19 July 2009

grandma's little helper

The evolution of recipies is a funny thing.

This one started out as my grandmother's classic goulash, then became my mother's 'goulash with mushrooms', my 'meat stew' and finally, I realized it had become somthing rather close to the classic 'boef bourguignon'.

It is so far removed from its origins now that they hardly resemble each other, apart from both being braised meat with lots of gravy. But this version, with its intense taste, the gravy looking almost like crude oil and its endless adaptability holds a special place in my little brown book. (Which is where I scribble my cooking notes, edit and re-edit them until they become stable recipes.)

For one, this recipe works especially well with venison. You could use beef, but that would be a little unnecessary, especially as the cheaper venison cuts from legs and neck are really cheap when it's in season here. This is a recipe that explicitly benefits from more marbled meat with occasional cartilage and ligaments, as the long cooking time will mostly melt them and they'll add a wonderful, meaty and sticky quality to the gravy that you'd never get with a lean, expensive cut.

Most of the time, we use stag, as our wholesale market stocks it frozen and at a really good value all year round. But it works equally well with boar, or basically any other venison, even mixed. The stronger taste of game meat is perfectly suited to hold its own against the strong taste of the gravy, making it a perfect meal when you need something comforting, strong, invigourating your senses.

As almost any greens and sides work well with this dish, it is also one of my standarts when I want to clean out the freezer. And, as it freezes really well, I often make 'venison pie' from leftover stew and some puff pastry.

You see, it's just too useful (and tasty) recipe not to have in your repertoire.

stag 'bourguignon'
(serves four)

250g bacon in thick pieces

1kg stag (or boar, basically any venison except poultry)

1 medium onion, diced
4-6 cloves garlic
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 teaspoon white pepper, ground
one bottle dry red wine
0,5l water

2 tablespoons black currant jelly (or more to taste)

Cut the bacon into large pieces, like in the picture below, and gently brown in a large, heavy, oven-proof pot.
This is not to crisp the bacon, only to render out some of the fat so you don't need any additional oil to brown the meat.

Take out the bacon and set aside.

If necessary, clean the meat of any skin or thick tendons and cut into pieces the size somewhere between a golf- and a baseball. Fry at very high heat in the rendered bacon fat until very dark, allmost burned, though not necessarily done.
This step is essential for the colour of the final dish, so invest a little time here. (See 'Grandma's little helper' for troubleshooting, below.)

Return the bacon, add the spices and deglaze with the wine and the water.
If you have like a cheesecloth sachet for the spices, this would be the moment to use it for the juniper and the bay leaves. Juniper berries can be pretty vile if you bite on them, even though they are easy to spot and pick out later on. I never use one myself, I have to admit...

Put in the oven at about 180°C until the meat is spoon-tender, about two to two-and-a-half hours. Check occasionally if there is still enough liquid, if not add some water.

Take out of the oven and add the black currant jelly. Correct the seasoning if necessary, but usually the bacon will have been salty enough already.

Depending on how thick you like the gravy, thicken with a little flour mixed in cold water, some beurre manie or the commercial thickener of your choice.
Also, if the colour of the stew is not as appetizingly dark as one could wish for, I correct this with a few drops of caramel color, one of the priceless little helpers I gleaned from my grandmother. (This is especially usefull when in the hurry of the day one didn't have the time to sear the meat properly, and actually had to throw the block of frozen meat into the oven with the cold wine and the spices before hurrying off to the next appointment...)

Can be served with almost any vegetables, potatoes seem to be a must.
I prefer string beans, with lots of butter and garlic, and Rösti with a little molten cheese on top.

Keeps well in the fridge, freezes and reheats perfectly well.

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