(he ate all the meat the night before I took the photo - hence abundance of sauce)
I’ve been in a bit of a fug recently. A combination of things, including dad (still), more Covid cancellations and consistent rain for 4 weeks without cessation. I forgot how bleak winter can be, and the thought of Christmas is only just frilling the clouds with the slightest silver trim. But then this week - as if she realised we’d reached peak bleakness - the sun came out and shone as crisp and golden as a Walker’s ready salted.
At the weekend, still deep in damp, Lorenzo and I were squabbling, or as they call it in Italian, ‘discutere’ – to fight, or to discuss, I’m often not clear which. He said I was wrong – which I was - and I said I would just stew in my juices for a while, and – as I always do – I made a sort of direct and literal translation of the English into Italian. He looked profoundly confused. It’s not really a phrase that translates very easily into Italian, which is somehow surprising seeing how many food-themed metaphors and aphorisms there are here. After I explained the gist to him, he rolled the phrase around a bit in his mouth before exhaling deeply and repeating it, quietly, the shadow of a smile on his lips.
‘Stewing in my own juice. I like that.’
Which leads me neatly onto a recipe. For stew. I’ve been sent some lovely books recently, which is always a welcome surprise, and I wanted to baptise the new Tiny Kitchen by cooking from one of them. The latest is the River Cottage Christmas Book written by Lucy Brazier, and photographed by my friend Charlotte Bland. It’s a lovely festive book full of Christmas crafting and cooking ideas, which makes me nostalgic for English winters, and things like beef and ale stew which I haven’t eaten or cooked for years.
I’m normally sort of obsessive about the geographical context behind cooking, and have learnt from previous experience that often making a recipe that is very specific to a place (and thus to certain ingredients and techniques too) in another place can be tricky. It often just doesn’t taste right, somehow. Setting, place, weather, surroundings – they all matter. There are, of course, many exceptions, and if you can get the right ingredients you obviously have a head start, but frequently when I’ve cooked English dishes here they have just seemed (and tasted) somehow incongruous. Luckily, this was not the case and this stew shimmied easily from English page to Sardinian stove, with the transitional help of some local mushrooms and the infamous Sardinian beer, Ichnusa.
I made it on a wet Saturday, and the smell of it drifted it through the house and mingled with the scent of bleach (cleaning day). I stirred and scrubbed, swept and stirred, and remembered that I love this kind of cooking; slow, steady, sedate. Why has it been so long since I stewed? The familiar rhythms of flouring, browning, deglazing, adding liquid, then bringing to a slow simmer and lid on and into oven, looking all raw and lumpy and grey and wrong, like some sort of primordial soup, to be forgotten about and then emerge, phoenix-like, gleaming and deep russet brown and bubbling and beautifully homogenous and just Goldilocks right, somehow. We ate it with roasted pumpkin and crusty bread in front of the fire and the final of the Italian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing (Ballando con Le Stelle) which Lorenzo surprised me by suggesting. He loves it, and defended passionately his love for it in a profoundly philosophical/sweetly simple way which was both touching and persuasive. Four hours it lasts. Abbi pazienza. He then declared the stew delicious, ate 3 helpings, and affectionately re-named it ‘La Stufata’. Inevitably much more glamorous than the single-syllabled, stew. There are (inflated?) rumours of dumplings.
It seems that perhaps stewing in juices isn’t lost in translation, after all.
Adapted from Christmas at River Cottage by Lucy Brazier and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall
4 tbsp olive oil
500g stewing beef, cut into large-ish chunks (I just asked the butcher for a ‘slow-cook’ piece)
3 tbsp plain flour
1 onion, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
2 carrots chunked
2 sticks of celery, finely diced
1 clove of garlic, sliced
2 sprigs of rosemary
3 bay leaves
A little dried chilli
1 x 750ml bottle of your favourite beer (I used Ichnusa)
500ml of stock (I had chicken, but any would do)
A handful of mushrooms (whichever you like, I used local Cardoncello)
Parsley, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 160. Mix a good pinch of salt in with the flour and roll the beef chunks in it, coating them evenly. Warm half the oil in a heavy-bottomed stew pan (I used a terracotta one I have which is my favourite) and brown the beef gently in 2/3 batches, over a medium heat, allowing it to take on colour (caramel-brown) as you cook. Remove the meat and set aside, then deglaze the pan with some of the beer. Pour out the liquid, wipe dry and then warm the next batch of oil. Sauté the chopped soffritto (carrots, celery, onions and garlic) with the herbs (rosemary, bay) and the chilli, over a low-medium heat for at least 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the beef back to the pan, along with the liquids and the chunks of carrot (I like my stew to have the sweetness of carrot in the soffritto – or fried base – which melts as the stew cooks, but then to also have good, big bits of carrot for eating too). Bring to a simmer then cover with a lid and place in the oven. Cook for around 2 hours, until the beef is totally tender and falling apart. Reduce the liquid by bubbling on the stove for a bit, if necessary. Season well with salt and if you like, add a pinch of brown sugar for sweetness.
Fry the mushrooms in some olive oil or butter until golden and crisp at the edges, then add them to the stew. Garnish with some roughly chopped parsley and serve with mash or roasted root vegetables or even polenta, if you like.