Fin-de-siecle carrot, cabbage and beef stew for changeable seasons

Here in London we swing from chilly, bright mornings to warm, light-filled afternoons, and back into evenings cool enough to make hot water bottles a tempting prospect. Weather like this requires an arsenal of recipes in one’s back pocket, from cool noodle salads for evenings drowsy with humidity to warming recipes that provide ballast against the creeping coldness of a surprisingly crisp spring night.

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So to this recipe. It’s inspired by one I found in a magazine…nothing out of the ordinary there, except that the magazine in question is one from 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. It was published in the early, rather than high, summer, a reminder that British summers, too, can run to cool. The recipe as it was printed would, I’m sure, confound many stereotypes about British food: it read surprisingly modern with its combination of beef, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and macaroni, a veritable one-pot meal sprightly with tender vegetables. The magazine in question was a penny a week and so accessible to upper-working or lower-middle class women with a bit of extra income, and was most explicitly directed at the kind of woman who had servants, but usually no more than two (a cook and a maid); sometimes the imagined readers’ income could stretch to no more than a charlady (“the woman of the future will even have to scrub” was a particularly cautionary phrase mid-way through the First World War).

I put this together based on some shredded cabbage languishing in the fridge after a recipe called for only half a head and the vague memory of this recipe, buried under the many, many magazines I read for my MA dissertation in the summer of 2014. What I mostly remember is the serialised romances – the mill-girl swapped at birth, the man who loses his arm at Mons – but some of the recipes stood out too. I didn’t have any macaroni in the house so served it with boiled, unpeeled potatoes, but I think the pasta would be a great addition; simmering in the tomato sauce, it will absorb the flavours and add a slip of silky starchiness to the stew, subtly thickening it.

Middle class beef stew a la fin-de-siecle
Generous helpings for two, or enough for a slightly awkward three to smallish portions for four, depending on side dishes offered

  • 15g butter and a splash of vegetable oil, to prevent burning (you can use more butter if you want it creamier)
  • 1 onion, peeled and diced
  • 450g stewing beef, diced into cubes
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped or sliced
  • 60ml tomato paste
  • Beef or chicken stock, to cover
  • 250g Savoy cabbage, shredded (discard the tougher outer leaves, core and thicker stalks and then shred or finely slice the cabbage until you have the desired amount; a little more or less won’t hurt)
  • salt and white pepper (you can use black if you prefer) for seasoning
  1. In a heavy-based pot, melt the butter and with the oil over medium-low heat. Once melted, add the onion and fry for 5-10 minutes, until golden-toned and lightly browned at the edges.
  2. Raise the heat to medium. Add the diced beef and brown for two minutes on each side, until browned on each side. Season the mixture to taste with the salt and pepper, bearing in mind your stock may be salty.
  3. Add the tomato paste and cook in for 20 seconds or so, stirring. Add the carrots and then pour in just enough water or stock or cover (or, in my case, I used water and a stock pot). Bring to the boil; once boiling, reduce to a simmer, cover the pot with a lid and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour and a half, until the beef is meltingly tender.
  4. Remove the pan lid and add the shredded cabbage; simmer for 15-20 minutes.  You may need to add a little water here, but do go slow; the aim is sauciness, not soup. This length of time sort of goes against the grain of modern cabbage-cooking, which prioritises a green crunchiness, but the aim here is for silky, well-cooked greens, not watery, boiled-to-death pap. Once the cabbage is tender, it’s ready to serve. Taste and adjust the seasoning before doing so.

Note: If you want to serve it with plain, boiled potatoes, cook them when you add the cabbage. You could also add potatoes to the stew to cook in the juices, though you might need to add a little more water. I’d add 250g diced potatoes with the cabbage. If you want to add pasta, I’d add 60-80g macaroni with the cabbage and a little more water and test it for tenderness before serving.

 

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