November is one of my favourite months in Italy. Every month is one of my favourite months in Italy, but November is utterly gorgeous.
Here in Sabina, the mornings are crisp and cool, days are warm, sunny and balmy, and the nights are cold. That’s outside, of course. Inside is a different story, and arriving after two weeks away last Friday, inside was absolutely Baltic, despite the outside temperatures being “t-shirtable”, as I like to call it – inside, having been closed down for a fortnight, was cold, damp, and in need of a fire.
So, I spent most of the weekend collecting and bringing wood into the house, both for the fire in the living room, and also for the monster boiler in its little boiler room. It’s true what they say about “wood warming you twice”, and I feel that I got off fairly lightly on the injury front this weekend, with just one blood blister, and a broken nail as my war wounds to take back to the city!
With the fire going all day, every day, I decided to have a go at cooking on the hearth, and so yesterday, with friends coming for supper, I cooked this delicious stew on the fire:
Hearthy Beef Casserole (serves six)
- A slosh of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- One large onion, roughly chopped
- 250g squash or pumpkin, chopped into one inch cubes
- Two cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 kg stewing beef, in large chunks
- Three table spoons of plain / 00 / general purpose flour
- salt and pepper
- Three large tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 500 ml red wine
- 250ml beef stock
- a bouquet garnis
In a very heavy (I used cast iron) pan, fry off the onion in the olive oil, until it just begins to change colour. Add the squash, and fry gently until it just begins to brown. Add the garlic, and fry for a further two minutes. Remove from the pan.
While the veg are frying, put the flour into a bowl, and season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss the beef chunks in the flour, coating them with a thin layer of the flour. Keep the left over flour for later, as you will use it to thicken your casserole.
Add another slosh of oil to your empty pan, and fry off the beef chunks, turning them frequently to prevent them from sticking. Once all the beef is browned, return the onion and squash to the pan, and give the mixture a good mix, before adding the tomatoes, and frying them off for a couple of minutes.
Add the red wine, and allow it to boil for three or four minutes, before adding the beef stock. Bring to the boil, and put the lid on.
For me, this is where the fun began. I had lit the fire several hours previously, making sure that I had left space on the grate to place my casserole dish (a whole new take on “flame proof dish”). I put a large, thick olive wood log onto the grate to keep the flames away from my stew, placed my pot onto the grate away from the fire itself, and simply left it sitting there for the next five hours.
If you don’t have a large, open fire to hand, cook in a warm (around 140 degrees) oven for as long as you can – at least 3 hours. This dish would also work well in a “crock pot” style slow cooker, or in the simmering oven of an Aga.
Around half an hour before you plan to eat, remove the pan from whatever heat source you are using, and stir in the flour you set aside earlier. Pop the lid back on, and cook for another half hour.
Eat with baked potatoes, and friends.