Slowly does it

With the nights drawing in, thoughts turn to hearty meals that take moments to prepare. Mark Hix sings the praises of braising.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Shank, shin, feather blade, knuckle and cheeks. They're all cuts that sound intriguing rather than promising, and they're not what we think of as luxuries. But it's amazing what some long, slow, loving cooking can do. Forget slaving over the stove; all it takes is hours in the oven – and not a lot of work – to transform these cuts into sumptuous dishes: succulent, tender and wonderfully flavoured meat with rich delicious natural sauces.

Shank, shin, feather blade, knuckle and cheeks. They're all cuts that sound intriguing rather than promising, and they're not what we think of as luxuries. But it's amazing what some long, slow, loving cooking can do. Forget slaving over the stove; all it takes is hours in the oven – and not a lot of work – to transform these cuts into sumptuous dishes: succulent, tender and wonderfully flavoured meat with rich delicious natural sauces.

These, though, are the Cinderellas of the butcher's slab. Everyone seems to think there isn't enough time to cook them, and the preference is for more expensive, nicely presented prime cuts, which can be quickly pan fried or grilled. It leaves the poor old butcher with cuts that just don't get used.

They don't want to take that risk, so most high street butchers no longer buy whole carcasses, but broken down joints ready to be cut into the steaks and chops that everyone wants. This will eventually lead to the death of local butcher shops, with all the work done out of sight in butchery plants.

But all is not lost. While at home most people want a quick-fix supper, more of us restaurant chefs are going back to basics and offering diners neglected cuts of meat that require more cooking skill than just switching on a grill. We're lucky enough to have specialist butchers who can get us the more unusual and overlooked cuts. But believe me, it really isn't hard to cook them in your own kitchen. You can even leave them cooking while you go out to the gym, the pub, or lunch.

These cuts have so much more character than the lean steaks that prevail in the supermarket. Take a look at a piece of shin of beef next time you go to a butchers. Its meat is firm and marbled with little flecks of gelatinous membrane that hold together the small nuggets of meat. Long, slow cooking breaks the membranes down enhancing the cooking liquor and allowing the meat to fall apart. Good-quality, prime-cut steaks should also a have marbling of fat which breaks down under heat, making the steak juicy, tender and tasty. But supermarkets are afraid the sight of fat will put off customers and fight shy of such steaks in favour of leaner meat.

Ox and pork cheeks are becoming more and more popular. You can see why from the chef's point of view, since they're so tender and taste so good. They're perfect for dishes such as daube de boeuf as they come in naturally shaped large nuggets. Not all these cuts are rarities. Now that lamb shanks can be found on almost every pub and restaurant menu in the country in some form or another, they are actually in short supply. And Fergus Henderson, at St John in Smithfield, is doing his bit to clear up the excess of bits and pieces, such as tails, noses, hearts and lungs, that don't usually shift. He's making a sterling job of it, and the restaurant has something of a cult following among offal and unusual meat lovers.

This type of cooking is also where my heart (excuse the pun) belongs. When I first moved to London from the sticks it was to work in the Grill Room at the Dorchester Park Lane, where the menu featured daily classics of braised beef in Guinness, Irish stew and braised oxtails. The basic techniques are ingrained in me, and I've since found ways of improving on them too. Stick to the principles – always dust the meat with a little flour and almost caramelise it before its goes in the oven. That's the hardest part. It'll pretty well do the rest itself, and you can turn the timings to your advantage. Order the slow cooking cuts you want in advance from your butcher, or stash a few portions raw in the freezer. Braised dishes will keep for a few days in the fridge, so although they may not seem the first choice for a dinner party, actually they're ideal. Get the cooking out of the way a few days in advance, and get on with the rest of life until you're ready to take the praise for your braise.

Lancashire hot pot

Serves 4

One of the best known dishes in the north. There are various versions of Lancashire hot pot, but the main ingredients are flavoursome cuts of lamb, such as the neck, which is traditionally cut on the bone like chops. Kidneys and even black pudding can be added along with the potatoes and onions. Back in the days when they were cheap, a few oysters would be put under the potato.

800g lamb neck fillet, cut into rough 3-4cm chunks
6 lambs' kidneys, halved (optional)
Flour for dusting
Vegetable oil for frying
60g unsalted butter plus a little extra for brushing
450-500g onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1tsp chopped rosemary leaves
800ml lamb or beef stock (a good quality cube will do)
1kg large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 220°C/gas mark 7. Season the pieces of lamb and kidneys separately with salt and pepper and dust with flour. Heat a heavy bottomed frying pan with a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil and fry the lamb a few pieces at a time on a high heat

until nicely coloured. Then drain in a colander. Fry and drain the kidneys afterwards, and set aside, mixed with the lamb neck. Clean the pan and heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil. Fry the onions on a high heat until they begin to colour, add the butter and continue to cook for a few minutes until they soften. Dust the onions with a tablespoon of flour, stir well and gradually add the lamb stock, stirring to avoid lumps, and sprinkle in the rosemary. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper and simmer for about 10 minutes. f

Now you're ready to assemble the pot. Take an oven-proof casserole dish with a lid or similar, cover the bottom with a layer of potatoes first, followed by the meat with a little sauce, then the potatoes again. Continue until the meat and sauce has all been used. Finish the top with a layer of nicely overlapping potato slices. Brush the top with a little of the sauce and cook in the oven for about half and hour on 220°C/Gas mark 7, and then turn the oven down to 140°C/Gas mark 1 and leave for 2 hours.

Then remove the lid and turn the oven back up to 220°C/gas mark 7. Brush the top with a little melted butter to allow the potatoes to brown for the final half hour.

Boiled salt beef with carrots and dumplings

Serves 4

This is a great year-round dish; very light and can be made with other vegetables, such as leeks and turnips, according to what's in season. Salt beef usually comes as brisket or silverside and is often pre-packed in supermarkets with cooking instructions. Don't worry about buying too much; it makes great sandwiches with dill pickles and mustard.

1kg salted silverside or brisket, soaked overnight in cold water
4 small onions weighing about 80-100g each, peeled
12 small finger carrots, trimmed and scrubbed
3 cloves
10 black peppercorns
2 blades of mace
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme

For the dumplings

125g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
60g suet
1tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp freshly grated horseradish
Water to mix
Salt and pepper

Put the beef into a large saucepan with the rest of the ingredients, cover with water (about 5-6cm above the beef) and bring to the boil. Simmer gently with a lid on for about 2 1/2-3 hours. Cooking times will vary depending on the size of the beef; if it's pre-packed it will normally give you cooking times. Remove the carrots after about 15 minutes of cooking depending on their size and the onions after 1 hour, and put to one side.

Meanwhile make the dumplings. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl and add half a teaspoon of salt. Mix in the suet, parsley and horseradish, then add enough water to form a sticky dough. Flour your hands and roll the dough into 12 little balls.

When the beef is cooked remove it from the pan and keep warm. Poach the dumplings in the cooking liquid for 15 minutes, then remove them and put to one side. Strain the liquid through a fine-meshed sieve and return it to the pan, then boil it until it has reduced by about half or until it has a good strong flavour. It probably won't need seasoning as a lot of salt will have come out in the cooking liquor. To serve, reheat the onions, carrots and dumplings in the reduced cooking liquid, slice the beef and arrange it in a deep plate or bowl with the carrots, onions and dumplings, and spoon over the liquid.

Daube de boeuf

Serves 4

Start this dish a couple days before you need it to allow plenty of time for marinading. Pre-cut braising steak tends to be cut a little thin for this dish, so get your butcher to cut thick 3-4 cm pieces.

4 x 200-220g pieces of braising beef, preferably flank, skirt, shin or ox cheeks
2 glasses of good red wine
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp chopped thyme
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil for frying
30g butter
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 Half tbsp plain flour
1tsp tomato purée
1 Half litres beef stock (a good cube will do)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the pieces of beef into a stainless steel bowl (not aluminium) or similar with the red wine, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Cover with clingfilm and marinade in the fridge for two days. When you're ready, drain the meat in a colander, reserving the marinade, and dry the pieces on kitchen paper.

Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, lightly flour the meat with half a tablespoon of the flour, season with salt and pepper and fry the meat on a high heat until nicely browned.

Heat the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently fry the onion for a few minutes until soft. Add the remaining tablespoon of flour and tomato purée and stir over a low heat for a minute. Slowly add the marinade stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming. Bring to the boil and simmer until it has reduced by half. Add the beef stock and the pieces of beef, bring back to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 2-2 1/2 hours until the meat is tender.

It's difficult to put an exact time on braised meats, sometimes an extra half an hour's cooking may be necessary. Check by tasting the meat. Once it's cooked the sauce should have thickened to a gravy-like consistency. If not, dilute a little cornflour in some water, stir into the sauce and simmer for a few minutes. I'd serve this with some mashed potato or a puréed root vegetable, such as swede or parsnip.

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