A Ragu-gu-gu!

It’s been a funny old year so far, like one of those intense mystery novels with one dizzying plot twist after another.  None of us know what’s going to happen next, the author has gone rogue & the leading characters are all bickering with each other like petulant, hungry teenagers.  When everything seems to be a swirl of stress & stomach dragons are grumbling, never fear – comfort food is here!  A proper dinner helps calm grumbling of all kinds, soothing those pesky stomach dragons & restoring a little peace (albeit briefly).

Preparing a meal is something I truly enjoy.  It’s impossible not to feel relaxed, while creating something so comforting & satisfying.  The whole process requires you to focus on each task & that in itself seems to release any tension.  It’s not as precise or technical as some recipes, but it’s sheer ease brings a sense of peace as you create a meal for your family.  My adoration of Italian food began when I was a teenager & this is a rush-less ragu recipe I’ve been making for my family ever since.  It is at the heart of my homemade meat lasagne, slowly baked between blankets of cheese sauce & sheets of homemade pasta, regularly shared as a Sunday dinner & often accompanied by my Husband’s focaccia (he’s quite a talented baker).  Sometimes I make it with sausages, sometimes beef or both, usually whatever I’ve got in the freezer (I freeze meat in small batches for this very purpose).  

This is a family-sized recipe & will serve at least six people generously (it makes a decent six portion lasagne too, although I have stretched it to eight on occasion).  Keep some handy in the freezer for when you’re short on time (make sure you use fresh beef or sausage if you intend to freeze it though, not previously frozen).  

A ragu is not fast food – to me it means “Relax And Gradually Unwind”, so just take your time & go at your own pace – there’s definitely no rush.  Ready to ragu?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

200g Minced Beef or 4 Plain Pork Sausages, skins removed (or half beef & pork)
2 medium Carrots, washed, peeled & finely chopped
2 sticks of Celery, washed & finely chopped
1 medium Onion, skin removed, topped, tailed & finely chopped
2 tins of Plum Tomatoes & their juice
1 generous tablespoon Tomato Puree
1 or 2 dried Bay Leaves (if you’re unsure, just use one)
1 sprig fresh Rosemary (approx 6″ long), leaves chopped finely
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped/sliced finely
2 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A splash of Balsamic Vinegar (the good stuff – about a teaspoonful)
Seasoning – Sea Salt & Black Pepper, both freshly ground

What to do:

Firstly, prepare your garlic, carrots, onion & celery.  Make sure you wash the carrots & celery thoroughly to remove any grit or dirt.  Peel the carrots & trim the ends off them & the celery.  Chop finely into mini pieces & set aside on your board.

Next, peel the garlic & onion.  Top & tail the onion, then chop finely as before – you can always use the food processor for this if you prefer.  Here’s a little tip from me: wear sunglasses to help reduce any tears (obviously not dark ones, you need to see).

Chop the garlic finely & then the Rosemary.  Remove the spindly leaves from the stem first – I save these for making mini-tomato & vegetable kebabs.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or deep frying pan on a medium heat.  Add the carrot, celery & onion & fry for a few minutes to soften.  Keep them moving around the pan, so they don’t catch & burn.

Add the meat – squeeze the sausages from the skins straight into the pan if it’s easier.  Break any big chunks into finer pieces (I use tongs for this, but a wooden spoon or spatula is just as good).  Stir fry until the meat is thoroughly coloured & all the pink has disappeared.

Season with a little salt & pepper, sprinkle in the garlic, Rosemary & bay leaves, giving everything a good stir (the scent is fabulous).  I don’t add the garlic at the beginning, because it can burn quite quickly & lose it’s sweetness.

Next, add the tomatoes – I tend to buy the whole plum tomatoes & squish them by hand, evenly over the pan.  Yes, it’s messy but you’ll wash.  Half fill each tin with cold water to swirl out those last little drops of tomato juice into the pan too – we don’t waste anything!

Add the tomato puree & a good splash of balsamic vinegar (even a few drops makes all the difference).  Reduce the heat to low & let it softly simmer for about 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.  

Give it a taste, then add a little salt & pepper as needed (depending on the sausages you use, you might not need very much).  Using a clean spoon, taste it again to make sure it’s to your liking (seasoning is a personal thing).

Once you’re happy, let it bubble away on a gentle simmer for another 30 minutes or so, until reduced to a rich, thick meaty sauce.  Give your ragu another quick taste to check the seasoning is good & adjust it if you need to.  To test if it’s done, drag the spoon through the middle (the parting of the ragu) – if it leaves a gap & you can see the bottom of the pan, then it’s ready!

Get the family together, grab a fork & get stuck in!  It makes a sumptuously lazy supper generously spooned over spaghetti (with a good scattering of grated Parmesan on top), or stuffed in a variety of pasta parcels & shapes.  This versatile rich meat sauce is especially fabulous layered up in lasagne – here’s the link to my vegetable lasagne recipe, just swap the meat ragu for the vegetable one: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/perfect-pastafication/

When the world gets too fast, slow down the pace & make a little comfort in your own kitchen with a fabulously flavourful ragu – Relax And Gradually Unwind.  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

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.  Ready? Hands washed & aprons on!

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.  Stay hungry! 😉 Aimee x