Sunday, 7 January 2007

Seeing things through orange-hued glasses

The new year has brought a lovely new addition to Les Petit Pois' modest kitchen. In order to mark a recent milestone, a dear friend found me a set a set of little-used, volcano-orange Le Creuset pots--5 in total, complete with a clever hanging/storage rack. Though I did swear a bit when lugging them back home that night, I am completely besotted. Now, it may be the perfectly-seasoned, heavy-as-all-get-out cast iron which has led to a noticeable improvement in cooking outcomes this week. It's not difficult to imagine that the carrot-fennel soup I wizzed up, or, for that matter, the braised lentils I wrote about previously, would benefit from being cooked in a heavy-bottomed pot. And yet, the effect seems to be psychological as well, as if owning the pots of a serious chef has helped me to throw off some of the self-doubt that often stymies my cooking. Or maybe this is just a gift with good karma.

As I write, the two largest pots in the ensemble are being pressed into service. The 20cm is full to the brim with an ever so slowly simmering carbonnade (beef and beer stew a la Flanders), the largest has just gone back into the oven housing the now-legendary (at least in my cooking and blog-obsessed world) no-knead bread. With chilly, if not cold, weather on the horizon for the foreseeable future, I'm thinking that this stew-bread double act, supported by an able cast of soups and slow-cooked legumes (accompanied by lots of spicy red poured into those Bordeaux glasses...) has a profitable run ahead of it.

Carbonnade (primarily adapted from Larousse and Nigella Lawson's recipe for beef braised in beer from How to Eat)

1 tbsp flour
1 1/2 pounds lean stewing meat
1-2 tbsp olive oil
3 medium onions
2 garlic gloves
1 cup prunes
16 oz beer*
several branches fresh thyme
2 heaping teaspoons dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste

serves 4-5
total time: 2-3 hours
active time: 30-40 minutes

Lightly coat chunks of stewing meat in flour. Add 1 tbsp oil to a large frying pan and heat to medium-high. Add meat, in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, and brown well on all sides. Don't try to turn the meat too quickly; it will probably take a few minutes per side. In the meantime, slice the onions thinly. After the meat is done, remove to a plate and add onions to the frying pan. Lower heat slightly. Using a bit more oil if necessary, cook slowly until golden brown, 15-20 minutes.
Transfer both meat and onions to a lidded casserole or pot, preferably one that fits the items somewhat tightly. Add a splash of beer to the frying pan, turn up the heat and gently scrape up any browned bits. Pour this and the rest of the beer over the meat, topping up with water if the meat is not mostly covered. Add prunes, sliced in half if desired, whole garlic cloves, and the thyme, stripped from its branches.
Cover well and place on low simmer. (If you cannot keep the surface at a mere shudder, consider using a ring reducer or placing the stew in a low oven.) Check periodically, topping up with water if it looks like it's drying out. Add mustard with about an hour to go. The beef will be tender after about 2 hours, but could happily cook for at least an hour more.
Season, adding more mustard if necessary, and serve over mashed potatoes, wide noodles or with lots of bread.

* I've used both IPA-style ales and wheat beers with success. If using a porter or stout, you might consider adding a teaspoon or so of brown sugar, although I've found that the carmelised onions and prunes offset any bitterness from the beer.

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