BY PETE WOLSTENCROFT
I have never believed in the concept of comfort food. If you are hungry and you eat something, surely that must be a source of comfort.
I do, however, believe that the warmer months are more suited to simple salads and grilled fish, while the colder, darker months are more naturally home to sustaining, slow-cooked stews. It really doesn’t matter if you prefer to think of them as daubes, hotpots or stews, they are all pretty much the same. They feature cheaper, fattier cuts of meat braised in liquid – by which I mean beer or wine – for a long time, so that connective tissues and fats break down to form a luscious, shiny sauce. Complete wintry alchemy is achieved by the addition of the starch that leaches out from beans and pulses, so that the sauce occupies a new state of matter, somewhere between a liquid and a solid. This is my kind of food.
To eat these dishes in August would entail spending the rest of the day sweating uncomfortably and feeling lethargic. But on a cold Sunday afternoon in December, a lunch like this promotes a feeling of bonhomie and a tendency to indulge in post-prandial snoozing.
The modern mania for avoiding fat means that the cuts of meat most suitable for slow braising are often the cheapest. These include: pigs’ cheeks, lamb neck chops and beef short rib.
This is my kind of food.
These dishes will bubble away happily in: red wine, white wine, stout or pale ale. In an emergency, water will probably also do the job, but good household management prevents such disasters.
I read on www.jaysbeef.com that the longer you cook this kind of dish, the better the result. But there are limits. With pigs’ cheeks, about two and half hours is the sensible maximum: the dish will not improve with further time in the oven. With the fattier cuts of lamb, I recommend between four, and four and a half hours, and with beef short ribs, five hours is the sensible cut off point.
I sincerely believe that the vessel in which these stews are cooked makes a difference to the taste. I always use a heavy, cast iron, lidded casserole dish with an enamel finish. But these dishes do not have to be expensive. (You all know to which brand I am referring.) Iron is one of the most common elements on earth and, as enamel is simply powdered glass that has been baked on, there is no reason why your casserole should eat up too much of your cash. I use a cheap German brand, which was reduced in a January sale to less than the price of a couple of cocktails. This is one of those very rare occasions when a cheap copy is unlikely to be any different – in terms of quality – from an expensive brand. At the end of the day, cast iron is cast iron and enamel is enamel.
Despite my Lancashire roots, I champion the cause of cassoulet as the undisputed ruler of the winter stew roost. A quick online search will show many different versions, with a host of potentially expensive ingredients. But stews are nothing if not adaptable. If you can’t get your hands on confit duck legs, then omit them. This adaptability is why I never get involved with the scientific precision of baking: my preferred style is to throw a bit of some unspecified extra ingredient into the mix and to see if it affects the outcome.
So, without further ado, here is my recipe for a simple cassoulet to serve four people.
- Enough sausages to feed your chosen quartet. (The only point I would make here is that half of them should be something traditional like Cumberland and the other half something spicier such as Merguez, with all their North African spiciness.)
- 2 medium sized onions – finely sliced
- 4 large cloves of garlic – also finely sliced
- One tube of tomato puree
- 2 tins of cannellini beans
- I glass of dry white wine
- Any other seasonings you fancy: I always use anchovies but am aware that not everybody likes these polemic piscine additions.
- Olive oil for the frying
1. Brown the sausages in batches and then remove from the pan. (This will make no difference whatsoever to the taste of the finished dish, but pallid sausages do little to stimulate the appetite.)
2. Gently brown the onions and garlic (as well as the anchovies if you are using them) for at least 15 minutes.
3. Add the wine, tomato puree (or a tin of chopped tomatoes) and the two cans of beans along with all the starchy liquid from the cans.
4. Cook with the lid on at 180°C for two hours and then drop the heat to 140°C and cook for a further two hours. Serve with good wine and great company.