James Whelan Butchers: Slow Cook February

Is it over?  Is it really over?  Is the entire month of January now in the past?  Thank God for that as I’m not sure I could have taken much more of those on the New Year abstinence kick. Somehow there seemed to be more of them this year than ever before.  Everyone I met was either on a diet (abstaining from food), having a drink free January (abstaining from alcohol) or saving money (abstaining from spending), one or two were practically abstaining from life!  Naturally in the wake of an over indulgent December it’s probably right to rein it all in come January and try and get a little balance back.  January deprivation isn’t the problem, it’s a good thing to be as healthy as possible in all areas of our lives but doing it so joylessly is what makes me want to run and hide.  The evangelising is a thin disguise for their utter misery. By the start of February though, most of them have fallen off the wagon, the gloss of the New Year has well and truly waned and we can return to a little normal living.  Go on, it’s February, you can buy the full fat cream cheese rather than the tasteless and therefore pointless fat free version.

I was thinking that as I was driving the other day when the Imelda May song ‘Kentish Town’ came on the radio.  It’s a great little tune about her early days in London when she and her husband were struggling, unknown musicians.  There’s a line in the song that says “and those stews that lasted three days into four”.  I have a very good association with stew.  The image that word triggers always tends to be luscious, rich beef stew mind you, not that strange, pale abomination that the Americans affectionately call ‘Irish Stew’.  I’m talking about slow cooked chunks of beef dotted with thick sweet rounds of carrot and other root vegetables, all releasing a wonderful marriage of flavours in a great big pot of gravy.  As a child it was always accompanied by creamy mashed potato and when it’s done right, it is possibly the king of comfort food dishes.  Without a doubt stew is also a healthy choice and it’s a very economical dish which can often taste better the second day when the flavours have really come together and relaxed. 

On these cold and wet February days everyone should have a good stew recipe to hand.  I can’t think of anything nicer than returning from work or school and being welcomed by the gentle, wafting aromas of a beef stew.  I do think however we are sometimes programmed to only make stew as our mothers made it and only serve it with mash.  Nothing wrong with that but stew is great on its own just served with great big hunks of fresh, fluffy buttered bread.  Or you could use a celeriac mash for a little flavour change.  Someone recently told me about cauliflower mash. Just cook the cauliflower until it is soft and mash it.  For flavour add some mustard. If I’m honest it’s a little too healthy and lightweight for me, but it’s certainly a healthy alternative to buttery mash.

Unlike some who are quite rigid in their approach to this dish and insist on taking the Julia Child way as gospel, they might be quite surprised to know that it was essentially a French Mammy’s dish rather than anything fancy.

Our beef stew isn’t a million miles away from the popular French Boeuf Bourguignon.  In my most recent book, The Irish Beef Book, there is a great Boeuf Bourguignon recipe.  Unlike some who are quite rigid in their approach to this dish and insist on taking the Julia Child way as gospel, they might be quite surprised to know that it was essentially a French Mammy’s dish rather than anything fancy.  Just like our own beef stews, people interpreted the recipe depending on what they had to hand or personal preferences. Again I think one of the main ingredients in any stew from any nation is time.  That’s the key, plenty of long, slow cooking to release the flavours and let them sing together like a fine choir that has been a long time in rehearsal.

Beef Bourguignon

I’m not at all rigid in my stew making.  I like to take influences and mix them together.  Red wine, if I have it to hand, will often find its way in to my stews and sometimes I do take that French influence by adding just a little chopped streaky bacon at the initial stages.  The bacon fat definitely adds a unique flavour dimension.  I’m very easy about the vegetables I use, working with what’s there, but if I plan it, thick chunks of carrot and decent shards of celery would definitely be in there.  And I would often replace the beef with an oxtail.  Now this does take time but Braised Oxtail is the ultimate ‘stew’ as it must be left to stew for about 4 hours on the hob.  Before you roll your eyes at the time, this dish takes very little time to prepare and the work is all done in the long, low, slow cooking.

It’s the perfect time of year for a good healthy stew and whether you are trying to save money, calories or both, a stew is the perfect answer.

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

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