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Casseroles, stews and curries

Casserole

for my own casserole recipes.

Many different cultures have recipes which involve cooking meat and/or vegetables in liquid for a long time using a low heat. The traditional British word for this sort of food was stew, which described the process. The French word casserole originally described the pan that it was cooked (and usually served) in, but now describes the food cooked in this way. Curry is the word used by the British to describe the well-spiced food of Asia, especially the Indian sub-continent, where they had historic connections.

All these types of recipes may be cooked on top of a cooker, on a gas or electric ring, or even on an open fire. In the past in Britain, ovens were used for bread rather than cooking meat. Modern ovens have good temperature control, and food can be cooked in them at a lower, and more controlled, heat than on top of the cooker. This means that most people prefer to use the oven. If you want to try the old-fashioned way, then cook the food in a saucepan on as low a heat as you can get, with a tight-fitting lid. Keep an eye on the contents, though. You will loose more liquid, and may need to keep topping up to stop the food from burning.

If you use the oven, you will need a casserole or equivalent. This is just any receptacle that doesn't mind oven temperature. You can't put saucepans with plastic handles in the oven! Casseroles are of different sizes and different materials. These do affect how long you cook in them, and at what temperature. Some heat up quicker, some keep the heat better. A lid is a good idea. On the whole, keep the lid on the casserole as this keeps the liquid from evaporating too much. You may need to take the lid off to brown the top of the food for certain recipes. If you are going to serve the food in the casserole, then an attractive looking pan is helpful.

The simplest sort of casserole recipe just packs the raw ingredients in the casserole, adds any liquid and flavourings, and puts in the oven for the correct length of time. However, I prefer a two stage process. First I fry certain of the ingredients which will benefit from the higher temperature. Onions go brown and become sweeter. So do sweet peppers. Meat will brown, and fat will render down (boiled fat is rather nasty!) Potatoes and mushrooms might dry out if left raw on top of a casserole, while covering them in fat prevents this. You can also taste the flavourings while adding them during the frying process. A bit of oil or butter adds to the taste of the dish. The final part of this first stage is to change the nature of the liquid, possibly by making it into a thicker sauce, or combining it with the other ingredients. The semi-cooked ingredients are then removed from the frying pan and put into the casserole for the slow cooking.

Since different types of casserole pans affect the cooking time, and also ovens vary as well, you may need to adjust the recipes for your equipment. The first time you cook to a recipe, keep looking at the casserole during cooking. See how the liquid level is dropping and whether you should add more liquid. See if the food needs stirring. See if the food is cooked. At the end, see if the liquid is still too much, or too thin. Make a note of what's happening, and next time, add more (or less) liquid, change the cooking time and temperature, see what else needs to be done. Eventually, you will be able to put a casserole in the oven and leave it without looking, to get perfect results every time!

How long you cook it is a matter of personal preference. The meat is often cut into small pieces, so is not usually a factor. You can cook the meat (or vegetables) until it is cooked, but quite firm and chewy. Or you can carry on until the meat falls apart and you can break it apart with a fork. Experiment for yourself. But remember that the longer you cook it, the more the liquid will evaporate, so you might need more, or cook it at a lower temperature, or top up with more liquid.

There is a famous British advert for Bisto, which describes "Bisto browns, Bisto seasons, Bisto thickens, all in one go". While I don't suggest that you use Bisto to do this, it is a good way to think about the different task that the different ingredients and techniques do: colour, flavour, thickening.

Colour

The easiest colour is to leave things as they are. In fact, if you look at my photos in my recipes, you will see a range of colours - mostly browns and reds, but that's the colour of cooked food. The liquid that you use for cooking will help. Beer in makes a brownish gravy (use a stout for a darker colour). Red wine in makes the sauce a reddish brown. Cider makes much paler. The type of meat used might affect the colour. Pork and chicken is paler than beef. But frying the meat will make it browner, especially beef, and chicken skin. The other ingredients help the colour as well. Big mushrooms will make the food darker, while carrots and sweet peppers will add cheerful colours, and tomatoes tend to make food red. Finally there are direct colouring agents. Paprika colours food red, and turmeric makes it yellow (so does saffron, but that's expensive, and easily swamped). The spices used in curry otherwise will colour it brown. There are artifical food colourings as well, but we don't use those, do we?

Flavouring

If you cook meat and vegetables for a long time over a low heat, then the result should taste of a little, at least! If you fry them first, then you add to the taste. Many of the ingredients that I use contribute to the taste directly - onions, garlic, carrots, celery, sweet pepper, mushroom, tomatoes, apples - there are others as well, of course. If you use a liquid other than water, that will help as well - beer, wine, cider, sherry, yoghurt, coconut milk, stock. This may be enough (apart from curries, which must have spices to deserve the name). You may wish to add salt and pepper, of course. There are also herbs. Dry herbs are convenient, but you buy buy growing pots of herbs from supermarkets. Even if not making a curry, you could try adding a little spice to a dish. Limit yourself to a single spice, and see if you can taste it, and if it improves the dish. There are other brand flavourings, stock cubes, Worcestershire Sauce, Tobasco sauce, other sauces. There is no reason why you shouldn't use these, but please don't use the same flavouring all the time. That way your food will always taste the same! I suggest that you start by using a limited number of flavouring techniques, then try changing them, or adding to them, until you get a balance that you're happy with. After all, why add things if you can't taste them?

You can see from my recipes that I often cook in alcohol. This may be beer, wine, cider or . The alcohol will be driven off by the cooking, and none remain, so it is OK to give it to a teetotaller (with their permission). It certainly adds to the taste, and can add colour as well. Different types of alcohol taste different. Some casseroles traditionally use one particular type of alcohol, such as (red wine), and I have given my own preferences in other recipes, but of course you can make up your own recipes, and try swapping ingredients around. Treat my recipes as a starting point. You can leave the alcohol out altogether, either because you disapprove, or because it costs too much. That's fine, but remember that you have removed an ingredient with a strong taste. So replace it with something else with a good taste, such as stock (or a stock cube if you insist), or spices, or tomato paste, or enough good-tasting ingredients. Don't just leave out the alcohol, and then complain that it doesn't taste of anything!

Thickening

If you put meat and vegetables in liquid, such as water, and cook it, you will end up with a thin sauce or gravy (unless you nearly cook it dry). You may be perfectly happy with this. If there is too much liquid, or you want a thicker sauce, you can through simmering until it is the right thickness.

One common way of thickening a sauce is using flour (by this, I mean wheat flour). There are two ways of doing this. The first is to make a , as in the . The other is just to roll the meat in flour, as in the .

You can use cornflour (which the Americans call corn starch) to thicken a sauce as well. This is easier to mix into a sauce. Mix a spoon of corn flour with a few spoonfuls of water in a separate container. Stir this until there are no lumps. Now pour this into the main sauce, and stir until it thickens.

There are thicker liquids which you can cook in, like yoghurt in .

You can thicken a sauce with other milk products. You can add butter at the end of cooking, or cream, or even cheese. They need a little care to stop them separating. Cheese is even worse, as it not only can separate, it can go stringy and tough as well!

Tenderising

This is one thing that you do not need to think of! Casseroles, by their nature, are good at tenderising tough meat. In fact, this is really the only way to cook the toughest cuts of . Casseroles cook slowly, at a low heat, for a long time, in liquid, often slightly acid (such as alcohol, tomato or yoghurt). All this helps break down the meat. The longer you cook the meat, the more tender it becomes.