I never much cared for stew as I child. I could never understand why people got so excited over stringy, muddy tasting meat that had had the joy cooked out of it, nor the exclamations of, ‘just look how it falls off the bone!’, when all I could see, taste and smell was something akin to dog food. To be honest, it took me the best part of four decades to fully come round to the charms of slow cooked meat of any kind.
But come round I have. I don’t know what happened to change my opinion – maybe it was the pulled pork revolution, the soaring price of prime cuts or simply middle age – but I can’t get enough of the stuff, be it braised, roasted or stewed. There is nothing nicer at this time of year, when it’s cold and dark and there are a million and one things to do in the run up to you bloody well know what, than something slowly blipping away in the oven, filling the house with the most warming, welcoming aromas, and cooked to perfection by the time everyone comes tumbling through the front door. All that’s left for you to do is prepare the accompanying starch – which, let’s face it, is usually mashed potato. What’s not to love?
The trouble is, that while it’s true that the oven does most of the work for you, this kind of cooking still requires a degree of forethought and organisation. It cannot be left to the last minute, or hour, or three – or eight if you favour a slow cooker. This is where I fall down. Planning is not my strong point. Most days, I don’t settle on what I’m making for dinner until about 5.30pm never mind chop onions before breakfast. My scatterbrain approach is not a problem if the fridge contains chicken breasts but, as anyone who has ever tried to cook beef shin in under three hours will know, this is not a workable strategy for stew.
This is why I think the humble pressure cooker deserves its time in the limelight. While there has been much enthusiasm surrounding the rebirth of the slow cooker and its ability to allow busy people to slow cook efficiently and without burning down the house, the time-saving (and therefore energy saving) benefits of literally cooking under pressure have been largely overlooked by the cooking public. Granted it’s not very sexy, but a pressure cooker is to the disorganised cook what the slow cooker is to the methodical – a game changer. A get out of jail free card when you’ve left things too late. You do the same prep as you would with a slow cooker or casserole, but clamp that lid on, bung it on the hob and 30-45 minutes later your meat will be as soft and yielding as if it had been bubbling away all day. Kitchen alchemy.
The only problem is my kids have the same aversion to stew as I once did. They too think it resembles dog food. Thank goodness for those chicken breasts…
Lamb and date tagine
…I have also devised certain strategies to fool my children into thinking a stew is not a stew. The first is to affix the adjective ‘pulled’ to any meat I slow cook, thereby endowing it with slightly hipper credentials. The second is to incorporate lots of spice: a curry, a Brazilian pork feijoada (recipe soon) or a slow cooked Mexican chilli tend to be better received than say Boeuf Bourguignon or a Lancashire hotpot. If all else fails, I stick the meat in a wrap and heavily disguise it with cheese.
You can make this in the oven, set at 150°C for 2-2 1/2 hours until the lamb is soft, or in a slow cooker, but I don’t have one (no room and, because I never go out, no need) so for this you’ll have to refer to the instruction booklet.
Serves 6 or will go even further with the addition of a tin of chickpeas
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1.2 kg lamb (shoulder, or leg if you prefer leaner) cut into 3cm chunks
- 2 onions, roughly chopped
- 1 large or 2 smaller carrots, coarsely diced
- 1 red pepper, deseeded and coarsely diced
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped (leave seeds in if you like it hot)
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 heaped tsp each of ground cumin and ground coriander
- 1 level tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- pinch of saffron steeped in 1 tbsp boiling water
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- 300g tomato passata
- 300g chicken or veg stock
- 10 Medjool dates, stoned and chopped (don’t worry, these melt down and add sweetness to the sauce)
- salt and pepper
- pinch of dried chilli flakes (optional if you like more heat)
- plain yogurt, chopped fresh mint (or parsley or coriander) and pomegranate seeds to prettify
- Season the lamb well with salt and pepper and brown it in batches in whatever pan you are using to make your tagine. Remove each batch with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- If necessary, add a splash more oil to the pan and gently fry the onions, carrots and peppers for 10 minutes until softened.
- Add the garlic and chilli and cook for a minute, then add the ground spices and cook for a further minute.
- Tip the meat back into the pan, then squeeze in the tomato puree and stir to coat the lamb. Let this cook out for a minute, then add the saffron and its steeping water, the passata, stock and chopped dates.
- Bring to the boil, clamp on the lid, turn the heat down to a medium flame and cook for 40-45 minutes on high pressure (I like to check about half way through that it’s not catching on the bottom of the pan). Alternatively place in the oven for 2-2 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender.
- When cooked, skim off any surface fat and check for seasoning. (If the sauce is a bit loose at this stage, strain off the meat and vegetables and reduce the strained sauce over a high heat until it reaches the desired consistency.)
- Serve with rice, cous cous or bulgar wheat, a dollop of plain Greek yogurt and a scattering of fresh herbs and pomegranate seeds. Or if it means your kids will give it a go, in wraps with hummus, lettuce, pine nuts and feta cheese. And don’t, whatever you do, mention the dates.