Sometimes the simple dishes are exactly what you want, comfort food is what we are talking about here, and on a cold wet day what is more comforting than a plate of old-fashioned beef stew?
Stews are made with the cheaper cuts of meat, because they require a long, slow cooking time and the cheaper cuts have loads of flavour to yield up to the finished dish. Shin of beef is my favourite cut for stewing, because it has a lot of gelatinous and connective tissue that melts down to nothing over a couple of hours cooking, but which enriches the stew enormously.
The choice of vegetables is pretty simple; onions, leeks, celery and carrots are a given, but what else you add is down to personal taste. Me, I like turnips in a stew, but you could also add cubes of swede, celeriac or parsnips, although I think that the latter are too sweet for a beef stew. You could also add in some pulses; butter beans, cannellini beans or borlotti beans would all work, but then you are getting into a different, but equally delicious sort of dish.
As to liquid, I don’t think that you can go far wrong with stock, from a cube is fine with this sort of dish, but you might also use beer. It is worth experimenting with different kinds of beer. You will get a far different stew from a lager or pale ale than you would from a darker ale or stout. Personally, I think that stout can be too bitter, certainly if you use Guinness, but it is al down to personal taste. Cider would work with a pork stew, but wine takes you to a different place again.
Seasoning needs to be simple; salt, pepper, parsley, thyme and maybe a bay leaf or two work for me. Fresh herbs can be tied into a bouquet garni or you can just add a teaspoon of dried thyme.
As too technique, nothing could be simpler.
Heat some oil in a heavy pan with a lid on the hob, throw in the vegetables, cook for a few minutes and then add the cubed meat. You can coat the beef in flour and seal it in a frying pan beforehand, but you don’t really need to do this, although it does give a more intense finished flavour. If you do seal the meat, don’t forget to deglaze the pan with some stock or beer and add this to your stew pot with the rest of the liquid and the seasonings and aromatics.
Then, bring to a simmer, cover and cook for at least two hours. The vegetables will start to break down, but that is exactly what you want. What you don’t want is for the dish to dry out or stick, so keep checking and add some water if it does start to look dry.
You don’t really want the stew to be too thick when you serve, either, but if it looks too thin, you can always thicken it with some cornflour or potato flour paste.
You can serve this with mashed potatoes or, as I did, just serve it with plenty of bread to soak up the delicious gravy. You can also serve some steamed cabbage if you like and some English mustard would also be welcome on the side.