Whilst in the position of working from home, and with it being the freezing & wet part of the year (i.e. between August and May) I thought I’d investigate the world of Slow Cooking.  The idea being that you cook something for HOURS over a low heat in a special cooker thingo then it takes cheaper cuts of meat and renders them into soft, flavoursome delightful things.  It’s something you can pop on in the morning while you’re watching telly on a weekend and at dinnertime – TA DA! Instantly ready awesome meal.  And it’s nigh on impossible to burn things.  I’m sure there are drawbacks and pitfalls, but armed with this new idea I went out in search of a recipe to get started with.

I decided that first shot out of the gate I’d get hold of some beef cheeks – I’d had pig cheek and ox cheek in poncey restaurants, and reasoned that part of a cow’s face wouldn’t be the most expensive bit of meat to get hold of, but probably did well in a slow cooker.  Go science.  A bit of googling and a recipe turned up, as follows:

Beef Cheeks in a slow cooker (6-7ish hours)

4 x beef cheeks
1 x “medium” onion* (diced)
1 x clove of garlic (chopped)
1 x “medium” carrot** (diced)
1 x  celery stalk (chopped)
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup vegetable stock
400g tin of crushed tomatoes
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp cocoa (unsweetened)
1 Tbsp PX sherry
1 bay leaf
salt
pepper

  1. Flour & season pieces of beef cheeks, while heating up frying pan with olive oil.
  2. Seal the pieces of meat and transfer to slow cooker pot.
  3. Add a little more oil to frying pan & sautee vegetables & garlic until heated through.
  4. Add wine & stock to pan, stir about to mix then empty into slow cooker & set to ‘Low’.***
  5. Add crushed tomato, tomato paste, cocoa, sherry and the bay leaf. Season as desired with salt and pepper.****
  6. Allow to slow cook for at 6-7 hours.  Maybe taste it at 6 hours then decide if it needs more salt and/or pepper, then give it another hour.

Now, that’s all well and good – however it turns out that beef cheeks are frigging hard to track down.  I thought there’d be a knowing nod from the butcher as he went out the back to retrieve the stuff that they don’t put on display but we in the know ask for by name.  Turns out that of the 6 butchers within walking distance from my flat, 1 was purely a pork butcher, 4 had no idea what beef cheeks were and the last did know but didn’t have any.  Turns out nobody ever asks for them and they’ve got to order them in specially in a box of 12 – so I clearly have no idea at all what goes on in butcher shops

Instead of beef cheeks I went with 800g of stewing steak, and it worked an absolute treat!  Being my first slow-cooker attempt I was quite the nervous parent, and checked on it every 20 minutes or so to see if the magic had started happening.  Even stirring periodically in case of stick-to-the-bottom-ness.

The result – I’m happy but slightly crestfallen to announce – was a rich, luxuriant & silky-textured stew.  Crestfallen, because I realised that dress it up as you may, about 40% of the world’s cuisine can be basically labelled “stew”****.  There are various regional subtleties but basically what you end up with is a bowl of brown lumps.  Tasty, tasty brown lumps.

Mind you I’m sure it’d be far more impressive with the beef cheeks.

This would probably serve 4 people a reasonably filling helping.

* It’s tricky to know what counts as “medium” without having a selection of onions to hand to compare & form some sort of statistical survey.  However I went for a purely qualitative approach where I picked up an onion and thought, “Am I thinking ‘Crikey, what a big onion!’?  No?  Must be medium then”.

** Ditto.

*** Another lovely thing about a slow cooker is it’s got 4 settings – Off, Low, High, and Warm.  No nuance or subtlety here.

**** Case in point is the time when my brother and I were about 8 & 10 respectively and in an attempt to inject some variety in the menu Mum decided to make goulash.  Upon being served this and being told that it was goulash, we both burst into tears and wailed “We don’t want to eat goulaaaaaaash!” (presumably because to the ignorant ear it sounds like the sort of thing that’s made from rendered snot, or something).  About 4-6 weeks later Mum thought she’d give it another go and when dished up we eyed it suspiciously, saying “What’s this?” – to which she said “STEW!”.  And we lapped it up.  We love stew.

BUT that wasn’t all…!

Because you can’t just serve stew for dinner (even one as amazingly flavoursome as this!).  So I thought “a spot of braised red cabbage would go alongside this and absolute TREAT!”.  And set about finding a braised cabbage recipe – declaring the winner to be this from Felicity Cloake’s efforts in The Guardian.

Perfect Braised Red Cabbage

50g butter, plus extra to serve
1 x red onion (finely chopped)
1 x cinnamon stick
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1 x whole red cabbage, cored and cut into irregular chunks
1 x sharp eating apple, finely chopped
3 Tbsp muscovado sugar (I used demerera)
150mL balsamic vinegar*
2 Tbsp cranberry sauce (I couldn’t find this so used 1 Tbsp raspberry jam.  Deal with it.)

  1. Melt the butter in a large pan** over a medium heat and add the onion. Soften onion for a few minutes, then stir in the spices and cook for one minute.
  2. Tip in the cabbage chunks and saute until shiny and well coated.
  3. Add apple, sugar & balsamic, reduce the heat to low.  Stir well, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn’t stick.
  4. Stir in the cranberry sauce and cook for another 25 minutes.
  5. Season well and stir through a knob of butter before serving. You can also store it somewhere cool for a couple of days, then reheat to serve, if you prefer, adding the butter during the reheating.

The main thing here that got me was the quantity of the stuff.  A whole cabbage is quite a well-packed thing, but once you sort of take it apart a bit the wrinkly lines don’t match up as well as before and it occupies substantially more space than it did.  Were I to do this again for 2 people I’d only use half a cabbage, max.

* Strictly speaking, I didn’t have any balsamic vinegar – all balsamic that comes into the house gets made into balsamic reduction, which is a far superior thing to drizzle over salads.  However without time to go get some I reasoned I could “de-reduce” it by adding some water, wine, and red wine vinegar, stirring it, and hoping that nobody noticed.

** When we say “large pan”, we mean “thumping great cauldron of a thing which can hold an entire chopped cabbage.  As luck would have it I’d brought just such a pan back from Australia days previously.

No photos, I’m afraid – this was tasty cuisine, not designed for its visual appeal.

To follow up, the ever amazing Liz found me a compendium of 52 Slow Cooker recipes collated over at HuffPo.  So that ought to keep us in soft, meaty meals for a while.