Although the air is crisp and fresh, the food I intend to eat at this time of year certainly isn’t. I love to walk outside and breathe in lungfuls of the autumnal wood-smokey air (reasonably far away from the roundabout on which I live, there is an abundance of pollution here), bundled up in coat, gloves and hat, the little poppy badge of honour proudly displayed on my lapel. All of a sudden it is November. ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November.’
My colleague is from Canada. As we prep the week’s food we will chat about, what else, food, places to eat, and what we did on our days off, the usual work chit-chat. I asked Peter his plans for Bonfire Night. This is a new special occasion for him, something we Brits hold close to our hearts – who doesn’t love standing in a soggy field straining your neck to watch enormous fireworks explode across the sky. ‘Yeah, I don’t really get it,’ says Peter with a dismissive brush of his hand, ‘especially burning a revolutionary on a bonfire every year.’
Admittedly, that does sound bad, and no it’s not a real revolutionary. The effigy of Guy Fawkes, the Catholic anarchist who was found guarding barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords, is usually a scarecrow or a jumble of plastic and cloth with a masked face, yet people don’t traipse to the parks or funfairs to watch this effigy burn in vindictive pleasure. We go for the fireworks illuminating the night sky, the sticky toffee apples covered in fluff from your gloves, the candy floss, the mulled cider, hot dogs and merry-go-rounds. Bonfire night has taught us that eating outdoors always tastes better.
So, to complement the fresh, cold season the food is the polar opposite – hearty, warming and stodgy. What could be better Bonfire night fare? Last week I rustled up Nigel Slater’s Bonfire night sausages. The casserole emerged from the oven, the harissa sauce bubbling like hot, spicy lava, the sausages sizzling and splitting their skins. We ate the rosemary scented stew with baked potatoes, doused in butter, the fluffy fillings soaking up sauce, and roasted butternut squash. Another stew made an appearance on Sunday. A homely comfort is always beef stew and mashed potato. It is a regular feature on my parents’ table, my mum requesting lashings of meaty gravy which she can later scoop up with a spoon, much to my dad’s distaste. In an attempt to recreate the magical comfort of home, I browned chunks of ruby red beef, diced carrots, parsnips and swede (unbeknownst to Calum who innocently declared he didn’t like swede in the supermarket vegetable aisle earlier that day. He ate it all later though.) I finely chopped rosemary, measured red wine, a hefty measure happening to fall into my wine glass, and bundled all the meat, veg and gravy into a snug casserole dish and simmered in the oven for a few hours. Meanwhile I rustled up some herby dumplings. A stew is not a stew without a dumpling. Dumplings appear in various cuisines around the world, yet the dumpling best known in the UK is made simply with flour, fat and maybe a little suet (at last, it’s the season of suet!) and plopped on top of a casserole, stew or soup. It gently steams until light and fluffy, the final result transformed into a savoury scone eager to soak up the rich gravy.
Tonight, after the crisp night air sang with squeals and booms of fireworks and rockets, Calum and I retreated to the warmth of a cosy pub and toasted the cold season with stodgy stews and finished with a bowl of something sticky and squidgy topped with melting ice cream.
Beef stew with dumplings
Adapted from Leiths: How to Cook
1kg stewing steak, chuck or featherblade
2-3 rosemary sprigs
1 garlic clove
800ml beef stock
200ml red wine
1 bay leaf
Salt and black pepper
For the dumplings:
100g self-raising flour
1tbsp finely chopped rosemary
1tbsp finely chopped parsley
Salt and black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F. Trim any sinew off the meat and, if not already chopped, cut it into 2.5cm chunks.
- Heat some oil in a deep casserole dish. When it’s hot tip in the meat and brown on each side. Cook in batches to prevent overcrowding and the meat from steaming. The raw meat will initially stick to the pan. Leave it alone, as it cooks and browns it will release by itself. Control the heat to ensure the meat doesn’t burn. Remove the browned beef from the pan and pour in a little water. Scrape away the sediment and pour the meaty water (also known as déglaçage) into a mug.
- Sauté the root vegetables until soft. Meanwhile, finely chop the rosemary, measure the stock and wine, and crush the garlic.
- Once the vegetables are tender add the stock, wine, déglaçage, rosemary, garlic, bay leaf and the browned beef. Season to taste, cover with a lid and slide into the oven to cook for 2½ hours.
- After 1½ hours prepare the dumplings. Put the flour in a large bowl and rub in the butter until you have breadcrumbs. Add the chopped herbs and season with a good grinding of black pepper and a pinch of salt.
- When the stew only has 30 minutes of cooking left, remove it from the oven. If the meat isn’t tender return it to the oven without adding the dumplings and cook for an extra 30 minutes. If the meat is tender, mix the water into the dumpling mixture, shape the dough into 4 balls and sit on top of the stew. Cover with the lid and return to the oven for the last half hour.
- After 30 minutes the dumplings should be cooked and the meat tender. If the gravy is watery and lacks flavour strain into a saucepan and bring to the boil to reduce slightly. Return to the stew to serve it with dollops of mashed potato.