I have a clear memory of a lunch party my parents held while I was (I think) still at college. Friends of my father’s – twin brothers with whom he had served in the Navy, and one of their wives – were in the area and had made contact. As I remember it, it had been some considerable time since they had seen each other. All were out of the Navy – one of the visiting brothers was running a bar in Spain, the other had been flying helicopters in Saudi Arabia. I have no memory of why they were in our part of Yorkshire.
They arrived at the appointed hour and conversation ensued. The wife came with the helicopter pilot. Money abounded. She was very nice, but appeared to be rather high maintenance in a way that my mum and I most definitely are not. Long blonde hair. Impeccably groomed. Squashy fur coat. You get the picture.
All went well. Mum had, as usual, produced a magnificent meal. I helped clear away the main course and went into the kitchen to find her in a bit of a state. One of the kittens had walked along the chocolate loaf dessert, leaving beautifully formed kitten paw prints along the top. As we somewhat hysterically decided that the best course of action would be to sieve icing sugar over the top and add a sprig of holly – we were in the post-Christmas period after all – for a festive touch, the wife came in. Instead of blagging it, Mum burst into gales of laughter and spilled the beans. The look on the wife’s face (I think her name might have been Sheridan. Or Scheherazade. Or something exotic) was a picture. She had the fruit salad in the end.
Why do I tell you all this? Well today, in similar fashion, we hosted an old friend for lunch. A colleague of the Husband’s from when they served in the Army together in York, many moons ago. I cannot recall exactly when the last time we saw him was, but it was certainly when we were living in Army quarters on the edge of Salisbury Plain, probably 10-12 years ago. I remember well the meal I cooked. How could I forget? In joyful and recent possession of The Return of the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver, I decided we would have roasted fillet of beef rolled in herbs and porcini and wrapped in prosciutto. We scoured Salisbury for the meat and ended up paying an obscene amount of money for it in Waitrose. Ditto the prosciutto, which we diligently asked the butcher to slice thinly and lay side by side on some waxed paper – what for assisting the rolling element of the recipe. Oh! The DINKYs we were.
Now, the oven we were blessed with in our army quarter was completely and utterly rubbish. However, being as I was a relatively novice cook, I simply didn’t appreciate the need to be able to cook the finished roll of meat in a blisteringly hot oven. To be honest, I quite like my meat rare, but I would never presume to serve it to guests in that state. Having already cooked it for far too long, I proudly bore my creation to the dinner table and carved. Despite the appearance of being cooked on the outside, it was completely and utterly bloody. Literally. We haven’t seen him since. I’d like to think that was mostly down to life – but there’s always been a niggling suspicion that it was the beef...
Anyway, trying to set that thought aside, we were really pleased that he had got in touch, and jumped at the chance to invite him and his wife and kids (none of whom were around at the time of the previous get together) for lunch.
What to serve has therefore been occupying my mind for some days now, ever since the visit was arranged - typical man fashion – via LinkedIn. Obviously, I was anxious not to repeat the disaster of the last meal, although we no longer live in Army accommodation, and I am far more confident in my oven’s ability to reach a specified temperature. Would it be a roast? I can cook a roast in my sleep but there is always fiddling about at the end with gravy and what not. Should I slow cook a stew? And pudding – what to make?
The pudding will be the subject of another post, although I’ll tease you by saying that it involved pumpkin, but not as you might have known it. In the end, casserole and baked potatoes seemed like the best option, and because the Husband
begged suggested that it might be a good idea, I
made dumplings too. Along with the baked potatoes, I served roasted cauliflower
– I bought a beautiful green romanesco cauli and an ordinary white one and roastedthem with sea salt and olive oil. Gorgeous.
On a rain-sodden, dreary day, and if I do say so myself, this totally hit the spot. Even if I did manage to turn the oven down almost to off while the casserole was doing its last bit of cooking with the dumplings, causing a minor panic on my part as the children rampaged around, gnawing the furniture... Fortunately, I noticed, and the day was saved. And as the dog only has 3 legs, there was no chance of him getting up on the kitchen table and romping joyfully over the pudding.
Beef & Brown Ale Casserole – served 4 adults & 4 children
1kg braising steak, 3 tbsp plain flour, 1 tsp mustard powder, about 50g lard (yes, I know – you could use olive oil if you didn’t fancy it), 1 large onion, peeled & sliced and about 10 shallots, peeled, 500g whole Chantenay carrots, 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 1 tbsp mushroom ketchup, 1 bottle brown ale (I used Newcastle Brown), a handful of thyme sprigs, 2 bay leaves, 2 beef stock cubes made up with 200ml hot water, salt & pepper.
If you haven’t already asked the butcher to do it, chop the meat into bite sized pieces. Put the flour in a bowl or plastic bag, add the mustard powder, salt and pepper, mix/shake up then add in the meat and toss it in the flour.
Pre-heat the oven to 1600C/1400 C fan.
In your oven-proof casserole dish (one which has a lid), on the hob, melt half the lard and brown the meat in batches, setting aside in a bowl or dish once browned. If you need to add a little more lard during this process, do. When the meat is browned, and set aside, use a splash of the stock or the ale to deglaze any tasty bits that are threatening to stick to the bottom of the casserole and burn, then melt the rest of the lard and add in the onions and shallots, frying for a few minutes till softening. Put the meat back in the pan, add in the carrots, the ale and all the rest of the ingredients, bring back to the boil, then pop the lid on to the casserole dish and put it in the oven.
|Yes, I guess it does look a little heavy on the carrots...|
My casserole took 2 hours to cook till the meat was deliciously tender – it might take up to 3 – but if it finishes cooking before you’re ready for it, it will stand on the stove until you need it. You can always pop it back in the oven if needed for dumpling purposes as I did.
Now, I know you're going to ask me about the dumplings. They were exceedingly good, despite our guests' 3 yr old son pronouncing them "Deegushting" much to the general hilarity of the table (grr). However, I totally made them according to a Hairy Bikers' recipe in the October 2012 Good Food mag. The casserole is also based on their recipe from the same feature, but I changed it sufficiently. If you're interested in dumplings (who isn't?), I used vegetarian suet, and mixed in 4 tbsps of horseradish sauce and some cold water as the binding agent. Having slow cooked the casserole in a low oven, I whacked up the heat dropped the dumplings in to the top of the casserole and baked for a further 25 minutes (plus extra when I realised that I'd then turned the heat down by accident). They were very good. Unfortunately, I forgot to take any pics.