Time to take stock

A simple, hearty stew is the perfect autumn dish

The weather remains mild, but the leaves are reddening and falling. As soon as that happens, I regain my appetite for stews. At the weekend, I bought oxtail.

Some people think stew common. Lady Bienvenida Buck, who was at the centre of a 1990s sex scandal, was served stew for dinner at the home of Sir Geoffrey (as he was then) and Lady Howe. Recalling the occasion in her memoir Bienvenida: the Making of a Modern Mistress (1996), she described herself as "absolutely appalled". Less refined souls would classify the dish as simple. Richard Olney included it in his Simple French Food, while offering a recipe template stretching over five pages. What, you wonder, would qualify as complicated?

But you know what Olney meant. The ingredients are not grand; the cooking requires no great skill; and the dish is hearty and unpretentious. It is just that you have to fiddle around quite a bit to get the best results.

The first task, in preparing what Olney called a "sauté-type" stew, is to brown the meat. This process does not "seal" meat, even though some recipes continue to use that term. (When you think about it, you realise that the presence of a water-impermeable surface on a piece of meat is unlikely.) But browning - to repeat what I wrote here a few weeks ago (NS, 10 September) - adds flavour, thanks to what are known as the Maillard reactions. You have to work at a high heat, otherwise the meat will merely turn grey; but you also - another point I made in the earlier piece - have to adjust the temperature to avoid burning. I dredged my pieces of oxtail in flour first as a simple way of getting a thickening agent into the sauce.

Next to go into the fat are the flavouring vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery and garlic, with perhaps something alcoholic to deglaze the pan at the end. They join the meat in the casserole dish, along with stock and/or some other liquid. Stewing cuts need slow, gentle cooking. You should submerge them, because the temperature in their bath will not go above 100°C, whereas it will be higher than that in exposed areas of the casserole. For my oxtail, I used beef stock, beer, tomato ketchup, nam pla, soy sauce and a star anise.

I gave my oxtail, without heating it first on the hob, three hours in a gas mark 1 or 140°C oven. I could have served it as it was; but the sauce would have been thin and greasy. I left it overnight and removed the solidified fat the next day. The vegetables had done their job, and were now tasteless. I strained the sauce and boiled it apart from the meat until it thickened slightly and was enriched. I returned the oxtail to the pan to warm through.

I recommend this dish for a dinner party. As long as you do not invite a Spanish courtesan, you should receive no complaints.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?