29 November 2012

Slow cooked Cumberland beef stew with donkey carrots

When I first set out to make this meal, it was supposed to be a crispy topped Cumberland pie.  However, I ran out of puff part way through it - and discovered how yummy just the beef part of the recipe could be on its own.

As with a lot of my recipes these days, this one has taken bits from several different recipes.  However, the original inspiration came from the BBC Good Food website and their Crispy topped Cumberland pie.

The original version was made with feather blade beef, however I opted to use our favourite shin of beef because a) I was going to be slow-cooking it and b) the flavour of beef shin is amazing.  However, this plan back-fired on me this time around - as you'll discover later.

I liked the idea of the sliced potatoes on top, along with the baked to crispiness cheese coating.  Cheddar always goes so well with beef, they are a real comfort food pairing.  I was a bit nervous about the sliced potatoes, however, as I've not had a lot of luck with them in the past.  They either wind up still hard (not long enough in the oven) or turn black and unappetising looking (wrong type of potato, left too long before baking).  You see, I know what I did wrong in the past - so I was determined not to commit any of these crimes this time around.  Hubby always greets the idea of sliced potato on top of a savoury dish with great scepticism, so I not only had my own failures to beat, I had his expectations to exceed too.

Swimming around happily

When it got closer to the time when I would make the transfer from the slow cooker to the oven, I think I had got myself so wound up over the potatoes failing (again), that I just opted for the easier route and didn't bother.

The marriage of beef and cheese is what makes a "Cumberland" something, Cumberland.  So, rather than miss the whole point of the recipe, I remembered seeing Jamie Oliver adding some grated cheese to a beef casserole - and did the same.  It was very definitely counter-intuitive to be grating cheddar into a beef casserole, but for all that it didn't taste obviously of cheddar cheese, it very definitely made a difference in both flavour and texture.

I must pause here and comment on the carrots.  You see, carrots have such a fundamental part to play in British cooking.  They appear on so many plates over the course of a lifetime's meals, yet rarely do you see anyone doing anything exciting with them (apart from the occasional carrot cake and maybe a carrot & coriander soup).  Now, I'm not saying that adding them to this stew was exciting, but if we could just have a little bit of appreciation here for the 'umble carrot in all its many forms, I think it would be appropriate.  The carrots used in this stew were the big fat donkey carrots.  None of your thin, springtime carrots, or your fancy Chantenay carrots.  Oh no.  What you need are big, fat, coarse carrots that are going to stand being cooked for a long time and have loads of sweetness to impart.

I love the name "donkey carrots" and have been wracking my brains to try and remember where I first heard the term.  It was either care of Raymond Blanc on his "Kitchen Secrets" programme - he is so funny in this programme! - or with Michael Caines during his carrot episode of the Great British Food Revival.  Either way, "donkey carrot" just suits this great big honking lump of carrotiness perfectly - and "donkey carrots" they shall be, for me, in future.  (I can remember when I owned horses and a donkey, buying a 25kg bag of just these type of carrots, for their feed!  More than one of them went home with me and wound up on my plate!).

Now, what was the end result like, I hear you ask?  Well, I loved it, son & heir loved it but hubby - oddly - couldn't take the texture of the beef shin.

See what I mean by connective tissue?  Can't trim it all out!
I'm really not sure what the difference was, as we've had and eaten beef shin on many other occasions and he hasn't experienced the same problem, plus I didn't notice any difference in the meat as I was trimming it up.  Trimming up beef shin is always a labour of love, so I very definitely went over it with a fine toothcomb for yukky fat and globby bits.  Shin of beef contains a lot of connective tissue, which during the course of slow cooking melts into the gravy and gives it a very rich, almost glutinous texture.  It makes me wonder if the addition of the cheese to the gravy didn't just push the texture over the edge of palatable for hubby, as he really is so terribly sensitive to soft textures in food.

For me, the cheese made the gravy incredibly savoury, rich and unctuous along with giving it a certain indefinable and very pleasant something.  I really liked the carrot and the combination of onions and celery had just melted away into the gravy.  I used my favourite Knorr Rich Beef Stock Pot to provide a good amount of additional "oomph!" to the gravy base - they really are indispensable to me, now.

That oddly coloured carrot on the right, is a purple carrot!

So all in all, I'd very definitely do this recipe again - but I think I'd choose something like Brisket of beef, or perhaps Silverside (depending on the price!), both of which have far less connective tissue and thus would make it palatable for hubby.  After all, there's no point spending all that time trimming, cooking and serving if he can't eat it!


Ingredients :

1 tbsp rapeseed oil
6-700g beef brisket (or braising cut of your choice)
2 big donkey carrots, peeled and chopped into chunky pieces
2 onions, chopped
2 celery sticks, chopped
3 bay leaves
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Knorr Really Beefy Stock Pot (or a beef stock cube)
1 tsp Bovril
half a tsp of freshly ground black pepper
500ml hot water
1 tbsp softened butter
2 tbsp plain flour
a large handful of grated mature cheddar cheese.

Method :

1.  Heat the oil in a frying pan until really quite hot.  Add the beef - you may need to do this bit in stages, so as not to overcrowd the pan - and sear until you have a good dark golden brown colour on at least two sides.  Decant into the slow cooker with a slotted spoon and turn it to low, making sure to replace the lid.

2.  Add the carrots to the slow cooker and replace the lid.

3.  Add the onion to the frying pan (you may need a touch more oil) and cook gently for 5-6 minutes until softened, transparent and just beginning to take on colour.

4.  Add the celery and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes.

5.  Add the bay leaves, tomato puree, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, stock pot (or stock cube, if using), Bovril, pepper and water and stir gently to combine as it heats through.

6.  In a small dish, mix the butter and flour together.  Remove the frying pan from the heat and add a teaspoonful of the flour mixture to the gravy.  Stir well to ensure it mixes in without forming lumps.  Continue until you have the consistency you prefer - less flour mix for thinner, more flour mix for thicker.

7.  Return the pan to the heat and stir until properly thickened.

8.  Decant into the slow cooker.  Replace the lid and leave to cook for the next 8-10 hours.

9.  Just prior to serving, remove the lid and using the slotted spoon, move the meat to one side of the slow cooker.

10.  Add the grated cheddar to the non-meat side and stir it gently into the gravy.  Once melted, stir the meat back in to the cheesy gravy.


Printable version


  1. Ooh I could just eat that it looks delicious. I've never cooked shin of beef before so would probably go for the brisket - I know this is going to sound a daft question - but would you just buy a brisket joint and then chop it up or can you buy brisket already diced???

    1. I buy my brisket from a butcher so I go for a piece of rolled brisket that I simply unroll, trim up and dice to the size I want it to be. Because supermarket packs can be very unreliable as to what they have in them, I'd always go this route. You just can't guarantee that, even if it says "diced brisket", that's what you're getting. At least with a rolled brisket joint from a supermarket, you can be a bit more sure about it. However, finding a butcher close by is so much better - particularly if he sells locally produced meat.

  2. It looks divine! We don't have Bovril here in the states but I think you could omit it or use Better than Bouillion beef paste. Everything else we have.

    I don't know that I've ever had "shin" before. I'm sure I have but again, things are called by different names here.

    I'm waiting for the price of beef to go down. It's expensive. I'll be making a version of Julia Child's French Onion soup, but I need to get several ingredients that I just don't have.

    Cheers from Multiply!

    1. Having had a look at your Better than Bouillion, I'd say that'd do the job perfectly. "Shin" - over here - is the lower part of the leg, right before the middle joint. It's one of the cheapest cuts of beef, but is lovely for long slow (very slow) stewing. Yes, I've heard that the price of beef has rocketed over there due to the recall.

      Ah! French Onion soup - now that's one I've never made, mostly because I'm scared I might react badly to the onions. I've always fancied having a go at it, I just need to find a time when it doesn't matter if I'm poorly afterwards! lol


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