Recipe: How to make a simple casserole.

SAM_0285The very first main course I learned to cook was this one, a Boeuf Bourguignon from my copy of Leith’s Cookery Bible: the first and best cookery book I ever bought. It introduced all sorts of terms that I didn’t know and to my 18 year-old novice cook self, it seemed incredibly complex. The first time I served it at a dinner party, I cooked it every night for a week to get it right. Good thing it freezes!

It’s a lovely recipe and if you have the time, budget and inclination to follow it, I’d say go for it. Nowadays, I’d cook it ahead of time and either have it in the fridge from the night before and then reheat it in an ovenproof casserole dish or just microwave it, depending on how much I was trying to push the boat out/limited I was for time. If you want to be massively cheaty, you could do the button mushrooms as per the Leith’s recipe and just add them (freshly cooked) to the casserole as you bung it in the oven so it seems freshly-made.

Having cooked it so often over the years, it’s become one of things where I’ve moved away from the recipe and developed my own faster, simpler and much cheaper version. If you’ve never cooked a casserole before, it’s really very simple, you don’t need loads of special kitchen bits and pieces. The lovely thing about them is that you have to try quite hard to really overcook one. Once you’ve done the prep work you can just bung it in the oven and leave it, poking/stirring it every hour or so if you feel the need to check it’s OK.

Feeds 2-3 for a main course in these quantities, with extra gravy. Freezes well. Cooking time 2.5 hours, prep time approx 20 minutes – 30 minutes, depending on how quickly you work.

250g stewing cut of red meat. I used venison but beef is fine and you’d do everything the same. Try not to use it straight from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature, or close enough, if you have the time. It’ll make the meat cook better. Hot fat plus cold, raw meat makes the fibres of the meat bunch up and toughen. The fibres will relax again in the oven but you’ll extend the cooking time and may find some bits curl up and are less easy to brown evenly. I get mine out first, take it out of the packaging and then wash under cold water and set aside to drain while I get everything else up together.

Bacon – whatever you have in. Unsmoked is better, streaky is the ideal, in which case you want about 25g – 75g depending on how much you want in there – you can use it to bulk up the more expensive steak. I used 3 slices of back bacon, cut into strips then in half/thirds again, with the fat left on. Bear in mind that bacon will add a saltier taste to the gravy, so remember that when you’re seasoning the flour – don’t over-do it with the salt.

1 onion (roughly chopped) but you can use frozen chopped onion or just cut a few smaller ones into halves or quarters depending on how much you like cooked onion and what you prefer for texture. You could also use small whole onions or shallots as per the original recipe – see step 4 of that for how to prepare them. This time I used frozen because my freezer’s full of it.

1 clove of garlic, crushed (I used 2 of elephant garlic – use more if you like it or garlic puree if you don’t have fresh. You can omit it entirely and not really notice.

1 bag bouquet garni (keep it intact and remove it at the end of cooking).

1 – 2 tbsp plain flour, seasoned with salt and ground pepper to taste, depending on how thick you want the gravy.

100ml red wine (optional, I happen to have cooking wine for the first time ever – I usually buy 250ml cartons of cheapo red from the supermarket or use up whatever I have and they’re fine, despite the thing about using decent wine for cooking)

150ml – 250ml beef stock (I used a stock jelly which requires 500ml water so made that up and added some extra stock at the 2 hour mark when it looked as though it needed it. if you don’t use wine you need 100ml of extra stock, which you can use from the 500ml you made up.)

Butter and/or olive oil for cooking

Preheat your oven to Gas 3 / 160C or 140C for a fan oven / F320 or 280F for a fan oven. You could follow all the instructions below and cook in a slow cooker on medium for 4 hours or so. If you do that, avoid the temptation to lift the lid and stir as it shouldn’t need it and you’ll extend the cooking time every time you do it.

Everything you need, except the fat for cooking.

Everything you need, except the fat for cooking.

Method (with my notes for the novice)
I’m using venison casserole steak but braising, ‘stewing’ steak or anything that says it’s a casserole or stewing cut is what you want – a cut that needs a longer, slower cook to break down the fibres. You would cook this exactly the same way using beef, but venison’s leaner, higher in iron and I bought some on special offer and threw it in the freezer a while back so am reaping the rewards now in the few ‘poor’ days to pay day when I’m not buying anything I don’t have to. It certainly won’t look or taste like a cheap meal when I’m done with it and I’ll post a serving suggestion later, when I’ve decided on what to have it with.

Prepare the meat. Wash your steak under some cold water. Usually you’d pat it dry with kitchen paper to prevent the fat spitting, but this time leave it a bit damp because later you’ll make use of that. In the photo you’ll see I had a quick sort through my ready-diced steak and have just pulled out a few bits that were significantly larger or had parts that would be fatty or gristly after cooking. The knife on the left is a general chef’s knife and I would use that for dicing. The filleting knife on the right is very sharp so works well for removing the fat without losing the meat you want. Always cut away from you – keep turning the meat if you need to as you remove any bits of fat or membrane you don’t want in your casserole. You want to try and have the meat in evenly-sized pieces, although you will get some little bits, inevitably.

3 minutes later, I have 25g of fat to discard.

3 minutes later, I have 25g of fat to discard.

You can see in the photo that I’ve trimmed most of the fat off the meat. If you’re doing this with beef you’ll probably need to do a bit more of this than with venison. Make any cuts along the grain of the steak so as not to cause cut fibres to bunch and toughen more than they will already. Follow any seams of fat if you’re trying to make pieces smaller – they separate more easily and naturally there. You want to keep some of the fat for flavour but it’s possible to cut almost all of it away. If you are prepared to spend a little more time, you can buy pieces of stewing or braising steak for less than the stuff that’s ready cubed. Given that the packs of casserole meat still need some tidying up, you might as well save some money and choose a piece that looks the way you want: maximum meat, not so much fat but a bit is fine. You don’t want any sinewy bits so also cut them off at this stage. Just run the tip of your very sharp knife along the inside, between the sinew and the meat to separate. You might have to pull a bit or saw through the toughest bits but nobody will know: you won’t damage the steak. If you hate handling raw meat you can wear disposable gloves. (My youngest sister cuts raw chicken using a fork and a sharp knife – harder to cut evenly-sized pieces but she doesn’t have to touch it.)

Next, roll the bits of meat in seasoned flour. (If you haven’t a clue what your taste would be with flour and seasoning, I used 5 quick grinds of the pepper mill. You can see the pepper in the flour but it doesn’t make the casserole taste peppery or hot. I used a tiny amount of salt, less than half a pinch of rock salt, crumbled between my fingers over the flour, which I then mixed up so the seasoning was mixed in.) I was in a hurry and was dealing with half the amount of meat I’d normally cook so threw it all in and mixed it with my hands until each piece was properly covered in flour, which took all of 30 seconds. The reason you coat the meat in the flour is to create the thickening agent for the gravy which is going to be made from the stock, wine and meat juices, otherwise it’d be very thin.

I try and minimise the amount of fat I use: traditional recipes often tell you to cook the meat in butter and/or dripping but I judged by eye and weighed afterwards. That’s 15g butter and 1 tbsp olive oil, although I could have used a touch less of the latter. Chuck them both in a frying pan, or chef’s pan if you have one. You ideally want something non-stick for this bit unless you don’t mind stuff sticking to your pans or they are well-seasoned.* Heat the oil and butter together, ensuring the bottom of the pan is coated.

*Seasoning a new pan for cooking requires the application of oil, as per the link above. It might sound daft, but when I was researching additional information for this post, I saw that quite a few people don’t understand why they’re having to add salt and pepper to their new pan! Totally different type of seasoning, unhelpfully with the same name. Don’t feel bad if you did think it, it’s not a totally mad conclusion to reach, even if it won’t help stop stuff sticking, which is what seasoning a pan properly is meant to do.

When it reaches temperature, add the meat and fry it until it’s sealed (no raw bits showing) and the floury coating starts to go golden brown. If you’re not sure if the fat is hot enough, you can test it by using one of the tinier pieces you’ll inevitably end up with: just add it to the pan and you want to see the oil bubbling round the flour around the edge of the steak. If it isn’t bubbling the fat’s not hot enough: you want a shimmer not smoke. If it starts spitting fiercely, reduce the heat a bit and let it cool slightly before adding the rest or it’ll spit fat all over the place – use a spatter guard if you have one until it calms down. Once you’ve added all the meat, keep turning it to get it sealed all over and keep scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent it sticking or burning. Once all the meat is browned (you can do this in batches if you only have a small pan or are cooking more) just set it aside. I put mine in the casserole dish – it doesn’t matter that it will cool slightly. (You’re sealing in the juices with the heat but it’s the oven time that’s going to cook it so don’t expect the meat to be any less tough at this stage – it will be melt in the mouth by the end of it but all the frying in the world isn’t going to make a discernible difference, other than toughening the outside of the meat, so stop when it’s just evenly browned, it takes maybe 10 minutes, depending on how high you’ve got your heat and how much meat you’re doing.)

Now fry the onion and garlic until soft, in the oil left behind by the meat: you shouldn’t need to add more but do if it’s sticking badly, more likely with a normal pan, not teflon-coated. Normally you crush garlic but it’s very easy to burn it and you don’t want that flavour in your casserole as it will taint all the gravy, so I’ve thinly sliced it. It won’t cook all the way through in the pan but will pretty much dissolve by the time it’s all done. If you don’t have a garlic press but want crushed garlic, you can easily crush it, once you’ve peeled it, under the flat blade of a Chef’s knife. Then chop it until it’s as fine as you want it. When the onion’s released any moisture (especially if using frozen chopped onion) you can add the bacon to the pan and stir well. Carry on until it’s just cooked – don’t leave it raw but you don’t want it well done enough to stick in a sandwich – then add that to the meat you set aside earlier. Had I been using fresh onion, I’d have done the bacon first and used some of the fat it gave off for the onions, but I knew they would produce liquid which I wanted to cook off before adding the bacon so it wasn’t all soggy.

Once you’ve done that, add some of the red wine – a small splash – to the pan. It’ll bubble and hiss and you need to scrape all the bits that are stuck to the pan, adding more of the wine if you need to, to get them all off the bottom with your chosen utensil and giving it a good swish round to loosen any stuck bits. If you don’t want to use the wine, a bit of water or stock will do instead. Use plain water very sparingly – add maybe 10ml (a dessert spoon) of water at a time to avoid massive hissing and spitting. This scraping, swishing the wine round and creating a sort of wine gravy, is called ‘deglazing’. It’s far less intimidating than it sounds – at least, it intimidated me when I was 18. My mum didn’t deglaze stuff when she cooked while I was growing up …

Here’s one I deglazed earlier. Sorry about all the steam, but it should give you an idea of what you want. Remove this from the heat and pour/scrape the liquid into your casserole dish over the top of the meat and cooked onion etc.

More steam but that's it all ready to go in the oven for 2.5 hours.

More steam but that’s it all ready to go in the oven for 2.5 hours. The steam is making the meat look slightly pale but it’s not half raw, like it looks, apart from the venison, of course.

You can make this in any casserole dish that is safe to go in the oven and has a lid. I’m using my lovely German clay-baker, or Römertopf. You soak those in water for 10 minutes before using them. It’s the sort of thing that you sometimes see in charity shops and they’re a bargain usually as people don’t have a clue how to use them. Fortunately, we have the internet, so even without a set of instructions you can go here and find out all about them. One of the nice things is that it’s hard to over-cook something or let it get to the point of sticking, unless you just abandon it for ages over the cook time. Also, I’ve been using that dish since I nicked it from my parents at the age of 18, so it’s got sentimental value. I’m amazed it’s survived all the house moves but they’re pretty good so long as you don’t shock them into breaking and I haven’t managed that yet. Put the lid on and put your casserole into the preheated oven.

At an hour into the cooking time I checked it and added some more stock to thin the gravy a bit as the flour was doing its job. At the two hour mark I checked again. It didn’t need any extra liquid (you want to keep the meat and veg covered so the liquid cooks it) and I removed the lid for the last 20 minutes or so, just to allow some of the liquid to evaporate and the sauce to reach the consistency I wanted.

A simple venison casserole.

A simple venison casserole.

To check that the venison was cooked, I removed a bit and just tried to cut through it with the point of a sharp knife – no sawing. It was fine, but had it not been right I’d have recovered it, stuck it back in the oven and checked every half hour until it was done.

REMOVE THE BOUQUET GARNI! If you don’t, someone (often the same person) will get this in their serving every time the family asks you to make it and they will mock you for ever. It’s been about 20 years since I last did it, I think, but mockery banks ensure I’m reminded of my ‘tea bag stew’ at frequent opportunities. That said, they do keep asking for it, so it can’t be horrible. Bin the bouquet garni: you can’t re-use them and they’re fairly cheap. You can make your own, but I’ve only bothered once and preferred the flavour of the bought stuff.

SAM_0287There: all tender and lovely and no sign at all that it’s a cheaper cut of meat. Do get into the habit of tasting what you’re cooking and learn how to adjust seasoning if you get it wrong. Adding more is a lot easier than trying to undo the damage of over-seasoning. If you need to make an adjustment and you don’t want to risk overcooking the meat or veg, just drain the casserole into a colander over a saucepan to collect the gravy. You can then put the meat and veg back in the casserole dish and leave them to one side as you adjust the sauce. Here are some hints on how to fix some common mistakes. If you’ve got way more liquid than you want, you can reduce the sauce by stirring as you simmer it quickly. The flavour may intensify so if you don’t want this, you can either just use some of the excess for another meal or you can thicken it with flour/cornflour/boiled potato on the hob, before pouring back over the meat. You could even use beef instant gravy granules if you’re stuck: adding a teaspoon at a time to the hot liquid and stirring until well dissolved and you get the consistency you want. (Allow it to thicken – if you overdo it you need to add more liquid and you run the risk of knocking all the flavour out of it. Be patient: if the meat isn’t in there you can turn on a low heat under the saucepan to do this, stirring continuously.) You can also reduce the sauce if you want to cook off some of the alcohol. It’s a myth that cooking gets rid of all the alcohol, so you can use what you want without ramifications and feed it to children. I’ve rendered a party of six completely hammered, using nothing more than an overly-boozy main course and a couple of glasses of wine as they ate. Facts are here, complete with link to the research.

Serve with a load of veg and some potatoes. I’ve done this for dinner parties with new potatoes or a nice creamy mash, roasties and once it made a very nice oven-baked jacket potato a bit special for a leftovers lunch. If you need to stretch it, use different types of veg to bulk it out – anything that works with the gravy. Anything you’d have with a roast would be fine, except maybe sprouts unless you particularly like that sort of thing.

If you’re not eating it immediately, tip it out of your casserole and into something else to cool. Some methods talk about cooling stuff very quickly with ice water underneath the container of hot food but that seems rather too much like hard work, provided the ambient temperature isn’t high. Just put it in the largest non-metal, uncovered thing you have for the amount of casserole and stir it often. Mine’s been out of the oven for about an hour now and by the time I go to bed it will be completely cool so I can stick a lid on it and put it in the fridge (or freezer). If you see condensation on the inside of your plastic boxes of food before you put them in the fridge, they weren’t properly cool before you put the lid on, which can allow bacteria to breed. Better leave it out (albeit out of reach of cats etc) overnight than put it in the fridge warm. At least, that is what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years and have not poisoned myself yet.

I hope that helped. If anything isn’t clear and you fancy having a go, just leave me a question in the comments and I’ll do my best to provide practical advice. As always, though, don’t panic and you will find that there is usually a way to rescue culinary disasters – even if it’s only laughing about them round the table as you share a take-away afterwards, whilst the remains of the original meal soak in the sink. I’ve done that too.


About SAM2.0

You'll want me on your team for the Zombie Apocalypse.
This entry was posted in Recipes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s