Making Stews and Casseroles

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Making stews and casseroles

The slow cooker’s gentle, constant heat makes it perfect for making stews and casseroles. The lengthy cooking allows cuts of meat to become tender and succulent, and even the toughest pieces cab be turned into a flavoursome meal.

Stews, casseroles, carbonnades, hot-pots and navarins are all names for what is, essentially, the same type of dish – meat and/or vegetables cooked in liquid in a cooking pot. Originally, the word stew described dishes cooked in the oven, but now the names are largely interchangeable.

 

Choosing the right cut

Ideal meats for slow cooking are the cheaper cuts, such as brisket, chuck steak, blade-bone, shank and knuckle. These cuts come from the part of the animal (usually the front) that has worked hardest, so have a looser texture and a good marbling of fat. During cooking the connective tissues and fat dissolve to create a rich gravy and the fibres open up and allow moisture to penetrate, making them juicy. These cuts also have far greater flavour than very lean ones.

More expensive cuts of meat, such as fine-grained and densely-textured sirloin steak and pork fillet, are delicious when cooked to rare or medium by quick-frying or grilling (broiling). However, they are less suitable for slow cooking because the tightness of the fibres prevent them absorbing the liquid around them. This means that although they become tender when cooked in a slow cooker, the final stew will lack succulence and flavour.

Cutting meat into cubes

Tougher cuts of meat, such as stewing steak, cook more evenly and quickly if they are cut into small, even-size cubes; 2.5cm/1 in is ideal. They should be slightly larger than the vegetable being cooked in the stew because these will take a little longer to cook than the meat. Although excess fat should be removed, some marbling is useful for keeping the meat moist. Any excess fat can be skimmed off after cooking.

  • Trim the meat, cutting off the excess fat and any gristle, sinew or membranes white it is in one piece.

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  • Using a large sharp knife, cut the meat across the grain into 2.5cm/1 in thick slice. These slices can be used for stews and casseroles. Cutting across the grain makes the fibres shorter so that the meat is more tender.

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  • To cut the meat into cubes, first cut the slices lengthways into thick strips. Remove any fat or gristle as you go.

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  • Cut each strip crossways into 2.5cm/1 in cubes. (When preparing meats such as shoulder of lamb, it may not be possible to cut into perfect cubes. Simply cut into evenly-sized pieces, removing any fat or gristle as you go.)

Preparing chops

These are usually sold ready-prepared and fairly lean, but it is usually worth trimming a little before cooking. This help them cook, look and taste better.

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  • Using sharp kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, remove the excess fat cutting around the contours of the chop and leaving a little less than 5mm/4in fat on the edge of each chop.

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  • If you are going to pre-fry chops, such as bacon or gammon, before adding to the slow cooker, make shallow cuts with the knife all around the edge. The edge of the meat will then fan out during frying, preventing the meat curling up, so that it stays in constant contact with the frying pan.

Preparing poultry

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A variety of chicken and game portions can be used in stews and casseroles – from whole or diced breast portions, to drumsticks and thighs. Leaving the bones in the meat during cooking will enhance the flavour, or you may remove them (saving to use for stock) if you prefer. Generally, it is better to remove poultry skin before casseroling because it won’t crispen during the moist cooking.

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To skin breast fillets, carefully pull the skin and thin membrane away from the meat. If you like use a small, sharp knife to cut the meat off the rib bone and any remaining breastbone. Turn the breast portion over and remove the thin, white central tendons from the meat.

 

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To prepare escalopes (scallops), cut the breast in half horizontally, holding your hand on top of the chicken breast as you cut. A chicken breast potion will yield two escalopes, a duck breast portion three, and turkey four or more.

To skin and bone chicken thighs, use a sharp knife to loosen the skin, then pull it away from the meat. Carefully cut the flesh lengthways along the main thigh bone, then cut the bone out, trimming the meat close to it.

 

 

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Preparing vegetables

One of the unusual characteristics of slow cooking is that many types of vegetables take longer to cook than meat. To ensure that they should be cut into even-size pieces slightly smaller than the meat.

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When preparing onion, slice them thinly or chop finely. If you want to have chunkier pieces, fry them until they are soft before adding to the slow cooker, because onion takes a ling time to cook in a slow cooker.

Har root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and turnips take the longest time to cook in the slow cooker. Cut them into 5mm/ ¼ in dice, slices or sticks. (Potatoes discolour when exposed to air, so make sure they are covered with liquid during cooking.)

 

COOK’S TIP

Some vegetables, such as (bell) peppers, become bitter if cooked too long and some types, especially green peppers, may discolour. They cook fairly quickly, so add these to the slow cooker 45 minutes – 1 hour before the end of cooking time.

 

LIQUIDS FOR CASSEROLES AND STEWS

 

The finished sauce is provided by a mixture of the juices from the meat and vegetables and the liquid that is added at the start of cooking. The long cooking time ensures plenty of flavour if you use water, although other liquids will give the dish a richer finish. You may need to adjust the quantity of liquid used, according to the main ingredients in the dish; vegetables such as mushrooms, for example, will give out a lot of moisture that will thin the sauce.

Stock Home-made stock is preferable, but you can use ready-made fresh stock, or good-quality stock cubes or bouillon powder. Make these to the correct strength (you many only need a small portion of stock cube) because too much can produce an over-salty, artificial flavour. Try to use the flavour of stock that matches the dish. If you haven’t got the appropriate meat stock, use vegetable stock instead.

Wine Red or white wine will add extra flavour and its acidity will help to tenderize the meat. Choose a wine that you enjoy drinking because a really cheap, acidic wine will spoil the finished dish. Generally, it is preferable to use a mixture of wine and stock, rather than wine alone.

Cider This flavours and tenderizes meat in the same way as wine, and is especially once containing fruit. Unless you require a very sweet finish, use dry (hard) or medium cider.

Beer Pale or brown ale or stout makes a rich dark sauce and cook without a hint of its original bitterness. Too much can be overpowering, through, so use a mixture of beer and stock.

Tomatoes These add flavour to the dish. You can use chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, concentrated puree (paste), or tomato juice.

 

Basic techniques

There are two basic ways of making slow cooker stews and casseroles; a simple one-step method, where cold raw ingredients are placed in the ceramic cooking pot, and a second method in vegetables are fried beforehand.

Making a one-step stew

Irish stew is a classic one-step stew, and the recipe given here is a perfect guide to cooking any stew using this technique. All the ingredients are placed in the ceramic cooking pot without pre-frying. This reduces preparation time and is also suitable for those on a reduced-fat diet.

The stock or cooking liquid is usually cold, but may be not to speed up the cooking process. For the tenderest results, casseroles should be cooked on a low setting. However, when  the ingredients are cold to begin with, and especially if cooking larger pieces of meat, it is better to start the cooking on the high or auto setting for 1-2 hours.

SERVES 4

900g/2lb boned shoulder of lamb or 8 neck of lamb chops

450g/1lb onion

900g/2lb potatoes

1 carrot, sliced (optional)

Spring of thyme or bay leaf (optional)

About 600ml/1 pint.2 ½ cups lamb or vegetable stock salt and ground black pepper

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  • Using a sharp knife, trim all excess fat from the lamb, then cut the meat into 3cm/1 ¼ in pieces. (If using lamb chops these may be left whole.)

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  • Using a sharp knife, slice the onion and potatoes as thinly as possible.

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  • Place the onions at the bottom of the ceramic cooking pot, then arrange the potatoes, carrot and herbs, if using on top and finally the meat. Lightly season each layer with salt and pepper.

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  • Pour the stock over the meat. If necessary, and a little more stock to cover the meat. Cover the slow cooker with the lid and cook on auto or high for 2 hours.

 

  • Using a large spoon, skin off any scum that has risen to the surface. Re-cover the pot and leave on auto or switch to low and cook for a further 4-6 hours, or until the meat and vegetables are very tender and juice.

 

 

 

Maki a pre-fried stew

This method is used for the majority of stews and casseroles, because it adds colour and an intense rich flavour. The natural sugars in the ingredients are broken down by pre-frying and the sweet, complex flavours are released. While pre-cooking meat improves the taste and appearance of the cooked casserole, it is also useful to give vegetables the same treatment, especially onion tenderize than meat in a slow cooker.

 

SERVES 4-6

900gg/2lb lean stewing steak

45ml/3 tbsp plain (all-purpose) flour

50g/2oz/ ¼ cup butter

30ml/2 tbsp oil

12 baby (pearl) onions, peeled

115g/4oz button (white) mushrooms

1 garlic clove, crushed

300ml/ ½ pint/1 ¼ cups red wine

150ml/ ¼ pint/ cup near-boiling beef stock

1bay leaf

30ml/2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley salt and ground black pepper

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  • Trim the meat and cut into 2.5cm/1 in cubes. Season the flour with salt and black pepper and either spread out on a plate or place in a plastic bag. Roll the meat in the flour, or add a few cubes at a time to the bag, shaking until coated, then remove and coat the next batch. Shake off any excess and reserve.
  • Melt half the oil in a large frying pan. (If you prefer, you can reduce the fat slightly by using a non-stick frying pan.)

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  • When the butter sizzles, fry the meat in two or three batches. (Do not try to cook too much meat at once because it will start to stew, rather than brown.) Turn the meat frequently, so that it browns on all sides. Lift the meat out of the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to the ceramic cooking pot.

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  • Heat the remaining butter and oil in the frying pan, then add the onions and cook until glazed and golden brown. Transfer to the ceramic cooking pot using a slotted spoon. Add the mushrooms add garlic to the pan and cook, for 2-3 minutes until browned, then transfer to the cooking pot.

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  • Sprinkle any remaining flour into the pan juice and stir to mix. Gradually mix in the red wine, followed by the stock.
  • Stir the sauce to loosen any sediment from the base of the pan and heat to simmering point. Pour over the meat and vegetables, and add the bay leaf, pressing it down into the liquid.

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  • Cover the slow cooker with the lid and switch to high or auto. Cook for 1 hour, then leave on auto or switch to low and cook for a further 6-8 hours or until the meat and vegetables are tender. Alternatively, cook on high throughout for 4-5 hours. Sprinkle over the parsley just before serving.

 

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Thickening stews

There are many different ways to thicken the sauces of stews and casseroles.

Four Meat is often fried before being put in the ceramic cooking pot, is often fried before being put in the ceramic cooking pot, and can be first dusted in flour, which will act as a thickener for the juice as the meat cooks. Do not over –brown the flour as this gives it a bitter flavour, only fry until light brown.

Alternatively, you can add flour towards the end of cooking time by whisking in a paste made from equal quantities of flour and butter. Allow extra cooking time to allow the flour to cook and lose its “raw” flavour.

 

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Cornflour/cornstarch or arrowroot

These very fine flours can both used as thickeners. They should be blended with a little water or other cold liquid before being stirred into the stew.

Pasta and rice If it becomes obvious part-way through cooking that the stew or casserole will be too thin, you can stir in a little pasta or easy-cook (converted) rice, which will absorb some of the liquid. These should be added about 45 minutes before the end of cooking time. (Lentils and grins, such as pearl barley. Will also act as thickeners, but these must be added early in the cooking time to cook thoroughly.)

Reduction If the sauce is too thin when cooking is complete, lift out the meat and vegetables with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour the liquid into a wide pan or frying pan and boil fast to reduce the liquid. Add the meat and vegetables to the reduced sauce and gently reheat. This is a useful technique with delicate fish and chicken, which may break up if overcooked.

Skimming off fat

If the dish has produced a lot of fat during cooking, you may wish t remove it before serving. Most will rise to the surface so that you can simply skim it off the top, using a large kitchen spoon. Further fat can be removed using absorbent kitchen paper. Simply rest the kitchen paper on the surface of the stew and remove as soon as it has soaked up the fat. If you have made the dish that the fat solidifies on the top of the stew or casserole. It can then be lifted or scooped off.

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