Slow-cooked beef and Old Speckled Hen stew

DSC00020.jpgWe’ve been in the UK for the last ten days, mainly drifting about in Devon and Cornwall, where the temperatures were surprisingly mild and the sun shone most of the time. Now that we are back in Warwickshire, things have taken a downward turn, with strong winds and pelting rain.

My parents are due back from a holiday in Madeira today, so if I can ever brave the rain to get across to Tesco, I am planning to make a warming beef and ale stew to leave for them to heat up when they get home – they have a two-hour drive from Gatwick when they land, so my mum certainly won’t be wanting to cook. A bowl of stew and a herby dumpling or two should be just the ticket.

One thing we really miss in Turkey is root vegetables. Parsnips, turnips and swede are all unheard of (though we are growing our own parsnips this year, which we should be able to start harvesting after Christmas, if we can prize Mr Patchy-cat out of the pots). We can get carrots and celeriac, but they don’t quite cut the mustard in an old-fashioned stew, without their other rooty friends, so I am rather looking forward to tonight’s supper (and it’s only midday).

You can use any mix of veggies in whatever proportions you like for this – I’ve just given you the quantities I’ve used as a rough guide. I would normally add a couple of sticks of celery, or a small celeriac (celery root), but my mum is not keen on cooked celery, so I’ve left it out. I usually include a small potato, as the starch does help to make the gravy deliciously unctuous, but you can leave it out if you plan to serve the stew with mashed potatoes instead of dumplings (though I can’t really see that you couldn’t have both). I like to add a couple of handfuls of frozen peas right at the end, mainly because they are such a lovely colour and brighten things up.

I didn’t think to buy fresh herbs and there is nothing in the garden, so I’ve had to make do with some dried mixed herbs, though I do have a stash of Turkish bay leaves from our garden, which I dried and brought over with me. If you have some rosemary and thyme in the garden, they would definitely add a lovely flavour to the finished article. You can just tie them in a bundle and take them out before you serve, if you can’t be bothered to chop them up.

The stew can either be cooked entirely on the hob over a very low heat, or it can braise slowly in the oven once you’ve thrown it together, whichever you prefer. I think the flavour is better if it has been cooked in the oven, and you can leave it in there  for hours on a low heat – perfect to come home to if you’ve been out in the cold. You could also cook this in a slow cooker, in which case you would need to slightly reduce the amount of liquid. The dumplings can also be cooked either on the hob or in the oven – if you cook them on the hob, they will steam rather than bake, so they will be soft and squidgy but won’t have a crunchy brown top. The choice is yours. Whichever way you choose to cook it, the stew does really need around three hours for the beef to be meltingly tender.

I’ve used Old Speckled Hen beer, because that is what was in the fridge, but any ale or bitter would give a similar result. You could certainly use lager, which wouldn’t be quite so rich, or you could go the other way and use a stout beer or brown ale, which would give you a very dark and rich sauce (Turkish cooks: Efes dark is perfect for this). All of them would be yummy, just experiment to see which you like best.

Slow cooked beef and Old Speckled Hen stew

Serves 4 to 5 people

600g stewing or braising beef
1 tablespoon oil and a generous knob of butter
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 leek, sliced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 small turnip (about 200g), peeled and diced
A piece of swede (about 200g), peeled and diced
1 medium parsnip, peeled and diced
1 small potato, peeled and diced
2 sticks of celery, diced – or one small celeriac, peeled and diced (optional)
2 tablespoons plain flour
1 can of ale (mine was 1 pint – no need to be too exact)
250ml hot water from the kettle
1 beef or chicken stock cube, or a teaspoon of Bovril
A few sprigs of thyme and rosemary (or a teaspoon of dried herbs)
3 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A couple of handfuls of frozen peas, thawed
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley to finish
For the dumplings:

75g suet (vegetable suet is fine)
150g self-raising flour
150ml to 200ml cold water
Salt and pepper
Chopped rosemary, parsley and thyme, or a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs (optional)


If cooking in the oven, pre-heat to 150C. Put the kettle on to boil.

Cut the beef into bite-sized pieces, trimming off any fatty or otherwise unpleasant bits.

Heat the oil and butter in a large saute pan or casserole over a medium to high heat. Once it is hot, add the beef and allow to brown, turning it over occasionally, so that it browns on all sides.

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Add the onions and leeks and continue to cook until they have softened.

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Add all the root vegetables and potatoes and give everything a good mix around, then stir in the flour.

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Once the flour is well mixed in with the meat and veggies, pour in the beer, stir well and bring to the boil.

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Add the 250ml of hot water from the kettle, along with the herbs, bay leaves, stock cube and salt and pepper. Give everything a good stir, bring back to the boil, then cover with a lid and cook either over a very low heat on the hob or in the oven.

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Check at least every hour and add more hot water from the kettle if you think the gravy is reducing too much.

About half an hour before you are ready to serve, increase the oven temperature to 200C if you are planning to cook the dumplings in the oven.

For the dumplings, mix the flour, suet, herbs and salt and pepper in a bowl, then add the water- you may not need all of it. The mixture should be fairly stiff and just about drop off the spoon if you hold it up over the bowl – think thick porridge-like consistency.

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Spoon four large dollops of the mix onto the top of the stew – space them out well , as they will grow.

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If you are cooking in the oven, do not cover with the lid, then you will get a nice crunchy brown top. If you are cooking on the hob, replace the lid and continue to cook the stew over a low heat for about 20 minutes or until the dumplings are light and fluffy. You can turn them over half way through if you want to, though I think this just makes them soggy (don’t turn them over if you are cooking in the oven or you will lose your crunchy top).

Once the dumplings are cooked and you are nearly ready to serve, stir in the peas and the chopped parsley (you might need to gently push the dumplings to one side to do this), and cook for a few minutes more just to heat the peas through.

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