Ah, so we meet again. I feel like just a moment ago I was preparing a post about freezing gluts of late summer vegetables (which I will post later) and then I fell into a hole in the space-time continuum. Somehow, it’s now January and I’m not sure what happened. Well, that’s not entirely true. A large amount of pretending to be an elf happened if I’m being honest with you. It’s been a busy few months at work, I’ve been quite ill and not a happy bunny so writing time has been re-designated to lying-on-the-sofa-complaining-and-playing-Skyrim time. Cooking has fallen by the wayside. That said, I have had a few revelations:
- Slow cookers are amazing
- Stew is amazing
- Simple, medieval type foods are really good for a poorly tummy
- Tesco now sells Lactose free Stilton
- I can get 8-10 meals out of one roast chicken
- Sometimes I just really need to be an elf for a while
It’s a shame I’ve not had the wherewithal to write here for a few months though as Autumn is my favourite time of year and I have a lot of seasonal recipes I love to make. As soon as September rolls around each year I start getting wistful and excited, roaming the hedgerows and farm shops muttering about “mists and mellow fruitfulness”, and I’m not sure which I celebrate more, Halloween or Christmas.
Still, never mind, on with January and its leftover Christmas cake, half-bottle of sherry and well-intentioned bag of spinach. I don’t diet in January (or indeed, ever). I don’t believe anything good can come of it and I generally have so much food left over from Christmas it takes me an extra month to eat it all. Sooner or later I do end up drifting towards healthy eating though. My internal conversation in January generally runs something like this:
Taste buds: “Oh wow, I love eating Christmas food. Why don’t I eat like this all the time? Why do I only get to have these flavours once a year?”
Brain: “Because we’d literally turn into a salami if you did. It’d be like that episode of Invader Zim where they turn into human baloney.”
Taste buds: “But what if we did it in moderation? You know, just introduce a slightly higher salami-based portion of my daily intake”
Brain: “Hmm… and spinach?”
Taste buds: “Yes, and spinach, we’ll do that. Everyone knows spinach offsets salami. It renders it neutral or something. Let’s go and buy us another salami now then.”
Brain: “Ok, yes, I think we could make this work…”
Stomach: “STOP IT! STOP IT NOW!”
Brain: “Well, I suppose warrior-elves do eat healthily…”
The main thing this warrior-elf has been eating for the last few months has been stew. Lots of it. I have gone from hating stew to pretty much been eating it 5 days a week. It’s easy to make, easy on my tummy, tastes delicious and feels satisfyingly medieval and hearty. It feels like the sort of thing a tired hero might sit down to eat by the fireplace at the inn after a busy day of adventuring and dragon-slaying. And it looks like a witch’s brew so it’s a win all round.
This change in my opinion of stew has been down to one magical recipe which I adapted from a casserole I used to make. I think what makes it nice is the addition of lots of herbs and flavours that don’t become too bland after hours of cooking.
- This recipe can be adapted to use pretty much any veg but think about the sort of flavours that work together. Root veg like turnips or parsnips might work well but you won’t want something like tomatoes for example.
- I prefer to make this recipe in a large cauldron over an open fire, while wearing my black pointy hat, cackling evilly and stroking the cat but when I can’t, I use my slow cooker. You can make it in a heatproof dish in the oven but what I like about the slow cooker is the consistency of times and temperature it gives and the fact that you can just switch it on and forget about it. You can even leave the house with it on which you can’t do with a dish in the oven. I like the fact that it allows me to cook dinner in the morning when I’m feeling relatively perky and not have to worry about it later when I’m tired. I also like that I can cook enough in it to feed me for a week.
- The dumplings included in this recipe are ones adapted from the BBC’s Good Food website (you can find the original here). I make them for myself with Lactofree butter and cheese and am yet to fine a satisfactory way of vegnising them successfully for my vegan friends. I think this may be a case of simply using alternative vegan dumplings rather than modifying this recipe further.
- You can use pork loin steaks in this recipe instead of Quorn steaks but personally I prefer Quorn these days as they soak up the flavour from the sauce really well. If you do use pork steaks you will need to brown them lightly in a frying pan first before adding them to the rest.
- If you can, use fresh herbs. Sage, thyme and rosemary all work really well for this one. I grow a lot of herbs in my garden but you can buy them in the supermarket easily enough. Of course, dried ones work just fine but fresh really give the best flavour. I tend to use a bit of both.
If you’re not a fan of apples or cider, a nice variant on this recipe, which we make just as often, is to swap the cider for a bottle of white wine and to omit the apples. Bottles of wine tend to be bigger than bottles of cider so the extra liquid there makes up for what you will lose by getting rid of the apples, although you may want to add a bit more veg to bulk it up.
Ingredients (to make 5 very hearty portions)
- One bottle of cider
- Two Bramley (cooking) apples
- 2 large carrots
- Half a swede
- 2 medium potatoes
- One courgette
- 180g pearl barley
- 10 Quorn fillets
- Water (approx. 1ltr)
- Dried mixed herbs
- 2 vegetable stock cubes
- Fresh sage (chopped)
- Salt and pepper
- 5 tablespoons of plain flour (gf)
- Eye of newt (optional)
- 200g Gluten free self-raising flour
- 1tsp Xanthan gum
- 100g Butter
- 2tbs water
- 100g Cheese (grated)
- 2tsp Fresh thyme (chopped)
- 1tbs Fresh rosemary (chopped)
Slow Cooker Method
1 . Peel and chop the veg into bite-sized chunks. Do not peel the apples, just core and chop them. Add to the pot. Chop the herbs finely and add them too. (Pro tip: the best way of doing this quickly is to put them in a mug and use a pair of scissors to repeatedly chop them.
2 . Add the pearl barley, Quorn and seasoning.
3 . Sprinkle the flour in and give it a good stir.
4 . Pour in the cider.
5 . Mix the stock cubes in with a little boiling water (about 100ml should do it) until dissolved and add to the pot.
6 . Add more boiling water, just enough cover the veg.
7 . Turn the slow cooker onto the time and setting recommended by the instructions (mine is “medium” for roughly 6 hours)
8 . Check halfway though just to make sure that the pearl barley hasn’t all stuck to the bottom. The liquid may need slightly topping up with more water or cider at this stage too – it should always just be covering the veg.
9 . Make the dumplings – Rub the flour and butter together with your fingers until it forms “breadcrumbs”. Grate the cheese and chop the herbs finely. Add these to the mixture and sprinkle it with 2tbs water. Kneed it into a ball. (Alternatively, do what I do and just chuck it all into the food processor together – much easier)
10 . Divide into 12 balls and place on a baking tray covered with parchment paper.
11 . Bake at 200C/gas 6 for 10-15 minutes or until they just start to turn golden-brown.
12 . Plop the dumplings onto the top of the stew to finish cooking a couple of hours before the end.
This method is the traditional one but it is much more an art than a science. I made it this way for years and each time the cooking times seemed to be completely different. It always worked out in the end but it was immensely frustrating and this is why I now use a slow cooker. My advice is to allow about 2-3 hours for a large stew. Check it regularly and be prepared to top up the liquid or turn down the heat if necessary. The dumplings should not be pre-cooked, as in the slow-cooker method, and they will need to be added about half an hour before the stew is finished so it is down to your judgement to know when that will be.
1 . Heat up a little cooking oil in a large, ovenproof casserole dish. Fry the veg in the oil on the hob for a few minutes until the pan is nice and hot and the veg has softened a little.
2 . Coat the veg in the flour, then add the wine and barley. Cook for 5-10 minutes until the wine has reduced and thickened a little.
3 . Add the rest of the ingredients, as per the previous method.
4 . Cover the pan and transfer to the oven.
5 . Cook for roughly an hour at 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Check regularly. When it’s ready the veg will be tender and the liquid thick.
6 . Remove the lid and add the dumplings (uncooked) to the top of the stew.
7 . Cook for a further 20-30minutes until the dumplings are golden.