No matter how much grub gets scoffed over Christmas, and how many people are advocating vegan juice diets, it’s simply not salad season until the mercury nudges the high teens. January and February should be a time for robust cuts to spend a good few hours simmering into something rib-stickingly delicious – here’s a little guide to beef stewing cuts and a belter of a winter-warming recipe.
The best stewing cuts tend to come from the hardest working muscle groups – ignore the chef who demands you mince sirloin for a Bolognese (it happens), you’ll end up paying treble the price for nothing but vanity. The fore of the animal is rich pickings for slow cooking, with chuck, shin, short rib, neck and brisket all crying out for long, gentle bath in a bottle of something nice. Add to this the tail and you have the holy triumvirate of muscle, marrow and collagen; all wonderful, delicious stuff – everything you might need to make a simple, economical stew that is much more than the sum of its parts.
Shin: sold on or off the bone, do buy on the bone if you can as this gives you the precious nugget of bone marrow that will really enrich the sauce. Stew in big chunks and shred once tender.
Tail: striking to look at and very cartilaginous, giving out plenty of sauce-enhancing collagen as it cooks over a long time. Cook in liquid at about 90°C overnight to get the very best from it; much higher temperature and it may dry out, much lower and it won’t yield the good stuff from the bones.
Chuck: the powerhouse of the animal, its strong, muscular shoulder. Can be split into myriad smaller cuts for more precise cooking, or simply diced or minced for stews, ragus and burgers. We tend to add aged fat from the rib caps for mince, to get the fat content needed for a decent braise or burger.
Cheek: your average beef animal spends up to nine hours a day chewing, and so the cheek is probably the hardest working muscle. Get it wrong and it’s tough as old boots, but a long, slow braise will yield a meltingly tender texture as well as almost unbeatable flavour.
Beef shin with a suet crust
As well as some whacking-great-big slabs of beef shin, you’ll need two bits of kitchen kit for this recipe; a properly solid casserole pot with a lid and a pie dish of the right size (we used a deep, 10-inch oval dish). Although this recipe will work with any stewing cut of beef, shin with big hunks of marrow in it gives a particularly rich finish. This is essentially just a rich, beef ragu recipe wearing a winter suet hat – to serve over pasta, mash or polenta, simply shred the meat a little finer at step seven and return it to the reduced sauce in the pan.
For the filling
2 x 6oog sections of beef shin on the bone
Salt and pepper
2tbsp corn flour
Oil for frying
1 rib of celery
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 medium white onions, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into batons
3 bay leaves
1 sprig thyme
1 star anise
375ml red wine
1 tin plum tomatoes
For the pastry
200g self-raising flour
100g suet (Atora works just fine)
110ml cold water
½ tsp fine sea salt
1tbsp grated parmesan (optional)
Generous amount of black pepper
An egg mixed with a little milk, to glaze
1. Heat the oven to 120°C.
2. Cut each disc of shin meat into three or four large chunks (the bone will remain attached to one of them). Season well with salt and pepper, put all the pieces into a bowl, and toss well with the cornflour.
3. Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in your casserole pot or a thick-based frying pan over a high heat. In batches, fry the pieces of shin briefly, so that there’s a slightly browned crust to them but they are still quite raw. Remove from the pan once seared and set to one side.
4. Add a little more oil to the casserole and turn the heat down low. Gently fry the onions, garlic and celery until translucent and fragrant, around 10 minutes, then add the carrots, bay, thyme and star anise and cook for a further five minutes.
5. Return the meat to the pot, add the wine, tomatoes and enough water to just cover all of the contents. Mix well, add the lid and place into the warm oven to simmer for three hours, stirring occasionally. The filling wants to cook at a gentle simmer; if it’s bubbling too much, turn the heat down to 110°C.
6. While the filling is simmering, make the pastry so that it has time to chill. Add the flour, suet, salt, pepper and parmesan (if using) to a bowl, mix well and then make a well in the centre. Pour in the cold water, and gradually work in the dry ingredients; it will look like you don’t have enough water, but you do. Once you’ve got a floury-crumbly mess, get in there with your hands and start working the suet in. You shouldn’t need to knead it any more than about 20 times before you can roll it into a ball, and the texture should be rough rather than smooth. Wrap it in cling film, and place in the fridge until you need to roll it.
7. Once the filling cooking time is up, strain the filling using a colander retaining both the solids and liquids. Pour the sauce into a pan and reduce it by half, and while it’s reducing flake the beef shin from the bone and discard the bay leaves and star anise. If there’s any marrow left in the bone (it should be in the sauce by this point), run the handle of a teaspoon around the bone to loosen it and add it to the filling. Taste the sauce and add more salt and pepper as you see necessary.
8. Place the filling into the pie dish, and pour in enough sauce to fill in all the gaps, saving any remaining sauce for gravy.
9. Turn the oven up to 180°C and then make the pastry lid. On a floured surface, roll out the pastry so that it is approximately an inch bigger than your baking dish. Place the pastry over the filling, and fold the extra dough back on itself to create a nice thick crust (it’s basically going to be like proper old fashioned dumplings, so don’t worry if it looks fairly thick). Trim off any extra bits and press the crust with a fork. Poke a few holes in the top to allow steam to escape, and then brush the surface with the beaten egg. Bake for 30 minutes, until the crust has risen a little and turned a lovely golden brown. Serve with the extra gravy on the side and plenty of mash.