive oil for frying
5 medium white onions
1L beef stock
350ml real ale
250g button or closed cup mushrooms
3Tbsp redcurrant jelly
A couple of sprigs of thyme
200g self raising flour
1Tbsp horseradish sauce
6-8 Tbsp cold water
20-30 fresh chantenay or baby carrots
Start off by making up your stock- fresh is best but Kalo Organic beef stock cubes do a good job too. Set aside and dice your beef if you’ve not had the butcher do it for you, being careful to trim the fatty tissue around the outside of the cut as this does not cook down well. In a large bowl mix your plain flour with a good crack of black pepper and some salt, then sprinkle this over the beef until it is all lightly and evenly dusted. Put about a tablespoon of olive oil and a good nob of butter into a heavy based pan and heat until the butter is melted and mixed with the oil. Add your beef a little at a time, turning over in the oil until sealed, then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Slice your onions thinly then cook in the remaining beef juices- add some more olive oil or a spoonful of stock as needed to prevent sticking. Cook for three to four minutes until soft, but not yet translucent. Add the beef again, then pour in the ale and the beef stock and the sugar. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover, and go away and do something else for about an hour. Stir a few times if you feel the need.
NOTE- whilst sneaking a little taste of the liquor at any early point in this process is likely to result in hefty and bitter aftertaste of beer. This will mellow and fade as the natural sugars in the onions are released and you add further ingredients later. Don’t panic.
After this time stir the stew thoroughly then add your chopped mushrooms and the redcurrant jelly- stir again to incorporate the jelly. Cover and cook for a further 30 minutes, then add the thyme and further seasoning to taste.
At this point combine your suet and SR flour in a large bowl, add salt and pepper then 6 tablespoons of cold water. Stir- it should still be dry but coming together slightly. Now add the horseradish sauce and a little more water if needed until you have a stiff dough that’s not too sticky. If it’s too wet or really gluey add a sprinkle more flour. Divide in to 12 equal sections and roll into balls. Drop these into the stew and cover again. You now have fifteen minutes to yourself, you may wish to use this time to check the wine or tell your guests a short but entertaining story.
Wash the carrots and remove any stalks/roots et but keep them whole. Melt 30-40g of butter in a large frying pan with a pinch of salt. Once melted throw in the carrots and flip, shake and generally aggravate them for 6-8 minutes. Once they are warm through but still slightly crunchy, turn the heat right up and drizzle a 1 to 2 tablespoons of honey directly over them and continue to cook for another minute, moving the carrots around the pan all the time.
You are ready! I recommend serving with a large glass of nicer than usual red wine and some pleasant company where available.
Variations- Some prefer stout to ale but if you are doing this add more sugar when you add the beer and also an extra onion to combat the potential bitterness. This works equally well with some creamy mashed potatoes if dumplings aren’t your thing or even with some crusty white bread and butter. You can forego the beer completely if you wish just add some extra stock. For the dumplings you can skip the horseradish and have fresh herbs instead or just lots and lots of black pepper for an alternative with some real kick. And if you don’t have some pleasant company to share it with, eat it infront of some good TV and be glad there is no-one to see you lick the bowl clean!