Is it just me or does it seem like just the other day that we were joyously welcoming the first fruits of summer into our kitchens? I remember going blackberry picking with Mowie and Bruce at the start of the summer (which turned into wild cherry and wild plum picking too!) as if it was last weekend. But the slow disappearance of locally-grown summer fruit from the stores and the damp, increasingly dark greyness that I awake to in the mornings tell a different story. Summer has moved on, the longest night is not far off, and I feel in need of comfort.
Comfort food is a winter concept to me: somehow you don’t seem to need comfort as much in warm weather. Oh sure, we’ve all found ourselves at 2 a.m. after a messy breakup with a lover, sitting on our kitchen floor with an empty carton of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream next to us and a gooey spoon in our hand, right? No? Really? OK, just me then. Oops. Overshare :o)
But it is true that when you look at lists of a nation’s favourite comfort foods, there is a definite leaning towards dishes best served in the winter, as if warmth and comfort are inextricably linked. For some people, comfort lies in sweet things: a treacle sponge; a sticky toffee pudding; a gooey chocolate cake; or an apple crumble with custard. For others, like me, it’s savoury foods that provide the most comfort: Creamy mashed potato with gravy; a fragrant bowl of Thai curry; tartiflette; a buttery, flaky pie; or a rich stew that scents my entire house as it cooks.
So in these grey days of Autumn with the clocks about to go back (sob!) and consign us to coming home from work in the pitch darkness, I decided it was time for a double whammy of comfort: a rich stew and a flaky pie, all in one delightful package! The filling for this pie is my standard recipe for beef & Guinness stew, but spooned into small ramekins, topped with puff pastry and baked. The end result is pretty enough to serve to guests, yet packed with all the comfort you need: gooey and stewy in all the right places; crispy and flaky in all the right places. It’s a dot of pure, comforting bliss in the grey fog of Autumn
INDIVIDUAL BEEF & GUINNESS POT PIES (serves 4-6)
1kg chuck steak (or brisket or stewing steak) cut into 4cm cubes
3 Tbsp plain flour for coating
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion sliced
3-4 carrots, thinly sliced
2 celery sticks, thinly sliced
150g button mushrooms, roughly chopped
1tsp English mustard
1 Tbsp tomato puree
1×3 inch strip of orange rind
600ml Guinness or other dark stout
bouquet garni (bundle of herbs including parsley, thyme and a bay leaf)
salt & pepper
a roll of ready-made puff pastry
Season the flour with salt and pepper and toss the beef cubes in the flour mix to coat. I usually mix the flour with salt and pepper in a Ziploc bag and toss the cubes in the bag. Heat 2 Tbsp of oil in a large shallow pan and cook the meat in batches till lightly browned. Remove from the pan and keep warm.
Add the remaining oil to a large, cast-iron casserole dish. Over medium heat, cook the onion till well-browned, stirring occasionally and adding the carrot and celery towards end. Stir in the sugar, mustard, tomato puree, orange rind, Guinness and seasoning. Add the bouquet garni and bring to the boil. Return meat and any juices to the dish. If necessary, add water to ensure that the meat is covered.
Cover dish tightly and simmer very gently for 2-2.5hrs until meat very tender. About half an hour from the end of the cooking time, add the chopped mushrooms.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Roll out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 3mm thickness. Lightly mark circles on the pastry, using the ramekins that you plan to bake the pies in. Cut circles that are slightly larger that the circles you have marked (so that they will overhang the edges of the ramekin).
Spoon the stew (emember to remove the orange rind and bouquet garni first!) into 4-6 ovenproof ramekins and cover each ramekin with its pastry lid. Press the pastry lightly down along the edges to seal. To guard against spills in your oven, place the ramekins on a baking tray.
Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes or until the pastry is puffy and golden. Serve immediately with some green vegetables and a hearty red wine (an Argentinean Malbec or South African Shiraz would do nicely!).