We called it stew although it never took very long from the first idea of making it to the unmistakeable clovey, vinegary, meaty, spicy yet herby fragrance filling the house to that sated feeling of wellbeing after your second or third helping. In other words, very little stewing takes place.
My memory is that this Anglo staple was a weekly meal when I was growing up, but it was probably only once a month due to Mum’s school-night dinner repertoire of stuffed hearts, faggots, lasagne, Oriental beef, dhal and rice, spag bol, sausages – the usual Anglo-Indian-Welsh suspects. This dish though was not my favourite when very young; there must have been a turning point that led to complete slavering commitment to its warming deliciousness. Perhaps it was that well-known adolescent rite of passage when cauliflower and broccoli are no longer vom inducing. Perhaps only then are we truly adult.
Mum’s stew is not really a proper cowboy/cassoulet affair as she never cooked it for very long. Just until the meat was tender enough to allow time for the potatoes or suet dumplings (or sometimes both) to cook or flump up.
And Mum’s approach to tender meat was to cut diced beef into tinier cubes to reduce the cooking time, increase the meat-on-spoon ratio and, classic Mum, to be thrifty with her resources. Ever the economist, Mum wouldn’t bother with expensive cuts of meat (and would often criticise me for buying fancier stuff) and for a dish like this, I can understand her reasoning. The meat isn’t necessarily the star of this show (although this didn’t stop us diving for pearls of meatiness when it was our turn to help ourselves) because of the tangy red unction, softened cauliflower and floury, tender spuds.
I tried making this as a student, reluctant to always be phoning Mum for help, and always getting it wrong because I’d missed some seemingly irrelevant yet undoubtedly indispensable bay leaf or nub of ginger. Invariably I’d add more vinegar than was necessary (being a good half-Anglo) and I’d end up with flavourless thin, cauliflower and tomato soup with tough, but expensively julienned, fillets of Duchy, free range, organic, sustainable cow from the a farmer called Jasper or similar…
Mum’s recipe calls for modestly essential Anglo ingredients: ginger, vinegar, cloves, cardamom, chilli, cinnamon and peppercorns and a daitchkey brimming with onions, celery, carrots, beans, tomatoes, cauliflower and potatoes. You know you’re a little bit Welsh when you require stodgy dumplings as well as the spuds to fulfil a paternally inherited need to mop juices with sliced white bread. You know you’re Anglo when you’ve made the above but don’t feel satiated without a portion of fragrant basmati rice.
I made this for my brother and Dad a few days after Mum died in that period when close family sit around and either pretend to feel alright or have little bursts of tears when they realise they haven’t asked all the questions they should have like “how much is too much cornflour to thicken?” It was a success, even though I hadn’t found the recipe cards yet.
I recently made it at home, again without the cards and it was bloody awful. I’d forgotten stock cubes despite using posh fresh beef stock and I replaced chilies with West Indian hot pepper sauce that masked all the other flavours. It was bland and chilli hot.
I asked Dad to bring the recipe cards with him on today’s visit to Aunty Rita’s in Worthing and, not understanding what I meant, filled the boot with half her recipe books and not the little linen pouch that I’ve kept safely in her kitchen. So, once again, I’ll have to post the actual recipe next time I go to Suffolk.
We are staying in a Travelodge family room overlooking the sea. We came a few days after Mum died to see Aunty Linda before she died and then again a few days after Mum’s funeral. It’s funny how I associate Worthing with Mum even though I don’t think we’ve ever been here together more than once or twice.
I still catch myself forgetting she’s dead. Yesterday, my cousin Catherine, who lives across the road from Mum and Dad, posted a picture of rice and peas and, for a split second, I thought ‘I wonder if Mum made her that and sent it over’. Then came the familiar sinking feeling…
Last week Pip and I went camping and I regaled our friends with memories of karti kebabs, tandoori chicken and paraffin stove beef curries. Mum’s curry powders went camping with her so I feel ashamed that we just took biscuits and sandwiches this time. Pip’s not entirely ready for Mum’s stew but luckily she understands that I’m trying to make Nana’s recipes partly for her benefit. It will be quite a feat to pull off the Phyllis Griffiths approach to camping so in the meantime I’ll stick to these old favourites.
Try it! But don’t forget to add tiny morsels of inexpensive beef and lashings of vinegar.
Beef Stew Recipe