To make these wonderful winter fillers and warmers there are a few basic things to do.
In olive oil fry chopped onion and garlic until transparent – or even golden browning. Then add the meat – any old meat, though the time to cook the stew will depend on the cut, remembering that the cheaper cuts will take longer but taste better.
A sprinkling of flour stirred in at this stage will thicken the final juices. Add salt and pepper.
Next add the prepared vegetable, or vegetables of your choice. Using only one kind of vegetable will help to determine the uniqueness of your dish. Think of cabbage, carrots, artichokes, fennel, courgettes, tomatoes, pumpkin or squash as possibilities.
To add cubed potatoes will save you from having to cook them separately but will detract from the clear-cut taste of your effort. Mashed potatoes are excellent. They absorb the delicious juices. Crusty bread to dip in is also good.
You will want to flavour your stew with a herb or spice. Now is the time to add it, but do not throw in your usual mix. Keep the taste pure and simple. One herb or spice will do. Try cumin, or caraway, nutmeg, mace, dill, sage, star aniseed, bay leaf, coriander (seeds or chopped leaves), the pared skin of orange or lemon, olives (green or black) and heaven knows what else that takes your fancy. But be careful of curry powder, as you will inadvertently be making a curry.
It is time for the liquid content. Stock or stock cube(s) in water is enough. The liquid in which you have boiled vegetables is good. The stock from boiling chicken bones and the like in a pressure cooker (for speed) is excellent. But you may want to jazz up the liquid a bit by adding something to it – like tea, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, ketchup, oyster sauce or chilli sauce. But remember that you have already added one herb or spice, and that should be enough.
Be careful about adding wine, fortified wine or spirits. Use them sparingly and not very often.
When cooking these stews or casseroles on top of the stove, the thickening may catch and ruin things. So do not overdo the flour, and keep a close eye on matters. If the liquid is too much or too thin, cook in the oven or on top of the stove with the lid off to allow the liquid to evaporate.
With these ideas in mind the winter will become far more pleasurable. But keep it simple.
And when your plate is nearly clean, but still warm, do as the French peasants do – faire chabreau. That is, pouring a little red wine into the plate, swilling it around, and drinking the result – directly from the plate. It is alright for me, because when it comes to cooking, I’m a peasant.