8 April 2014

Beef, ale & cheese soup - hearty flavours!

Are you, like I was, looking at the concept of a soup containing beef, ale (beer) and cheese and thinking "erm .. well how does that work, then?".  If so, then it works very well, surprisingly well in fact.

I'd seen various incarnations of this idea appearing on recipe sharing websites for a while and have to admit that I'd thought it was just one of those fads that occurs from time to time.  Like cheese stuffed meatloaf, prosciutto wrapped chicken breasts and cakes decorated with maltesers.  You know the sort of thing - not something that's going to last, a bit of a fashion thing - a flash in the proverbial pan.

However, I'm not sure if it was familiarity with seeing it turn up so regularly or just sheer curiosity that did it, but whatever it was - I succumbed, tried it out and it works.

Now you'll know that I'm rarely keen on a recipe that involves lots of procedures, lots of ingredients (well, except maybe for curries) and lots of faffing about.  You'll also know that my hubby isn't keen on "bouncy meat" and any type of beef requires a long, relaxing bath in the slow cooker in order for it to gain the thumbs up.

So when I began seriously considering how to make this warming wintery gem, I started from those two standpoints - simple and slow cooker.


Now it's soup we're talking about here - not stew.  So I had to choose a liquid base that would be interesting enough in flavour to be there in quantity plus also able to withstand a long cooking time.  Now obviously, beef stock would have done the job on at least one of those counts.  However, I didn't want the soup to be too weighted to one ingredient or the other.  I was after an amalgous whole.  An affinity between ingredients.  I also didn't want it to be too "gravy" flavoured.  Too much of a "gravy" flavour would be too stew-like.

Tomato passata was out, as it took everything down too much of an Italian route.  Creaminess was out, too.  Nobody wants a beef soup that is creamed.

Inevitably, the ole grey cells turned to alcohol.  After all, I'd done a fair few "in cider" dishes and knew that they worked.  I'd also cooked with ale a few times and knew what a lovely savoury end result you wind up with.  Yes, that was the thing - a light ale.  After all, beer and cheese were made to go together.  Light enough to still be there in the flavour profile, but without dominating either the beef or the cheese.

I knew that building up the flavour in layers is often the way to go - so what vegetable matter to put in there.  Some for flavour, some for texture, some for thickening.  Onion was a given and it would have to be fried so as to avoid that horrible raw onion flavour overpowering everything.  Celery is a good one, but no carrots, not this time.  I didn't want it to be a stew, remember?  Garlic always helps savouriness along, so that was a definite.  As for herbage, I was torn between parsley, thyme and oregano.  Son and heir had complained recently about everything having parsley in it, so I restrained myself to providing a mere sprinkling of parsley as garnish and decided to go with thyme.  Well, oregano was going too far down the Italian/pizza flavour route again.  I had declared myself done with thyme just recently, as it seemed to go in everything and I had got distinctly fed up with it.  However, there was just no alternative - and it went very well.

I was a little bit worried that a lot of these flavours were "top end" and there was nothing really backing up the garlic and beef at the "lower end" of the flavour spectrum, until I remembered I had a few mushrooms.  Perfect.

Now potato was a given as it tends to disintegrate and act as a thickener.  I needed something else though, something that had inherent sweetness that would counteract the bitter, hoppy flavour of the ale.  There in my veggie drawer of the fridge, was sat a half a butternut squash.  Again, perfect.  I peeled it, cut it into cubes and in it went, providing colour, beta carotene and the desired amount of sweetness.

With the combination of mature Cheddar's tangy, salty flavours and the Red Leicester's softer tones, the cheese was relatively easy to pin down.  I felt they both worked very well, although perhaps a medium matured Cheddar might have been better for my palate.  If you can cope with the big flavours of a tangy, salty, matured cheddar then go ahead with it, if you're a bit wobbly about cheese, I'd recommend a medium matured Cheddar.  Just don't reduce the quantity, as it makes a huge difference to the texture of the soup.


Now, what Cook's Tips can I offer you?  Well, apart from the type of Cheddar used (as above), I really don't think the type of beef that you use matters all that much.  Quite obviously, you wouldn't want to be using rump steak, nor a sirloin roast.  However any of your stewing, casserole, braising types from brisket right down to good old shin, would work.  Just adjust the cooking time to suit.  I used a stewing type of beef that had already been diced - not my favourite type of beef to use, but we were fortunate in that it turned out to be just perfect for the job.  I suspect it was probably a combination of shin with a bit of braising steak mixed in, as there were two very different textures of meat in there.  However, I'd use it again as it was really good.  It had around 8 or 9 hours in total on high and was absolutely as soft as butter and completely delicious.

I served the soup with some lovely sourdough, rustic bread from our local Patisserie Mark Bennett bakery.  You need bread with some "oomph" alongside the soup, but if you haven't got it don't worry.  The soup is the star!

BEEF, ALE & CHEESE SOUP   (serves 4)

Ingredients :

3 tbsp plain flour
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
750g braising or stewing beef - I used shin - trimmed of fat and cut into chunks
1 onion, chopped small
2 stalks of celery, chopped small
4-5 mushrooms, sliced
1 large garlic clove, crushed and chopped finely
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into cubes
half a butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into cubes
half a teaspoonful of dried thyme
500ml bottle of light ale beer
500ml cold water
a teaspoonful of low salt veal or beef stock powder (or a low salt stock cube)
100ml single cream
200g grated cheese - I used 50/50 Cheddar and Red Leicester
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley, for garnish.

Method :

1.  Place the flour and a pinch of sea salt and half a teaspoonful of black pepper into a large plastic bag and toss to combine.

2.  Add the cubes of beef and toss well to coat the meat.

3.  Heat the olive oil in a deep frying pan on a high heat, then place in handfuls of the beef to sear.  Take care to not overcrowd the pan, which will lower the temperature and so cause the beef to stew instead of sear.

4.  As the beef sears, remove it with a slotted spoon to the slow cooker and continue to sear the next batch until all the beef is done.

5.  Add the onion, celery, mushrooms and garlic to the pan - you may need a little more oil - and reduce the temperature.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and coloured a little.  Decant into the slow cooker and turn it on to Low.

6.  Add the potato, butternut squash and thyme to the slow cooker, stir to combine and replace the lid.

7.  Pour the light ale into the frying pan and add the stock powder, plus 500ml of water.  Stir to combine, making sure to deglaze the pan and heat until simmering point, whereupon you can add the contents of the pan to the slow cooker, turn the heat to High and replacing the lid.

8.  Cook for a minimum of 6 hours on High and a maximum of 8 on Low - or until the beef is tender and the vegetables are cooked.

9.  Remove the slow cooker's lid and stir in the cream and the grated cheese until the cheese has melted.  Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

10.  Serve into warmed bowls, adding a sprinkle of fresh parsley to garnish and crusty bread for dipping.

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