There’s More to Stew Than Just a Pie!

This time of year is one of my favourites, as the last remnants of Summer slowly hand over the baton to the slight chill of September & bring those bright, sunny sharp mornings that you can taste in the air.  The hedgerows are full of dark & glossy, ripe blackberries, vegetables are ready for digging up & the branches of trees are groaning with the weight of their various fruits.

Just as the seasons begin to change, so does our desire for more hearty, substantial meals.  I love going outside early in the morning to collect the tasty treasures from our garden!  As I wander around, so does my mind as I consider what fabulous meals I’m going to make with these wonderful ingredients.  Obviously, we only grow a small amount of fruit & vegetables, so I like to head to the local shops & pick up whatever is in season.  Most people go shopping with a list; I like to just see what’s available, then decide what I can make from that.

Although I like a good pudding as much as everyone else, I absolutely adore a proper stew, made with a few simple ingredients & a lot of patience.  Everything is slowly cooked for a few hours, as the whole house is filled with it’s heady aroma & your stomach dragon starts to gurgle in anticipation of dinnertime!  Growing up, my Mum would make the most amazing stews & halfway through cooking, I would pester her for a cup of the rich gravy to dunk some crusty bread in.  Eventually, she would give in & I would sit on a stool, talking to her & clutching onto my cup as I savoured the steamy, flavourful liquid.

Everyone has their favourite recipes, their own way of doing things, but this is how I cook my Steak, Ale & Mushroom stew.  It is perfect for packing into pies & pasties to warm you up on a chilly Autumn evening, or just eating hot from the pot with a few slices of crusty, buttered bread.  It’s a really easy to make “chuck it all in a pot” kind of meal, very filling & it’s completely faff-free!  This makes two casserole dishes, because why make one when you can make two at the same time?  I can get about six very generous portions from this lot, so it could feed eight (my mini-pie dishes are actually not very mini really, they would feed two).  Freeze what you don’t use, it keeps very well & you can always keep a stash in reserve for evenings when you just don’t fancy cooking.

What you need:

500g Stewing Meat – I prefer beef, but you can use whatever you like (adjust which herbs you use accordingly)
2-3 Onions
4 Carrots
2 Parsnips
(you can use whatever root veg you like here – if you don’t like carrots, use something you do like)
12 Baby Potatoes (I usually have a few leftover in the fridge from other meals)
1 punnet of Mushrooms
A handful of fresh Thyme sprigs
Gravy Powder & water (I usually use 6 heaped spoonfuls to a pint & half of cold water per casserole dish)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
25cl Beer (one of those small, dumpy bottles is plenty)

How to do it:

Preheat the oven to 150*C.  Put the grill tray in the bottom of the oven, to catch any spills (if you follow my instructions though, there shouldn’t be any, but it’s best to be prepared).  Move the shelf to the lowest setting in the oven.

You will need two casserole dishes with lids, just the regular sized ones should do.

Divide the meat up equally between the dishes, removing any gristle or excess fat (slight marbling of fat in the meat is fine, because that will cook out & adds flavour, but anything else can be removed).  Use scissors for this – it’s so much easier that chasing a slippery chunk of meat around a chopping board with a sharp knife!

Prepare the vegetables – peel, top & tail the carrots, onions & parsnips.  Dice the onions.  Chop the other veg into bite sized pieces – I usually cut them down the centre lengthways, then again & chop them into pieces.  Share them between the two casserole dishes.

Leave the peel on the potatoes, just wash them.  Cut them the same way as the carrots, quartered lengthways, then chop into bite sized pieces.  Again, share equally between the dishes.

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth to remove any grit or dirt.  If you’re using Chanterelle mushrooms, use a pastry brush instead to flick out any bits of dirt.  Cut into pieces or leave them whole if small enough, then share between each casserole dish.

For each dish, make up a pint of gravy as per the instructions on the packet (I used Bisto Gravy Powder because it was in my cupboard, but it’s your personal choice).  You could use fresh stock here if you prefer, or a stock cube.  I prefer the powder, as it also seasons the stew perfectly – no need to add any salt.

Share the bottle of beer between the dishes.  Stir everything together & make sure the liquid covers everything.  The mushrooms will float for now.  Season with the black pepper to your taste, then stir in.  Add the sprigs of Thyme, just plonk them on the top.

Put the lids on, put the dishes in the oven & forget about them for a couple of hours – it takes about three hours in total for a good stew to cook, as all the lovely ingredients slowly infuse the gravy.

After a couple of hours, take the dishes out of the oven & give them a stir, put the lids back on & bake for another hour.

The stew should be cooked after that, so take the dishes out & give them a stir.  Taste the stew, try not to burn your mouth (we’ve all done it!) & test the meat.  It should melt in the mouth, so if it’s still a bit firm, pop it back in the oven for half an hour to an hour.  I usually cook my stew for about four hours, as it just intensifies the flavour & the meat falls to pieces beautifully.

Once it’s cooked, place the stews on a cooling rack or thick wooden chopping board.  Using a fork & spoon, fish out the Thyme twigs & discard them – the leaves will have gone into the stew.  If you want to thicken your gravy, my tip here is to strain some off from each pot, about half a pint each, then heat it up in a saucepan while stirring.  This thickens it up nicely, without going like treacle.  Then pour it back into each pot, stirring into the meat & veg, before serving in huge bowls with lots of fresh, thick cut bread to mop up the gravy.

If you’re making pies, do this to the gravy just before serving, so it’s ready to pour over the lovely pastry once they are cooked.  Use a nice, rich pastry (see my article “Good Pie, the Blackberry Way” for the recipe) & decorate it as you like (3.14 is actually pi – it’s a little pi(e) pun I have with my Husband!).  I have also frozen batches of this gravy for Sunday lunches (again, sometimes you just can’t be bothered & lazy lunches really are the best).  Pour the cold gravy into plastic zip bags or tubs, then freeze (double bag it if you’re worried about leaks).

This sumptuous staple will make all kinds of dishes, not just pies or pasties.  Try making a savoury crumble with butter & flour, add a little grated cheese & sprinkle generously on top before baking in a hot oven, or roughly dollop mashed potatoes across the top instead & chuck on some chunky breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan & a little Oregano.  For an elegant evening supper, why not make filo parcels with a spoonful of stew inside, squish the edges up together, brush with melted butter & bake!

So embrace Autumn & all it’s edible treasures, maybe indulging in a big bowl of steamy hot stew, snuggled up on the sofa, with a few slabs of crusty buttered bread & a glass of red wine. Sometimes, the simple stuff is the best.  A x

 

 

The Blanket Banquet Three Ps: Plan, Prep & Picnic!

It doesn’t need to be a fabulous Summer weekend to enjoy a perfect picnic, it just needs to be fabulous.   Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend days in the kitchen packing up a feast full of moreish munchies.  It’s all about the three Ps:  planning, preparation & picnic!  With a bit of clever organising, you can pack up a portable party & be out of the door in no time.

First thing to do is the planning.  Most people (including me) don’t have a hamper or an ice box for picnics, but obviously we all want our treats to arrive cool, fresh & full of flavour.  What I do have though is a couple of those freezer blocks/bricks (I always have at least two in the freezer, ready to go) & a few padded freezer food shopping bags from my local supermarket.   This also ensures that everyone can help carry the food & nobody is left lugging a huge ice box behind them.  No freezer blocks?  That’s easy – just stick a bottle of lemonade in the bottom of the fridge overnight to act as a cooling aid in the bag!  Mini plastic bottles can be frozen, but the liquid expands as it freezes, so tip a little out of each before doing that or you’ll have to do some cleaning up before you go!    Don’t forget to put cups, cutlery & condiments in a separate bag too – wrap them up in a couple of tea-towels to pad them out & avoid breakages.  This can all be done the night before, ready to go.

Whatever you can do the day before, do it.  Because I bake bread most days, I’ve usually got a couple of baguettes or focaccia & slice them before we go, so they can be filled when we get there – no pre-made sandwiches taking up your time.  If there’s any leftover pizza (I’m being optimistic here), that gets sliced, wrapped & put into the picnic bag.  I’ll also pop in a couple of jars of “sandwich enhancers” too – olives, sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers, that sort of thing.  Then I’ll chuck in a selection of our favourite foods: salads, cream cheese (great for spreading or dipping), a couple of mozzarella balls, some sliced ham, spicy breaded chicken strips (I make these in huge batches so there are always leftovers), cooked pasta & pretty much whatever I’ve got stashed in the fridge, along with a jar of my homemade tomato sauce.  Although I make this sauce for pasta, it’s perfect as a dip or relish & I’ve usually got a couple of jars in the fridge (OK, at least four).  Anything that needs slicing or chopping, do it now & put it in a bag or a container.  You don’t want to be trying to cut up a tomato on a wonky blanket!  One thing I do bring along is a nice dessert or pudding, usually a few cupcakes or slices of fruit pie – individually portioned & wrapped, so no messing about when we get there.

That’s the planning, now for the preparation!  Everyone likes a nice cold beverage & obviously ice doesn’t travel well, so if you like your drinks chilled, this can be a problem – nobody likes a warm drink on a hot Summer’s day (unless it’s a cup of tea!).  One of my favourite solutions is to use frozen fruit instead – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, anything I can get my hands on!  Just before you set off en route to your picnic, put a box of frozen fruit in the bag with a freezer block underneath them.  This should keep them cold for a couple of hours.  Then when you pour your drink, pop a couple of frozen fruit pieces in your glass for instant chill!  Plus, you can eat them when they’ve done their job & defrosted (we all love a bit of multi-tasking!).  Don’t just use berries though – freeze thin slices of fruit like peaches, pineapple, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, even cucumber (yes, it’s a fruit!).  Or try a couple of frozen grapes plopped into a glass of Pinot Grigio.  This time of year is great for blackberries – freeze them in a single layer on a tray, then once frozen you can pile them into a plastic tub with a lid on, ready in the freezer for whenever you want a few!  Create you own frozen fruity flavours & enjoy their colourful combinations.

Now you all know I enjoy finding ways to use everything up & have very little food waste.  Here’s a lovely little snack to make the day before & add to your picnic.  Do you peel your carrots, potatoes & parsnips, then throw the peelings out or compost them?  Why not turn them into healthy homemade crisps instead (no waste & free snacks – what’s not to love?).  Before you peel your veg, wash them thoroughly beforehand, making sure you trim any bad bits off.  Drizzle a little olive oil onto a baking tray – don’t be stingy, this oil will add flavour.  Lay your peelings onto the oiled tray, ensuring they are well coated all over.  Sprinkle on some sea salt & a little freshly ground black pepper, then bake them in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes until crispy (depending on how many you make).  You can shake them halfway through cooking if you think they need it.  Once cooked, pop them on some kitchen paper on a cooling rack until cooled or tip into a metal sieve, then put them in an airtight container until you need them.  Have a taste & add a bit more seasoning if you like – take some vinegar with you to sprinkle on them just before eating too.  These taste great on their own or dipped in cream cheese or salsa.  Not bad for something we would usually chuck in the composter!

Want more oven baked goodies?  How about some really easy, low fat, low fuss onion rings.  These can go in the oven at the same time as the crisps, just to make things easier.  Get yourself a couple of big onions, top & tail them, peel the outer skin off, then slice them thickly.  Separate all the layers, keeping the rings whole if you can (although you really won’t care once you taste how good they are!).  Beat a large egg in a bowl, then put the onion rings in the egg & toss around to coat them thoroughly (I will warn you, this smells awful at this stage).  In another bowl, tip a couple of tablespoons of plain flour, add a pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then stir well.  Chuck in the egg coated onion rings, a handful at a time & toss around in the seasoned flour, making sure they are completely coated.  Shake off the excess & lay them on an oiled baking tray.  Drizzle on a little more olive oil & bake in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning over half way through to ensure they are crispy on each side.  Once out of the oven, let them cool before stashing them in an airtight container to eat later!  They’re lovely hot or cold, naked or dipped, plus all the flaky crispy bits leftover on the baking tray taste so good sprinkled on a salad (bonus gift!).  These gorgeous onion snacks go very well with a tub of Greek yoghurt to dip them in (mayonnaise is lovely, but I like the slight sourness of the yoghurt).

Once you’ve devoured your fabulous feast, there’s the little problem of sticky hands & fingers, but I’ve got a simple solution for that & it’s re-usable.  This  was originally something I saw on a random TV show one afternoon as an addition for packed lunches, but it works equally brilliantly for picnics too.  What you need is a packet of those small washing up sponges (without the scratchy side), a large fresh lemon (sliced thinly), a few sandwich bags with little handles & some room in the freezer (I always forget this bit & end up on my knees in front of the freezer, trying to rearrange everything like some sort of frozen Jenga!).

Run a sponge under the cold tap & squeeze out the excess water, but leave it quite moist.  Put a slice or two of lemon on top (lemon is a natural de-greaser) & put the whole thing in a sandwich bag.   Tie the little handles to seal the bag (try to remove any air without squeezing the sponge) & pop in the freezer overnight.  The next day, put one of these little bags in with the picnic for each person – not only will it keep the food lovely & cool, but once defrosted it will also act as a refreshing wipe after they’ve eaten!  No more greasy, sticky little mitts – just fresh, lemon-scented clean hands (you’re welcome!).  Plus you can re-use them as I mentioned – simply wash them in warm soapy water when you get home, rinse well, repeat the steps above (replacing the lemon with fresh slices) & they’re ready to be used again – much better than a one-use wet wipe!

Finally, all that’s left to do is the last P – picnic!  So don’t panic over your picnic pack up – just follow the three Ps & you’ll have a blanket banquet to remember!  A 🙂 x

 

 

 

Good Pie, the Blackberry Way!

It’s that time of year, when the hedgerows are bursting with delicious, deepest dark purple blackberries, just waiting to be plucked from their brambles.  There’s something satisfying about picking fresh fruit that instantly transports me back to childhood – I would pick apples, blackberries, raspberries & cherries for my Mum to turn into the tastiest treats, carefully carried home (usually in my skirt turned inside out & filled with berries that stained – sorry Mum!).  I’ve always grown blackberries in the garden – they are really easy to grow either in pots on the patio or along a hedgerow & the more fruit you pick, the more they seem to produce.  Plus they have the prettiest little white flowers that the bees adore, so I’m doing my bit for them too!

One of the best ways to enjoy blackberries is encased in pastry, adorning slices of crisp apple & making them pink with their juice (although, I like to freeze a few & pop them in Prosecco to make blackberry bubbles!).  Pastry making used to elude me.  It is one of those voluptuous little vehicles that carry fabulous fillings into your mouth.  Yet, despite it’s beautiful taste & crumbly texture, it can be a bit of a nightmare to make your own – mine used to resemble tasty cardboard!   There are so many different types to choose from, then there are all the rules you should follow – keep your hands cold, only use your fingertips, don’t handle it too much, only roll it out once 28 degrees north while standing on one leg, blah blah.  It’s exhausting just thinking about it!

Although I would never attempt to make my own filo pastry, I have made my own puff pastry in the past (it’s like making the croissant dough – lots of folding, plenty of butter & leaving to rest for a bit).  It does take time, but it is absolutely worth it & I know exactly what’s in it!  Shop-bought pastry of any kind can be nice, however I’m pretty sure that all those added little extras they put in are not good for us (don’t get me started on unnecessary & unpronounceable ingredients!).  Plus, when it says “all butter” on the packet, it doesn’t necessarily mean just butter (have a look next time you go shopping).

Sometimes a recipe will say “bake blind”.  That does not mean tie your apron over your face & wander around your kitchen blindfolded (apparently).  It means that once you have lined your tin with pastry, put a sheet of greaseproof paper on top, along with a layer of ceramic baking beans to hold the paper down & allow the pastry to cook a little before you fill it.  Baking beans can be found at most supermarkets or good baking supply stores – I got mine from Nisbets Catering Supplies (they are on Fletcher Gate in Nottingham – it’s an Aladdin’s cave in there).  In an emergency, you can use dried pasta shapes – they can be reused a couple of times, however they tend to break after that.  Once you have baked your pastry case, then it’s ready to be filled or frozen for when you need one!  If you are making a fruit pie like this one, you don’t need to bake it blind as your filling isn’t going to be too wet.

For sweet dishes, the basic pastry I make is just butter, flour, sugar & eggs.  One of the best tips I’ve discovered is to use icing sugar – your pastry will be smooth, silky & really easy to roll.  Depending on the filling, sometimes I’ll add a bit of orange or lemon zest (or both!).  It’s always fabulously fluffy in the middle, with that melt-in-the-mouth buttery taste.  I have used this recipe for all kinds of pastry delights & it is easy to adapt, so you can change it up as you need or leave it simple & let the filling do the talking.

What you need:

12oz Self-Raising Flour
4oz Salted Butter, room temperature (slightly softened)
4oz Vanilla Sugar or Vanilla Icing Sugar (make your own – just pop a Vanilla pod in a jar of sugar overnight, or add 1/4 teaspoon Vanilla Extract if you don’t have time)
2 large Eggs

Prepared filling – peeled, cored & thinly sliced apple or pear (you only need about three or four regular sized apples/pears for a 12″ pie); washed & drained blackberries or raspberries
2 tablespoons Vanilla Sugar (for the filling)
2 tablespoons of Milk for brushing on top

Optional ingredients:

Zest of an Orange or a Lemon (or half of each mixed) – wash & dry them first to remove any wax or dirt (try to get unwaxed fruit if you can)

Ground Cinnamon (if you are using apples, a dusting of this fragrant spice will enhance the flavour)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 190*C.   Prepare your baking tin(s) – there is enough pastry here to make a large 12″ pie or a dozen small ones with lids, so it’s whatever size you are making.  To prepare your baking tins, wipe the inside with butter using a piece of greaseproof paper or just your fingers, then dust with flour to coat the butter.  This will make them non-stick & your pastry will pop out easily.  If you are making a large pie, try using a loose bottomed pie tin (easier to transfer from tin to plate), or lay a couple of long, wide strips of greaseproof paper across each other in the bottom of the pie tin & hanging over the edge by a couple of inches (once cooked, simply lift your pie out).  For smaller tartlets or pies, I’ve used patty tins & the silicone cases – they actually work quite well.  Whatever tin or case you use, always place it on a baking tray for extra support & ease when removing from the oven later.

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl & then add the butter, eggs & 4oz of vanilla sugar or icing sugar.  If you are using orange & lemon zest, add that too.  Get your hands in the bowl & start mixing, squishing everything together to distribute evenly & make a pliable ball of pastry.  Dust a worktop with flour & place the dough on top.  Dust your rolling pin too (you don’t want the pastry to stick to it!).

Cut the pastry ball in two & set one aside (this will make the top of your pie).  Take the other pastry ball & roll it out, turn it & then roll again.  If it’s a bit sticky, add another dusting of flour underneath before rolling – use a pallet knife to slide underneath if necessary.  Try not to add too much flour to the worktop though, because it will combine with your pastry & become dry.   Once rolled, transfer it to the prepared baking tin, making sure that there is no air between the pastry & tin.  Use a floured finger to press it gently into all the corners or curves if using a fluted tin, or the dusted handle of a wooden spoon works really well.

Once your pie case is prepared, add the filling.  I use regular, uncooked ripe apples or pears that have been peeled & cored, then sliced thinly & fanned out over the bottom of the pastry case.  Top with a few luscious blackberries, dusted with a little cinnamon & a good sprinkling of vanilla sugar.  Don’t over-fill your pie case – just one layer of sliced fruit & a few berries is sufficient – too much filling will make it soggy underneath (never a good look!) & the pastry won’t cook.

Roll out the pastry top slightly larger than the base, then use your rolling pin to lift it & gently roll it over the pie.  Pinch & press the edges together into a pretty pattern using your fingers, all the way around until it is sealed up nicely.  If you feel like being a bit creative, cut out shapes with the trimmings to decorate – add after brushing with milk, then brush them too.  When I’m making a pie with blackberries in, I like to decorate with flowers, because they look a bit like blackberries & sometimes I’ll add pastry leaves too.  It’s just to use up any leftover pastry trimmings – no need to throw them away, just create some pretty shapes for the top.

Brush with a little milk, then prick holes in the top with a sharp knife or a fork.  Sprinkle a little vanilla sugar over the top.  Bake it in the middle of the oven for about 25 minutes, until it is golden & the filling will be all bubbling out of the tiny holes you made.  Don’t worry about the little pools of filling – they will bake into the pastry in the oven & it will be crispy, golden & lovely.

After baking, remove your pie from the oven & place on a cooling rack. Leave it in the tin for a few minutes, as it will be easier to remove once it has cooled down a bit.  Even if you are going to eat it hot, you don’t want to be burning your mouth – fruit fillings especially will be like molten lava & tend to be hotter than the sun, so give it a moment & save yourself (& your guests) some pain!  If you’re going to eat it cold, just leave it to cool completely in the tin before cutting it.

If you’ve used a loose-bottomed tin, just push the base up from underneath & ease your pie onto a serving plate or board.  Slide a pallet knife gently underneath the pie to separate it from the actual tin base.  If you’ve use the greaseproof paper method, simply lift it out & transfer to a plate, then slice, serve & share!

So next time you have an abundance of blackberries, forget the crumble & pack them in a pie!  A x