• Winter Warmers

    I’m sure I shouldn’t admit to Autumn being my favourite cooking season. I expect it would be more current and certainly much healthier to prefer the light freshness of new spring ingredients, to appreciating their quick preparation and cooking times and to look forward to the promise of warmer weather and longer days. All that is wonderful of course and one can’t help but get excited by Spring and all it brings with it, but there is something about the evenings closing in, lighting the first fire and coming in to the warm after a leaf crunching walk which I find even more appealing and certainly more luxurious.

    To be honest I have felt slightly cheated by Autumn this year; it has been unseasonably warm so far, the grass is still growing apace meaning that the weekend air is filled with the very summery sound of mowing and there has been no reason yet to reach for a scarf as I head outside. However, the forecast is finally beginning to look a bit more Autumnal; temperatures are due to drop over the next couple of weeks, soon we’ll be hearing the crackle of bonfires rather than the drone of mowers and I am greedily anticipating a corresponding change in cuisine. I love the long, slow cooking that tends to typify autumn and winter dishes. Compared to the freshness and crunch of spring and summer we can look forward to soft richness, deep earthy flavours and a bit of indulgence.

    Comfort definitely comes to mind when one thinks of wintery food but that certainly doesn’t mean it has to be dull. The best winter warmers will be rich with flavour, enhanced by texture and delivering an air of luxury that can’t fail to gratify. There are so many opportunities over the next few months to get together with friends and cook for the resulting crowds, and notwithstanding their deliciousness these types of dishes have the enormous added advantage of being brilliantly practical for entertaining larger numbers.

    My standby recipe which I have relied on for years for those occasions when there are lots of people to feed but not much time on the day is Venison and Chestnut casserole. Everything can, and actually should, be done well in advance as the flavours and tenderness will develop beautifully over a day or two (or, even better, over much longer in the freezer) and the use of game meat elevates it to something so much more special than just another stew. I served this for lunch after my son’s November baptism as well as many other occasions when it has delivered the level of luxury required for a special event, the comfort demanded on a cold day and often after a hideous journey, and the practicality you need when there are 30 people of all ages to feed.

    The key to success with this, as with pretty much all dishes of its type, is to start by tossing the meat in seasoned flour and then browning it really well. Don’t overcrowd the pan, so if necessary do it in batches, and make sure you give the heat in the pan a chance to do its job; don’t start furiously stirring or the meat won’t have a chance to brown. Whilst I will praise this dish and others like it to the rooftops, I have to admit that this initial stage is probably my least favourite job in the kitchen. Because it’s hard to regulate the temperature on the top of my Aga-type cooker, I usually end up with a smoke-filled room and oil splattered all over the cooker and floor and it always takes much longer than one expects.

    However once that dull but necessary process is over the rest is a breeze. I put, with a great deal of satisfaction and some relief, all those sealed chunks of floury venison shoulder back in the pan along with some lightly browned cubes of pancetta and some finely chopped onions, carrots and celery which have already been softened with garlic, then add large amounts of red wine, some good quality game or beef stock and several bay leaves. Thyme is a good addition too if you have it. It all then goes into the oven with a lid on at 130˚C for several hours during which time you can forget about it and get on with all sorts of other things.

    Towards the end of the cooking time I throw in plenty of cooked and peeled chestnuts (I always buy these ready prepared) which have been halved or quartered depending on their size. I tend to be pretty generous with the chestnuts; they add a wonderfully dry, earthy flavour as well as contrasting texture so there needs to be enough both to allow them to impact on the overall taste and also to have a piece on most forkfuls. Mushrooms are an excellent addition to this as well both for flavour and to bulk it all out if your numbers are very big; just brown them briefly after the venison so they take on a flash of colour but they don’t need to be anything like cooked before everything else joins them in the pan.

    I have a huge fondness for this dish; it has served me very well on many important occasions and it’s the sort that doesn’t date. I’m just as happy to offer it to guests now as I was 10 years ago because the type of appeal it offers is anything but ephemeral. I expect, and hope, that I will be making it for many years to come.

    However, it is inevitable that trends in food should develop and restaurant menus feature new ingredients which inescapably filter through to cooks at home. Some of these are short lived fads which we could all probably live without but now and then something comes along which you just know is going to have more staying power and a real impact on your long-term collection of standard ingredients. I am a massive fan of the “nose to tail eating” phenomenon which emerged several years ago now. It seems to me only right that as part of responsible and respectful husbandry we should use as much of an animal as possible. This excellent development has given rise to chefs in the smartest restaurants offering dishes which feature cuts of meat that would once have been discarded. Some of these, tripe springs to mind, might be a step too far for many of us but others are now firmly part of my repertoire. My absolute favourite is cheek and whilst I’m a huge fan of ox cheeks my real preference is for the pig variety. Pigs cheeks are incredibly flavoursome, helpfully gelatinous (thereby lending a wonderful texture to their cooking liquor), brilliantly thrifty and in extremely handy portions making them a dream to handle. I’m very lucky to have a fabulous meat supplier very locally who thinks nothing of being asked for 60 pigs cheeks with no notice but some butchers might need a phone call in advance. They are becoming very mainstream though and really shouldn’t be difficult to get hold of. I suspect they will be on supermarket shelves before too long.

    Cheeks, being in neat portion sizes, take much less time and effort in the original browning stage which is perhaps one of the reasons why I love them so much. I tend to allow 2 or 3 pieces per person depending on appetite levels and have been known to describe the final dish as “pork casserole” if I’m worried that anyone might be a bit squeamish about eating cheeks. The name seems to conjure up an image of something more akin to offal but the flavour and texture is closer to belly. Closer, but definitely not the same; cheeks offer a much softer and richer experience than any more mainstream cut of the animal and, in my opinion, are far superior as a result. You can treat them much like any other casserole meat; start with browning, add softened vegetables, wine and stock and cook very long and slow. One of my favourite recipes takes a slightly different approach with the flavours, cooking the meat as described above (but with just chicken stock, no wine). You then separately cook pancetta, mushrooms and baby onions in a little butter, adding balsamic vinegar and white wine to the pan to deglaze and become sticky before adding all that to the cheeks when they come out of the oven. The vinegar adds a piquancy which complements the richness of the cheeks quite beautifully.

    Long, slow cooking with highly flavoured cuts of meat is certainly a highlight of winter cooking for me, but one doesn’t always want to follow that same format of flavours. Any red meat combined with wine, stock, mushrooms, bacon, bay and a great deal of time is always going to result in a satisfying, warming supper and it’s a formula I will continue to rely on throughout the colder months. Now and then though, it’s good to refresh things a bit and introduce some slightly different flavour notes. My final suggestion today has all the comforting elements of a classic slow cooked recipe but is comprised of some slightly less traditional ingredients and as a result just helps to ring the changes a bit. It is a type of curry and of course you can vary the heat levels to suit you but this isn’t one with which I push my taste buds to the boundary of their heat tolerance; I tend to aim for a gentler warmth, allowing the flavours to shine through with just a hint of the exotic to spice up those chillier days which I’m sure will finally be upon us before too long. This recipe freezes brilliantly.

    Beef and Chickpea Curry with Spinach

    Serves 4

    2 tbsp sunflower or rapeseed oil

    1 large onion, chopped

    2 tbsp mild curry powder

    1 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)

    800g shin of beef, in chunks, or braising steak

    300ml coconut milk

    150ml beef stock

    1 tin chick peas

    200g spinach, washed and dried

    Heat the oven to 130˚C. Heat the oil gently in a large flame proof casserole dish or lidded pan and cook the onion with a large pinch of salt for 5 minutes until it is soft, being careful not to let it brown. Add the curry and chilli powders and with the heat up a bit cook for another minute or two, stirring constantly. The spices will act as a thickener in the same way that flour would. Add the beef and stir well so that it is coated in the spices. Allow it to cook until it is browned all over.

    Stir in the coconut milk (if it’s solidified on top use that bit first then add as much of the water as you want) and stock and put in the oven for 2 hours. If you remember, add the chick peas 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time but if you can’t and they’re just stirred through at the last minute it’s not a disaster. You can do all of this well in advance; let it cool and store in either the fridge or freezer depending on how long you want to keep it for. The flavours will develop nicely and I’m sure these things are always more tender when they’re heated through gently for a 2nd time. Either way, before serving stir through the spinach and cook for a couple of minutes until it has wilted. Check the seasoning and add salt or pepper as required.

    Serve with basmati rice with, if you like, a spoonful of natural yoghurt.

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