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WEEKEND: FOOD: Dishes to stew over; A CHEF REVEALS THE SECRETS OF THE PERFECT FOOD FOR WINTER NIGHTS.

Byline: ANN EVANS

WHEN it is freezing cold outside, there are few dishes more warming to come home to than a good old-fashioned stew.

Whether you call it a stew, casserole or hot pot, there's no mistaking that delicious combination of meat and veg with, perhaps, a few dumplings thrown in for good measure.

Chef Craig Blackman, from The Bell Inn, Welford-on-Avon, which is recommended by The Good Pub Guide 2004, regularly cooks a casserole of Warwickshire beef and cider for customers.

"There are so many different types of stew," says Craig, who trained at Worcester College and has worked at top restaurants in London and Stratford.

"There's Irish stew for example, where you add barley. And while you wouldn't normally have dumplings in Irish stew, lots of people associate dumplings with stew, so there's no reason why you can't add them.

"All sorts of meat can be used in a stew, beef or lamb for example, and the best sort of vegetables are root veg, things like parsnips, turnips, carrots and onions - the little baby silverskin onions are lovely in a casserole.

"All these will stand being cooked the same length of time as the meat without mushing away."

Craig explains that the art to making a good tasty stew is firstly to brown the meat in a shallow pan to seal in some of the juices, and to caramelise the natural sugars in the meat, which gives the rich dark colour of the finished stew.

It is also best to leave some fat on, as this adds to the flavour.

The meat can be coated in flour before browning - just a few cubes of meat at a time in a frying pan with very hot fat - as this will help to thicken the gravy.

And if the meat is not floured, dry it on kitchen paper before browning.

"Always brown the meat before adding salt," adds Craig.

"Seal then season, not the other way round."

Also, the residues left on the pan after browning the meat should definitely not be wasted, so pour out any excess fat, then add water, stock, wine, beer or cider, and bring to the boil before pouring it over the meat.

Add spices, seasoning or herbs to taste or a classic bouquet garni for extra flavour, and cook nice and slowly, 170C/325F/Gas Mark 3, until the meat is tender.

"Here at the Bell, we cook our casseroles on the stove, so the meat and vegetables are steamed," says Craig. "But normally at home you'd cook them in the oven so your stew or casserole is less likely to burn on the base.

"If you need to thicken your stew, this can be done by stirring in small pieces of buerre manie, which is made by combining equal amounts of butter and flour together.

"Cooking stews at home can be quite time consuming, but they are ideal for cooking beforehand and reheating.

"Often they taste even better when reheated. However, make sure you reheat it thoroughly by bringing it to the boil, and then let it simmer for five minutes."

Just the thing for cold winter evenings.

Dumplings INGREDIENTS

200g/ 8oz self raising flour

100g/ 4oz suet

Pinch salt

Tablespoon mixed herbs

Cold water

METHOD

Mix the suet into the flour, add pinch of salt and the herbs. Stir in just enough water to bind.

Form into dumpling shapes and add to the stew about ten minutes before serving.

You could also add sweated, chopped leeks to the mixture.

CAPTION(S):

TRADITION: Chef Craig Blackman from The Bell Inn at Welford with a traditional stew
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Nov 29, 2003
Words:603
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