A: I like a story to go with the food and in times of austerity a good way is to draw inspirations from the past. The Ministry of Food Control during World War 1 and the Ministry of Food during World War 2 encouraged households to prepare food with rationed commodities. Butter, sugar and chocolate were among the items that were heavily controlled. So cobbler was encouraged as it uses no butter and is a wholesome meal in itself. During cold winter evenings I do prefer a stew and bread. So the cobbler fits in very well as it is a stew and bread rolled into one dish essentially.
N: It is indeed almost impossible to find a British dish that does not use oodles of butter. So probably there is some truth in the World War 2 story. But the recipes from most chefs are a rich distant relative of a humble cobbler where I can imagine a mom cooking some leftover meat and putting some dough on it. I can almost see her counting the dough balls one hand and counting her children on another to make sure each of them had at least one.
My friend makes a fantastic cobbler where the Gorgonzola cheese scones add to the richness of the venison and he was kind enough to cook it for us.
A: There are many combinations of ingredients for this winter warmer and almost all chefs have their own favourite secret ingredient. My own variation comes from making the stew with whatever root vegetable is there in the fridge. I have used a swede-celeriac combo instead of carrot and leek with quite stunning results. But let me give you the traditional version here and once you have mastered the process I am sure you will like to experiment with different ingredients.
The measurements are for 6 people and you need at least a 3.5 litre oven proof casserole with lid.
Ingredients for the stew:
900 gm stewing beef steak cut into 3-4 cm chunks. For a leaner version I have tried with venison and that has quite a distinctive flavour.
3 tbsp plain white flour
6 tbsp vegetable oil
2 white onions, sliced
2 carrots cut into 2 cm slices
2 celery stalks, cut into 2 cm slices
1 leek, cut into 2 cm slices
1 tbsp tomato purée
600 ml red wine
600 ml beef stock
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Ingredients for the cobbler topping:
scones dough infused with fresh finely chopped rosemary
grated Cheddar cheese
1 egg (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. While the oven is reaching the desired temperature, take the flour in a large bowl and mix the salt and pepper. Toss the beef in the seasoned flour so that each piece is coated. Take half the oil in a heavy bottom pan and brown the meat in batches without crowding.
The purpose of browning is not to cook the meat, but just to colour the flour so that the meat holds together during the long stewing process. The oil needs to be on high heat and the meat needs to be in the oil for as short a period as possible. Working on low heat will imply a prolonged exposure and will start cooking the meat. This will result in overcooked meat in the stew. The easiest way to spoil the meat is to overcook. Set the browned meat aside.
N: I have some ideas for a vegetarian version of this one pot dish. I will try it out and let you know.
A: Take the remaining oil in the same pan and fry the onions, carrots, leek and celery over a medium heat, stirring occasionally. It takes about 10 minutes to soften the vegetable. Now add the tomato purée and cook for another 2 minutes.
Pour the wine into the pan and stir to deglaze. Bring to boil and simmer for 1 minute. Pour in the stock and the bay leaf. Bring in the beef browned earlier and gently stir everything together. Once simmering, transfer to the casserole, cover with the lid and transfer to the oven to cook for 1 and 1/2 hours.
There is always debate about the quality of red wine to use for cooking. One school of thought is to use a cheap wine because when you heat the wine you are essentially breaking the wine structure down. So, it doesn’t matter if you use a cheap wine. I, however, think this is probably not how it works. Red wine is composed of a complex mixture of organic material from the grapes and other fruits added for the distinctive flavour. A cheap wine is very light on these organic extracts and rich on chemicals. When you heat the wine, some of the water evaporates and what remains is the organic extract. If you use a cheap wine, you will be left with a lot of synthetic tannin and very little of the natural material. So, I try to use a full or medium bodied wine for my cooking – not too expensive but not the cheap ones either.
It is a good time to get the scones dough ready. Nilanjana does make lovely sweet and savoury scones and she will probably write a post on scones. For the cobbler you need a savoury wholemeal dough mix with freshly chopped rosemary inside.
Once the stew has cooked for 1 and 1/2 hours in the oven, take the casserole out and top it with 6-7 scones. Optionally brush them with egg if you prefer a fine glaze on the scones. Make sure that there is sufficient gap between the dough balls as they are going to expand a lot during baking. Top the balls with the grated Cheddar.
Increase the temperature of the oven to 220°C. Return the casserole to the oven and bake uncovered for 25 minutes. The scones would have risen. The surface should have been crisp and golden, yet inside it should be deliciously soft. The moist underneath should have soaked up the rich meaty juices from the stew.
Sprinkle the chopped parsley and serve.
Enjoy with a glass of full bodied red wine!