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With a friend in tow for companionship I recently enjoyed a day course at Betty's Cookery School in Harrogate. The welcome was warm, the environment hospitable and the buttery croissants we devoured for breakfast with Café Blend were still warm from their bakery across the road. I can still taste them.
French cookery was the order of the day and when our Belgian tutor casually remarked we had "much to get through", he wasn't joking! I emerged eight hours later, a washed out rag but smelling of all things good from Rillettes of Duck and Daube de Boeuf to Tarte Tatin aux Poires. It was a fun, memorable day which I heartily recommend during which I was immersed in the' art of slow cooking'.
I have never been attracted to slow cooking in the 'crock-pot' sense of electric slow cookers. Invented in the 1950's their use exploded in the 70's, when Mable Hoffman created the first successful recipe book dedicated to the crock-pot. I suppose they have their place but I am just unashamedly attached to my worn old pots. I know which one will make a nourishing casserole or a hearty soup and I like to nurture and prod whatever I am cooking from time to time, adding a little more liquid here and there or checking for tenderness. It makes me feel kind of reassured that all is well.
Slow Cooking: warming, deliciously mellow one pots quivering away, tantalising the senses in anticipation of warm, satisfying rations bursting with character. Although applicable to vegetables, the term most often refers to the best means of softening and tenderising the tougher cuts of meat: those parts of the animal which work hardest, such as shoulder, leg or rump. Cuts with a lot of connective tissue such as shank, brisket and oxtail are also great candidates. They are hugely compatible with fibrous roots, dried beans and lentils and as an added benefit, often the most economical. The collagen in the meat becomes soft and tender during long, slow cooking, infusing the vegetables with true depth of flavour, 'locking in taste' and getting all the ingredients working together.
The secret to slow cooking? Make good fresh ingredients your starting point and don't rush it, careful preparation will lead to perfection!
The basic principles of slow cooking meat.
An ovenable, sturdy cast iron pan with a tight fitting lid is a requisite. Place your pan over a high heat and drizzle a little oil into it. Season meat with salt and pepper and sear until browned on all sides before removing and setting aside. If using diced meat, ensure the pieces are of similar size to allow uniform cooking. You may want to deglaze the pan at this point which is simply adding a little liquid to the pan and scraping off any of the tasty little caramelised pieces of meat that are stuck to it. The resulting liquid will add flavour to the dish. You are then ready to partner the meat with compatible vegetables which will generally require to be sautéed on a moderate heat with a little oil before reintroducing the meat along with herbs such as bay or bouquet garni and just enough liquid to cover the meat. This can be topped up during cooking if needs be. Fix the lid tightly onto your pot and place in a pre-heated oven at 150C, Gas 2. Braise for 1 to 5 hours or until tender depending on the cut, type and size of meat.
There are many practical advantages to braising meat and vegetables in one dish. Preparation is minimal, you will have less clearing up to do and there is no need to' hover' whilst it's cooking. Nutrition packed, they are perfect winter warmers for midweek or as great dinner party mains.
Speaking of great dinner party food, I will be hosting a Burn's Supper this weekend. I know, it's a week late but I don't think Rabbie will mind. Ten of us will sit down to traditional fayre but I have decided to go easy on my English friends and offer them an alternative to haggis. Beef braised in red wine with fresh root vegetables will also be on the menu. I know that I can prepare it at leisure and that it will putter away patiently whilst I coax my friends, busy 'chewin the fat', to the table.
Slow cooking is a thing of beauty, producing rich, full flavours with the capability to delight and inspire. Be adventurous and have a go with the more unusual or forgotten cuts available.
A few tips
Some garlic is a great addition to almost any slow cooked dish, adding depth and enhancing flavour.
Slow cooked dishes made one or two days in advance can taste even better.
Add one or two extra carrots cut into chunks to braised meat whilst cooking. Infused with the gorgeous meat juices, these can be removed at the end of cooking and spread onto warm toast as an easy snack. Quite delicious!
Acidic ingredients such as wine or tomato puree are helpful in breaking down connective tissue in meat which will in turn soften it. Marinading meat in wine for a few hours before browning or stirring some tomato puree into the vegetables will make a difference.