Very easy, relatively quick beef stew

I think beef stew, or any other meat stew, is one of the pillars on which one can build their cooking life. I would even put in the list of the basics everyone should know how to make, with tomato sauce, brownies, vinaigrette , biscuits and roast chicken.
If I don´t, it´s because it´s a lot more hassle than it looks, and if the result is going to be very homely, then I don´t want to spend a lot of time on it. Low effort, high impact is my motto.
The problem, for me, is the browning. That instruction, "brown, in batches, until all the pieces are dark", always sends my heart plummeting to my feet. Oh, sure, I know it´s important, I know, it adds colour and depth of flavour to the final dish, and we all want colour and depth of flavour in a stew, do we not? Sure.
But, but. Browning a kilo of meat takes at the very least half an hour. And it´s half an hour spent battling meat that spits, fat that sputters, flour that burns, and a deep prevalent smell of beef that, however appetizing to begin with, permeates every stitch of your clothes, wherever they may be in the house.
This is not cool. This means that I only make my deeply flavoured and highly coloured stew once a year, and that´s not a lot of flavour, divided by 365, not really.
So, last week I tried it without browning it first, and at the end of fifteen minutes of relaxed prep time and three hours simmering in a low oven, what did I get? A dark, robust, hearty and very deeply flavoured stew. Plenty of colour, because all the liquid was red wine, plenty of flavour, because the beef was excellent Guadarrama grass-fed.
From now on, this is the way I ´ll go, because I love stew, and J adores it. You can´t call something that takes three hours in the oven to come to a jellified quiver quick, or that´s better for being left lying around for a day or two. But if you think that the active time is very very short, I think you might. And if you´re nervous about your reputation, call it a daube. But frankly, once you´ve tasted it, I doubt you´ll give a damn.

Very easy, relatively quick beef stew

Assemble all your ingredients on your work top, and preheat the oven to 150ºC.
Heat up a heavy Le Creuset type cast iron casserole, or something that can later go in the oven. Cover the bottom with a generous layer of olive oil.
While it heats up, chop an onion, finely but without finesse. It will mostly dissappear. Chuck it in the oil, give it a swirl, leave it to sweat.
Wash two sticks of celery, take out some of the long strands, and chop it finely. Add it to the onion.
Peel two fat carrots and slice them into pinky-sized batons (you could make rounds, but I hate carrot rounds, myself).
Smash a clove of garlic, add it.
Give everything a stir with a wooden spoon, and check out if the onion is beginning to be translucent. When it is, add a heaping spoonful of flour and stir until it´s dissappeared.
Now add your meat (1 kg of stewing beef), and move it around until it´s gone from angry ruby red to ugly browny grey. This is a moment where doubt will assail you, but go on, trust me.
Once that´s done, you´re ready to add your liquids. As long as they´re dark, you´re in business. Guinness is good, as is red wine, and if you change the aromatics at the beginning, you can make a good mix with Shaoxing wine and soy sauce and a bit of stock. Tomato paste has a lot of fans, as do anchovies. Go whichever way you like, as long as you´ve got enough to cover the meat. I like to bung in a stock cube and a bay leaf.
Now cover the pot with foil loosely, and press is lightly in the middle so it makes an inverted dome. Cover the pot. This means that all the steam rises and falls back on your stew, rather than escaping the pot.

Put it in the oven, leave it for three hours. It will be even better the day after.


Food blog search

What was I thinking all week? Maybe all the nutrients from the organic veg have addled my brain. I forgot to mention Food blog search. Elise, not content with having the überblog Simply Recipes has now come up with this great idea, a search engine that allows you to look for recipes in food blogs (I´m not sure if search engine is the technical term, but I´m sure you get my drift).
I don´t know about you, but I´d much rather hear what a real life person has to say about a recipe than to battle it out with the bare lines stuff from Epicurious, good though that is.
I´ve had the pleasure of doing the illustration for the header, and also for the nifty search bar that anyone can add to their site.
Have a look, it´s really great.


The organic box veredict, and artichokes vinaigrette.

So, my organic vegetable box arrived on Tuesday, promptly at 8:30 am, just in time to slice a tomato for breakfast pa amb tomaquet.
A tomato, you say? I was surprised, too, but this is Spain, after all; the seasons tend to become fuzzy, especially in a droughty sunny year like this.
The contents were:
6 big tomatoes on their stems
a generous handful of cherry tomatoes
a non-curly head of frisee. I think I might swap this with my mother, and get her garlic shoots instead
tiny pickling onions
a head of broccoli
7 artichokes
four oranges, four pears, six bananas, and the courtesy parsley and bay leaves.

If I have one quibble it´s the plastic everything came wrapped in. If the stuff arrives in a neat little box, why do they need a plastic bag for each offering? Surely the box is enough, except maybe for the garlic shoots, which could have made everything smell, and which were, in fact, unwrapped anyway.

We used the garlic shoots in a risotto on Tuesday evening, with mushrooms (not in the box). Wednesday seemed perfect for steaming the broccoli and serving it alongside some rice noodles with minced pork and a nice and kicking garlic black bean sauce. Today for lunch we´ve had the cherry tomatoes in a salad, the artichokes with vinaigrette, and a fruit salad with a mix of the stuff in the box plus some kiwis I had.

The veredict so far? Very positive. I only signed up for this because they promised very fresh stuff. I don´t mind pesticides so much, really, but the idea of a piece of fruit being picked while very green and then languishing in storage for weeks seems plain daft. The rest, all the sustainability and ecology and good health are all very well in their way, I guess, but mostly a bobo concern that I´ll indulge as long as it doesn´t incomode me in any way. It´s the taste that matters. Yesterday´s broccoli may have been more chock-full of nutrients than others, but what leapt to the mind straight away was the fact that is was tender and almost buttery, and so flavourful that I didn´t add salt (though there was plenty of soy in the noodles, so that may have played a part).

So anyway, here´s my favourite way with artichokes. Rather than coring them ruthlessly and reducing them to just the tender little hearts, I like to strip them of just the very obvious hard outer leaves, and the tops. Boiled briefly, they are then allowed to cool for a little while, before being handed out, with little dipping bowls of vinaigrette. You tear out two or three leaves, dip the bottom, bite it, and toss the hard tops into a pile of debris on the side. In a few moves, you´ll be at the heart, and that you can dip whole and munch happily in its entirety.
I wouldn´t recommend it for a first date, but it makes for a more fun way of eating artichokes, and they don´t go so fast, after all that boring prep work.


True loves, and tomato sauce for dummies.

I´ve been on a slightly mad cookbook buying spree lately. The kind that takes place on the web, when you´re bored. Not a good way to buy books, not really. Some stuff is easy to choose, but a cookbook should be thumbed first, I think.
So anyway, I have all these new fellows looking at me from their high stack next to my armchair, and I feel only a slight guilt when I look at them. No love there. They´re one night stand books. My true loves have been knocking around the kitchen for years now, and can show battle scars ; they bristle with post-its, fall apart at certain pages, refuse to open at others where I absent mindedly left a greasy spoon.
This lot are general cookbooks, the sort that have the author´s favourite stuff, culled from many other books and friends, that have Japanese noodles and pizzas and steak sandwiches jostling happily in the index . They never fail me. And their most endearing trait is that no matter how much I think I know them by heart, every time I take them up there´s something I hadn´t noticed before, or had flagged and forgotten to try.
I could cook for many years from Nigella´s How to Eat, Nigel Slater´s Real Fast Food, Lindsey Bareham´s A wolf in the kitchen and Laurie Colwin´s two heartbreakingly short little volumes. All the others, they mean nothing, really, even if they´re fun to read.

The only exception in all the books I bought last year is Relish. I´ve posted about it before, and I mention it again because, even though it might turn out to be a passing affair, I think it´s here to stay. It´s cool and witty and makes you wish you were Joanna Weinberg´s best friend, and the recipes work perfectly.

The ultimate proof of its worth was the tomato sauce test. With every book, I always check out the tomato sauce and the chicken stock. If I don´t approve of the author´s methods and opinions, I don´t even bother with the rest. If I do, I nod in agreement, but them go on making things my way, because tomato sauce and stock are very basic things, and what are you going to change?

Well, Joanna´s tomato sauce has certainly won me over to the winds of change. The method is incredibly simple, and the result is a smooth, dark orange, very savoury and velvety sauce that can play any of the million parts tomato sauce can play, and play them well. If you want chunky, then it´s not the one, but trust me, if you try it you´ll want to make sure you always have some around ever after, because it´s like all ideal tomato sauce from a jar should be, and then some.

I make it with the Thermomix, since it has to be blended at the end, and I´m always nervous of sauce sticking to the bottom of the pan. I´ve adapted the quantities to fit the machine and my taste, but if you´re going the good old fashioned way, then make a bigger batch, and you´ll be glad.

Put 2 kilo tins of whole tomatoes, and their juice, inside the Th. Add one roughly chopped onion, 3 peeled whole cloves of garlic, 4 tbs sugar, salt to taste, maybe a little dried chili, and half a cup of olive oil.
Leave to simmer for 90 minutes, and when it´s cooled slightly, blend.
Th. instructions, make it 60 minutes at 100º speed 1, and then give it half an hour more on Varoma. Don´t blend it too long or it will turn orange, not that that´s a problem, but I´m just warning.


Good old Banana bread.

This drawing is one I´ve used already, but I can´t help using it again. For one, I really like it, and for another, it appeared on this blog almost two years ago, back in the days when only I and my mother read it. The quote is more or less from Wendy Cope´s The uncertainty of the poet.

The thing is, I can´t be serious enough about banana bread to do a special illustration for it. I just can´t. Even though I love it, I dont´think of it as proper food, but as something that belongs in the "cooking for kids" section.
It may be the name. There´s something so wholesome about it, it sounds as the sort of thing you´d have after a tofu burger. And the fact that the first instruction is to mash bananas, well, I ask you. Is that a worthy pursuit for anyone over four?

The only reason I cooked it the first time was that J loves it and says it´s his favourit cake(mind you, I haven´t seen him refuse a slice of any other). He must have picked up the taste in some summer camp stint abroad, because here in Spain we don´t do banana cakes much.

My recipe is adapted from Nigella´s How to be a domestic goddess. I´ve substituted most of the butter for a pot of yogurt, and left out a couple of spoonfuls of suger, because, well, since it´s not a serious cake, it shouldn´t have serious calories. But anyone wanting the uncut real McCoy can head over to Pille´s blog and check out the full glory version.

For all my apparent lack of enthusiasm, let me tell you that I make this cake a lot, and that it´s really great. It´s fragrant and dense and full of flavour, it keeps very well for a day or two (as if!) and freezes very nicely, making it a perfect breakfast, lunchbox or picnic sweet.

The most important thing is to start with really ripe bananas. Really. The barest minimum is a banana with little brown spots, but if you can hold your nerve until your bananas look deader than dead, so much the better. If you can smell banana every time you walk into your kitchen, they´re probably ready.

70 g sultanas

Rum or brandy, for soaking them

175 g plain flour

2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

50 g unsalted butter, melted (this may seem silly, but it makes a difference)
1/2 cup (125 ml.) yogurt

120 g sugar

2 large eggs

3 very ripe bananas (about 300 g peeled weight)

60 g walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tsp vanilla extract ( I often forget this and it doesn´t seem to matter)

Put the sultanas and rum in a small bowl and soak for about an hour (again, if you forget and just bung them in, it´s ok) .
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium-sized bowl.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar and beat until blended. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then the mashed bananas. My method for this is to mix it all with a potato masher, eggs and all. Maybe it won´t rise so puffily, but who cares?
Stir in the walnuts, sultanas (liquour too, if you like, Pille´s tip, and very brilliant, too) and vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture, a third at a time. You will have a wobbly looking uneven mixture that will smell really good already.
I line my loaf pan with baking parchment, because it´s a pretty moist cake. Bake in the middle of a pre-heated 180ºC oven for about 50 mins/ 1 hour, and do the toothpick thing.
Leave to cool on a rack and try to hang around the kitchen for a while. It will seem that all the bananas in the world have vaporized and are having a convention in your house.


Little Bites

Here´s a roundup of news I think are interesting.
First off: Veronica, whose beautiful Test kitchen I´m sure you know, has a new business, Petites Bouchées. I was so happy when she asked me to do the logo, because not only is it a pleasure to work with Veron, it´s also such fun to be allowed to go crazy with macaroons and polka dots. Anyone lucky enough to be in or around Richmond (VA) can try them already. Rest of the world, try to hold in your impatience til online ordering is available.

Second: Disfruta&Verdura is starting up in Madrid. I´ve already signed up, and in a couple of weeks will be able to give an informed critique of their organic vegetables box scheme. All the fruit and veg comes from their own farm in Tarragona, which might not sound very local to sticklers, but since Spain is smaller than Texas, I think we´re ok.
Apart from all the vitaminic and smug-green advantages, I also think it will be a lot of fun, the surprise and the figuring out what to do.
Third: my great pal Guru has a new blog header, also very tastefully made over, if I may say so. It´s a food blog, but we decided to opt for a quasi-Tiki island theme, since she´s lucky enough to live in the Canary Islands. Spanish speakers, check it out regulary because there is plenty of delicious stuff in there.

Four: My kitchen is not as humming with activity as it used to be, but nevertheless this week I´ve managed to make a 6 liter batch of chicken stock, and to locate a brand of flour tortillas I really like. Quesadillas are back on the menu chez nous, and there are three bananas turning appropriately black that will be reincarnated as banana bread tomorrow. Recipe to follow.