Inevitably, much in the same way as word association, (stew : slow cooker), these thoughts are swiftly followed by the hope that maybe this year, I'll be able to use the Slow Cooker successfully.
I've owned a slow cooker, in one incarnation or another, for what seems like donkeys' years now. My first one was a tiny slow cooker which would feed one person. I believe it used to be my Nanna's and was put away to await a new owner when she passed away. I was only too pleased to inherit it when my Mum suggested it, as at that time, I was working a 9-6pm job five days a week, plus walking two lurchers and taking care of two horses outside of work time. I would generally find myself looking hopefully in the fridge at around 9pm each day and resorting to horrid ready-made microwave dinners. My slow cooker changed all that. I would feel sorry for the dogs, having to sit in the flat while I was at work and smell the dinner slowly chuckling away in it. They always got the leftover gravy at the end, so even the dogs knew that the slow cooker was A Very Good Thing.
However, when my medium-sized slow cooker finally died, I replaced it with an enormous version that would easily take an entire chicken, plus all the veg. Quite apart from anything else, it took up a prodigious amount of space on the worktop, which was a bit of a pain. Being able to cook lovely stews and roast entire chickens in it offset these difficulties. Then, for some strange reason, I lost my slow cooker muse and instead of turning out great meals, I went through a phase of everything either turning to water or everything tasted of "slow cooker", i.e. boiled and pallid.
Looking back, I suspect what happened was that I got over-confident with it. I began cutting corners and instead of (for instance) browning the meat before the slow cooking began, I would just throw everything in, switch it on and expect it to be lovely. Not surprisingly, it wasn't. Another aspect was that with a sudden reduction in the amount of money we were bringing in each month (another story entirely), I couldn't afford to buy the cuts of meat that were suited to slow cooking. Those horrid frozen chicken breasts that are more water than meat immediately come to mind. Nothing could make those things taste good.
|Makes your mouth water!|
I was hugely intrigued to give the slow cooker another go. I was more than a little trepidacious that the lovely, dark, rich-gravied beef stew that I had in my mind's eye would turn out to taste not of Beef Shin, but of slow cooker. It had to be done, though. After all, I had the biggest slow cooker in the world not only taking up space in my cupboards, but it was a cheaper method of cooking than using the stove. It should have been a no-brainer, as they say.
So, at around 10am, I sat down with knife and chopping board, hubby stood ready with peeler - and we commenced the cutting-and-a-peeling that is necessary to produce a beautiful beef stew.
It isn't a five-minute job, assembling a really good stew, it takes some time. However, once you've got everything trimmed, peeled, diced, chopped and out of the cupboards, it's a simple matter of processing it through the browning, sweating, par-cooking and composing (that'll be the gravy) and on into the slow cooker.
Thereafter, all you need do is waft past on occasion, casting a sidelong glance at the contents through the glass lid, and sigh wistfully - right up until that moment when you've got an hour to go and you can safely lift the lid, stir the contents, drop in the dumplings and really begin to anticipate dinnertime.
My slow cooker Muse has returned - and very glad I am too.
SLOW COOKER BEEF STEW WITH DUMPLINGS (feeds 4)
800g beef shin, trimmed (start with 800g, to allow for wastage through trimming)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced finely
9 small round shallots, topped & tailed and peeled, but left whole
1 fat clove of garlic, chopped finely
9 chestnut mushrooms, wiped clean, but left whole
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunky pieces
2-3 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunky pieces
2 celery sticks, de-stringed and chopped finely
enough swede for your own preference, peeled and cut into chunky pieces
1 medium potato, cut into fine dice
6-8 baby new potatoes, washed and left whole
3 tbsp plain flour
2 tsp vegetable bouillion powder
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
150ml red or white wine (I used white, as it was what I had available)
500ml beef stock (from a cube is fine)
1 tsp wholegrain Mustard
1 tsp Bovril
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 large gherkins, chopped
a large handful of curly parsley - including stalks - chopped fine.
For the dumplings :
100g self raising flour
50g vegetable suet
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
water, to combine.
1. In a non-stick frying pan, heat up 2 tbsp of the oil and, when up to temperature, brown the pieces of beef. Once they have taken on a good dark colour, decant them into the slow cooker, taking care to replace the lid and turn it on to low.
2. Add the onion and shallots to the frying pan and cook until the onion has begun to take on colour and is softened. Add the garlic and mushrooms to the pan and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Decant into the slow cooker.
3. Add the remainder of the vegetables to the frying pan (I did it in two batches) and fry until beginning to take on colour. Again, decant into the slow cooker. When all the vegetables are in, stir to combine.
4. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the frying pan and heat. Sprinkle in the flour and bouillion powder and allow to cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring to prevent burning.
5. Add the wine and allow it to frizzle, while you stir like crazy, trying to avoid huge lumps. It is inevitable that some lumps will occur - but don't fret, as these will disperse once in the slow cooker. Add the beef stock and continue stirring.
6. Once up to a simmer, reduce the heat and add the mustard, bovril, tomato puree and worcestershire sauce and stir to combine. Season to taste and once thickened to your satisfaction, decant it into the slow cooker. It is best to go for a really quite thick gravy at this stage, as the juices from the meat and vegetables will serve to dilute it as they cook.
7. Finally, add the gherkins and parsley and give everything a good stir. Replace the lid, turn it up to high and leave it for a minimum of 4 hours.
8. At this stage, mix up the dumplings by placing the flour, suet and a pinch of salt & pepper into a bowl and add sufficient water to mix up the dough. I always opt for a sticky mix, as we like rustic looking dumplings, as opposed to shaped, smooth dumplings.
9. Remove the lid from the slow cooker and stir the contents. Then, spoon small amounts of the dumpling mixture onto the surface of the stew and leave them where they fall. Replace the lid and turn the slow cooker down to medium. Leave to cook for another hour.
10. Serve with some tenderstem broccoli, for a lovely splash of green on the plate.