11 March 2014

Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Herby Dumplings

I was shocked to realise, a few days ago, that it was (very) early Spring and I had yet to make a beef stew with dumplings in the slow cooker!  Just goes to show what a relatively mild (albeit horrendously wet) winter we've had.

Now I absolutely adore beef stew - and a beef stew made in the slow cooker (the right way) is right up there amongst my favourites.

I can hear you all asking what I might consider to be "the right way"?  Well, those of you who have been reading along all these years (well done, if that's you - and thank you!) will recall my saying that I went through a phase of getting lackadaisical with the slow cooker and expecting miracles from it - and not getting them.  You see, to successfully cook in a slow cooker is all about what you put into it - and I'm not just talking the quality of your ingredients (although that does feature, but in a rather smaller way than with other situations).  No, what I'm talking about here is your preparation.  Meat has to be seared, or at the very least browned for additional flavour before being added.  Onions need to be sweated at the least and caramelised at the most, all for additional flavour.  The size of the pieces of meat and/or vegetable that you include, makes a huge difference to the flavour of the end product.

I began to think that you could throw a quartered onion in the slow cooker with a sliced carrot and some chunks of beef and expect a stew at the end of it.  Well, I dare say what I got had definitely been stewed - but was it "a stew?".  No, very definitely not.  No flavour, just hot and wet.  Bleugh.

Whatever you are cooking in the slow cooker - pretty much without exception, savoury wise - needs to have the meat seared or browned.  The difference in flavour for such a simple action, is incredible.  I opted to use beef shin for this stew as I knew the slow cooker would be on for best part of the day (we were visiting my parents so would be out for the day) and such long slow cooking is just perfect for beef shin.  Plus, it is one of the least expensive of all the beef cuts.  We managed to pick up around 500g for £5 - which is perfect.  Yes, shin requires a fair amount of trimming - especially when you've got menfolk who are as sensitive about finding "globby bits" in their stews as mine are - but it is so worth it.  Plus dustbins 1, 2 and 3 (the dogs) are always happy to take care of the trimmings.

Below, I talk about "big" and "small" pieces of vegetables and their role in the creation of the stew.  The same applies to the meat.  Pieces of beef that are relatively lean are kept for the "big" pieces - slightly smaller than 1" square - whereas any pieces that are shot through with impossible to remove sinew and/or fat, are chopped into tiny pieces to dissolve into the gravy.  Nothing gets wasted - it all adds to the glorious flavour.

So having said that, whenever I'm including vegetables, I sort them out into the said "big pieces" and "small pieces" - some of which, like carrot, celery, onion, potato and mushroom, will qualify under both categories.  The "big pieces" go into the slow cooker straight away, without any further preparation than peeling and cutting to size.  However, the "small pieces" vegetables get chopped finely with a view to their disintegrating as they cook (which you definitely don't want the big pieces to do!) and adding their individual gorgeousness to the whole that is the gravy.  Not only that, but the "small pieces" get pan fried - most especially the onions - before being added.  Raw onion added to a stew continues to taste like raw onion.  Even when adding whole shallots, I still pan fry them to get some colour on the outside - which lends flavour to the sauce or gravy and prevents them from tasting too "raw" at the end of it.

In the case of this stew, the "small pieces" I included were onion, garlic, carrot, celery, mushroom and potato.  Everything excepting the potato was there to add to the gravy, the potato was there to add to the thickening.

The "big pieces" included potato, carrot, mushroom, turnip, parsnip and butternut squash.

I also added a whole plethora of other flavours, all of which were there to bump up the gravy from just "gravy" to "WHOA! Awesome gravy!".  I started off with a Knorr Rich Beef Stockpot - just invaluable for dishes like this - then included some horseradish sauce, wholegrain mustard, Bovril, Essential Cuisine's veal stock, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and to thicken the gravy just before serving, some of Bisto's "Rich and Roasted" Best beef gravy granules.  Oh - and a good pinch or more of freshly ground black pepper.  Now, because of ingredients like the stockpot, the horseradish, mustard, Bovril, Worcestershire sauce and gravy granules, the requirement to be super-careful about using salt is paramount.  In fact, I resisted adding any additional salt - and just left it to all those ingredients to do my salt seasoning for me, which turned out very successfully.

As for herbs - can't leave out the herbs! - I used a couple of tablespoonfuls of finely chopped fresh parsley with the stalks included and a couple of bay leaves.

Yes, I threw pretty much everything except the kitchen sink at the stew - and it was fabulous.  The slow cooker went on at 9.30am and we came back late in the afternoon to a house filled with the gorgeous smells of stew cooking and with next to no preparation required other than to mix up the dumplings and warm a few bowls.

So, hopefully, you will see that using a slow cooker - or crockpot - is one of life's Very Good Things, however you can't expect it to do your flavour creation for you.  You get out of it what you put into it.

Now, where the dumplings are concerned, I decided to make them herby as the stew only had two herbs in it.  A chicken stew tends to have more in the way of herbs, so I like a plainer flavoured dumpling in that instance.  With a beef stew, the world is your oyster where flavouring your dumplings is concerned.  Pretty much anything goes - horseradish, cheddar, herbs, chillies - get creative!  I went for oregano, thyme and parsley and they were gorgeous.  The recipe is simple - just 100g of self raising flour, 50g of suet (veggie suet is fine), a pinch of salt and whatever flavours you're using.  Add 4-5 tbsp of water in stages and mix together to form a soft, but not sticky, dough.  Divide into six evenly sized spoonfuls and either roll into balls or simply drop into the gravy with an hour to go, for more freeform shapes.

I haven't written out a stew recipe here, because other than beef, the remainder of the ingredients are entirely up to you.  Just remember the "big pieces/small pieces" rule, the pan frying advice and remember that if you use any tender vegetables like cabbage, peas or cauliflower, to add them half way through the cooking period or they'll just disappear to mush.

Try not to drown your stew in gravy to begin with, as the veggies will give off a lot of liquid.  You can always add more water or stock as you go through the cooking period, which is a lot more satisfactory than winding up with a gallon of gravy!

Now if you've not got a slow cooker, by all means assemble the stew in a large casserole dish and cook it in the bottom of a low oven - but make sure you leave it there for a long old time.  My slow cooker version was cooking for around 9 hours - just to give you an idea of how long we're talking about.  I should think a minimum of 6 hours at 120/140degC would do the trick.  Oh - and don't forget the dumplings.  This stew needs dumplings.

Be aware, you've not got very long until the full loveliness of Spring is upon us - and barring more eccentric weather (please, no!), your window of stew opportunity is shrinking.  So don't delay - your slow cooker (not to mention your belly) needs this beef stew!

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