Wednesday, 14 September 2011

One-pot wonders


I have strong memories of the large pots of stew my grandmother made. They were put together in a slightly battered old pot that belied her culinary expertise and this stew’s restorative value. All kinds of things seemed to go into that pot in a slightly mysterious way and what she produced was pure magic. I now realise my grandmother was a master of one-pot cookery.

In cooking theory, a lidded ‘pot’ is the norm for one-pot cookery. Even pot-pies have a lid of pastry to cover and seal them. The pot can cook over direct heat on the stove top or in the oven but the key is to keep the heat down so that the food simmers and the flavours are gently extracted.

The one-pot cooking method is a chinch – all ingredients go into a single vessel to produce a complete meal of meat or fish, vegetables and often a starch as well. Try adding pasta, rice, soaked dried beans or chickpeas to thicken meat or vegetable stews, allowing lots of extra liquid for these to cook thoroughly. Not only does this streamlined cooking process produce flavour-filled dishes every time but there’s the delicious added bonus of minimal washing-up.

When life seems to get busier by the day, it’s worthwhile taking the time to linger over a cooking pot and to relish its gentle, unhurried bubbling. To watch a delicious dish simmer, slowly, can be a very restorative diversion. And some slow cook dishes can even be left alone to cook while you get on with something else.

For recipes that require simmering for some time, it’s best to add most of the seasoning towards the end of cooking. As the food cooks, liquids reduce and flavours are concentrated, so for example, saltiness is especially heightened. Remember you can always add more seasoning to taste but it’s difficult to remove an excess.

It is possible to adapt recipes and distil composite meals down to one-pot preparations. Take for example, classic chicken and three veg. Here’s a one-pot version: place a whole chicken in a large pot surrounded by some chopped carrots and potatoes and six quartered tomatoes, with 2 cups each of verjuice and chicken stock. Cover and simmer for 1 hour, then break up the chicken, season well and scatter with chopped fresh oregano. Serve in big flat bowls with some lovely crusty bread to mop up the juices.

Slowly simmering food is one of the most ancient forms of cooking. Whether the recipe you choose to follow is an age-old stew or a modern combination, the resulting all-in-one meal will surely revive any flagging spirits or jaded palates.

BEEF AND GUINNESS STEW 
This hearty Irish dish is thick with chunks of beef and vegetables. The addition of Guinness not only adds a rich, malty flavour but also works to tenderise the meat.
Serves 4
Olive oil
700g cubed beef stewing steak, trimmed of skin and excess fat
300g small pickling onions or shallots, peeled
2 carrots, peeled and sliced on an angle
2 sticks celery, sliced on an angle
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
300ml Guinness
2 cups reduced beef stock (available from supermarkets in vacuum packs)
1 Heat a large heavy-based saucepan with a little olive oil and brown meat in 2 to 3 batches. Remove meat to one side.
2 Add onions, carrots and celery to the pan and stir-fry for 5 minutes to lightly brown. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add Guinness and simmer for 10 minutes to reduce liquid.
3 Return meat to the pan. Add stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, half cover the pan and gently simmer for 1 1/2 hours until the meat is very tender and sauce reduced and thickened. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Recipe and photo ©copyright Julie Le Clerc 2011

Chef’s secret: Guinness is dry Irish stout. Distinctive features of Guinness are the malty, unfermented roast barley flavour, deep, dark colour and thick creamy head.