Autumn beef & vegetable stew

We are returned from our summer holiday, ‘summer’ being perhaps an optimistic notion for October. It is at this time of the year that we travel, partly to avoid school holidays but mainly because work is usually busiest during the festival-season of June to September. Not this year of course. Nothing is the same this year – not that you’d know it in Cornwall. There, the pace of life remains reassuringly unhurried, the noise of lockdown diktats from London seem to merely echo rather than shout.

Alas, the weather threw everything at us. Gales, rain, drizzle, sun, rainbow, wind again…Watching it all unfold, I wrote a few words in my journal:

Sea merging into sky
steel blue, grey, white, concrete
Three days of leaden sky
Forceful wind, rajasic weather,
Stormy. Relentless.

But then this morning, sun broke through
turning the cliffs golden
The hint of a rainbow dissolves onto the sea
and then returns with greater resolve.
A brief strengthening of sprit.

I am not normally driven to write poetry-style words. This is what the Cornish landscape does to a woman in middling-age.

Endless grey skies at Mawgan Porth
Industrial architecture mimicking a Norman keep
Sky meets sea

I have always thought of our September/October break as the end of summer, a mental shift towards the autumn/winter months. On returning home my mind whirrs with lists to make the next six months more tolerable; much of it is kitchen and garden-room (I can wish) related: the final autumn harvests, the creation of dried flower vases around the house. Sloe-apple jelly and butternut squash soup become earmarked for creation. Traditionally we prepared for winter by filling our stores and retreating indoors, a way of thinking that remains in my blood.

Yesterday I gave in and harvested the outdoor tomatoes from the veg trug. These are lockdown plants, arriving shrivelled and near dead in the post after whiling away for days in the postal service, but they perked up and the four plants have given several kilo of fruit. Harry, only 3, insisted on using the secateurs and to his credit, did an effective job. The issue is ripeness, or rather the lack of it: 90% of them are green, our back garden too overlooked and the summer too cloudy to allow them to ripen. I’ve placed them on newspaper in the sun room in hope of a late ripening, and the rest – let’s face it – will probably end up in the compost.

The harvest from 4 tomato plants, all outdoor. An abundance of fruit, alas all of it in varying shades of green

Whilst sorting out tomatoes my eyes were drawn to the bunches of hanging strawflower and hops, now papery and dried, and I cut a few to make a small vase for the office – a classic procrastination before work. Over the next few weeks there will be more of these to brighten up the house, replacing the vases of dahlias and chrysanthemums that have been so abundant during late summer.

The first of this year’s dried flower posies, made of hop, strawflower, cornflower and poppy head

October weather – once one has truly been in it for days, as even in gale-force winds a pre-schooler insists on building sandcastles – demands a return to slow food. Feta cheese and salads won’t cut it now; my body yearns for homely, inexpensive, peasanty cooking. Yesterday, whilst stocking up on essential supplies I even found myself sneaking turnips into the trolly. Turnips! They found their way into a simple long-braised stew, rich with root vegetables and just a scrap of meat, served steaming in deep bowls with a few stodgy-yet-crunchy dumplings.

The trick to this is cutting your foundation vegetables – the onions, celery, leeks – quite small so that they melt into the stock, but the hero veg – the parsnips, carrots and the like – big. That way you get a smooth silky soupy base with interesting chunks to chew on.

This is what I call National Trust cookery. Autumn is here.

Autumn beef & vegetable stew
serves 4, generously

500g braising steak, diced
oil or dripping
2 small onions, peeled and finely sliced
2 large sticks of celery, trimmed and finely sliced
1 leek, cleaned, trimmed and finely sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 small turnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
5 mid-sized new potatoes, halved or quartered (if you have tiny ones leave them whole and just use a few more)
4 or so fat cloves of garlic, peeled and bashed but left whole
4-5 bay leaves
few springs of thyme
1 tablespoon flour
salt and pepper
2 beef stock cubes (I use Kallo organic low-salt)
boiling water

For the dumplings:
250g self-raising flour
125g suet
cold water
salt and pepper

Set the oven to 160c. Warm a heavy-weight frying pan and when hot, brown the meat on all sides until burnished – I do this in batches, without any extra oil as I dislike all the splatters. Remove the meat to a very large casserole pot.

Turn the heat on the frying pan down, add a little oil or dripping, then soften the onions, leeks and celery for about five minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, then tip the lot into the casserole with the meat – the onions should pick up any crusty bits left from browning your beef. The frying pan can now go in the sink to be washed up.

Put your casserole pan onto the heat, add the remaining vegetables and turn them over with the onions and beef for five minutes or so, just to slightly soften. Add the herbs, flour and the stock cubes, and stir again for a few more minutes so that everything is well distributed. Tip in enough boiling water to cover the meat, bring it all to a slow simmer and give everything another good stir – we need the stock cubes to fully dissolve and for there to be no lumps of flour.

Pop the lid on and transfer to the oven, where it should putter away for two hours. Top the water up if it looks dry.

For the dumplings, stir the suet, flour, salt and pepper together using a table knife, then add enough cold water to bring it together to a rough dough – maybe 3 tablespoons. Shape into however many dumplings you require – this mixture makes 5 BIG ones or rather more smaller ones.

After two hours, turn the heat up to 180c. Remove the lid of the casserole, pop the dumplings on top of the stew and return to the oven, cooking uncovered for 30 minutes or so until the dumplings are puffy and crunchy on the top.

Enjoy in a deep bowl with a dollop of hot horseradish. No other accompaniment is required.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Braised rabbit with rose wine, rosemary and bacon (found an independent rural butcher selling wild rabbits for £3, which is an offer I can not refuse); pasties, scampi, chips, fudge etc etc; a tot of sloe gin from Chappers’ 2017 vintage. Buying up apples and pears, some for eating now, some to be sliced and frozen for future pies.

Reading: Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy, wonderfully evocative writing; A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which I’ve been putting off because it is literally the size of a brick, but when on holiday there is no excuse.

Beef pudding

It’s the time of year when I want (need) to pour syrup, lard and gravy down my throat. I have never understood how people can go onto healthy eating stints in January; in this cold, dark month, buckwheat noodles and chia seeds are not going to provide the rib-sticking nourishment needed to get me through to spring. To underline the point: this week I’ve been at my desk wearing thermal vest, wool jumper, alpaca-wool cardigan and thick wool scarf on top. This is no time for messing around. This is the time for suet.

So it is timely that a wonderful book has come into my life. Pride and Pudding charts the history of the British pudding tradition (savoury and sweet) from its earliest medieval incarnations to the sticky toffee desserts promoted by a million 1990s gastropubs. Its author, Regula Ysewijn, is a photographer and blogger and – intriguingly – Belgian. I think the Brits have a tendency to laugh at their own cuisine, but here is someone from the Continent with a personal passion about British puddings so great that she’s devoted several years of her life researching the subject.

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Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn

Pride and Pudding is a beautiful book and impressively well-researched: the bibliography runs to 7 pages, and I was spitting in envy looking at this weight of scholarly endeavour. The author is (I presume) bi-lingual and some of the writing is perhaps a little clunky – a good Editor could easily tighten this up – but frankly, if someone is going to give me a recipe for making clotted cream from scratch, then I love her instantly. And that’s before we get onto quaking pudding, poor knights of Windsor, apple tansy and sack posset.

Regula’s introduction is a recognition of the knowledge of our forebears and reflects so deeply how I feel about the cooks of yore that I repeat it in full: This book is a tribute to the cookery writers of the past: the master chefs to kings and queens; the female cookbook writers – of whom there are surprisingly plenty; the confectioners; the physicians; the poets; the cookery teachers; and those writers – usually ladies again – who were driven by a profound passion for British food. Thank you for writing everything down.

Inspired by my new-found literary friend, I’ll soon be having a go at jam roly-poly and spotted dick, but this week it was that classic suet-based rib-sticker: the steamed beef pudding.

Pride and Pudding informs me that beef pudding has been a favourite British meal for centuries and is an adaptation from the tradition of boiling meat puddings in cloth. Regula’s version uses the traditional method of placing raw meat, onions, herbs and beer into the suet crust, then steaming for several hours. I did have a go at making such a pudding several years ago, but upon turning it out, found the meat to still be raw. I’ve therefore chosen the slightly more reliable method of making my stew first, straining off and reserving the gravy, and then stuffing the cooked meat and vegetables into the pudding before steaming. This way you can be sure that the beef is seasoned to your liking, plus there is a  separate jug of gravy with which to moisten the plate.

The beef stew is straightforward and can be made a day ahead. Take around 500g of stewing steak chopped into bite-sized chunks, and brown in a hot, heavy-based frying pan until the pieces take on a deep colour (i.e. are not just ‘greyed’ with heat). Transfer the meat to a lidded casserole dish. In the same frying pan but on a cooler heat, soften a diced onion, throw in some thyme leaves and a bay leaf, then add 5 sliced mushrooms and colour slightly. Stir in 1 tablespoon plain flour, pour in around 200ml red wine (or a dark beer) and stir until thickened. Transfer the sauce to the beef, season well and top up with hot water to just cover the meat. Cook either on the lowest heat on the hob, or in the oven at 160c, for about two hours or until the meat is tender. When cooked, pour the stew onto a sieve or colander placed over a bowl, and save the gravy for later.

Now we get onto the pudding creation. As well as the strained stew, have ready plain flour, baking powder, suet, salt (not pictured), lemon juice and water. You’ll also need a 17cm pudding basin and a large lidded saucepan or steamer within which the basin fits neatly. I use a plastic basin with lid, but if using ceramic or glass basin, you’ll also need string, baking parchment and foil. I like to grease the inside of my basin with a little oil to ensure the pudding turns out easily.

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You need beef stew, plain flour, baking powder, suet and lemon juice

To make the suet pastry, place 300g plain flour in a bowl with 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt and 130g shredded suet, then mix thoroughly.

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Combine the dry ingredients with the suet

Mix together 200ml water with the juice of half a lemon, then add the liquid to your dry ingredients. I think it’s best to do this in stages as you may not need it all. Work the liquid into the flour using a bread scraper or table knife until the pastry comes together into a ball. It should be firm and pliable but not sticky.

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Add water and lemon juice and work to a firm but not sticky dough

Work the dough gently on a lightly floured surface until smooth – we’re not kneading it, just bringing it together – and then remove a third to make the lid. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use to line the inside of your pudding basin, leaving an overhang of around 2cm around the top. If there are any holes just squidge them together with your fingers; suet makes for a wonderfully forgiving pastry.

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Remove a third of the dough for your lid

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Roll the larger piece into a circle and press into your pudding mould

Spoon the cooled beef stew into the mould and moisten the pastry ends with water. Roll the remaining pastry into a circle and use it to cover the beef, pressing the pastry ends together well so they are truly stuck. I like to ‘double-crimp’ – pressing the edges together, then folding the pastry in on itself to make a double seal.

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Fill the pudding mould with stew and then top with the remaining piece of dough

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Crimp the edges together, turn them over on themselves for a double-seal, cover and steam for 60-90 minutes

Place the lid on your pudding basin – or, if using paper and foil, you can follow the instructions here: www.bbcgoodfood.com/videos/techniques/how-steam-pudding.

Place your pudding into the saucepan or steamer (I use a pasta steamer for this). If using a regular saucepan, it’s wise to raise the basin from the base of a pan with a jam-jar lid. Pour in boiling water to reach half-way up the side of the basin, and set over a low heat to steam for 60-90 minutes. Check the pan a few times during steaming to ensure that it hasn’t boiled dry. All that’s needed is a gentle simmer; a rolling boil is too hot.

Once the pudding is done, remove the coverings and – with great trepidation – turn your creation out onto a pretty plate.

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Turn out onto a pretty plate and serve.

Re-heat the gravy and season to your liking (I like to thin mine with a little water) and serve alongside the pudding. I also think that a bowl of steamed greens, ideally savoy cabbage, is a must here.

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Slurp the gravy, relish the suet, eat up your greens: this is winter cooking at its best

The steamed beef pudding is real British winter cooking at its best. Suet: how I have missed thee.

The beef stew recipe is mine. Pastry recipe is from Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn. The technique for steaming a pudding is how my mother taught me, and is all the more precious for that. Once again I apologise for the strange light on my photographs, the result of blogging in a dark Victorian house in January.