Tuesday 20 December 2011

Umami Stew

I can't remember when or where I first heard of this recipe for Beef Stew with Anchovies but I suppose it is just a classic.  I love using anchovies as seasoning rather than as a flavour.  Both beef and anchovy are high in umami and therefore make a winning combination.  

This idea of meat and fish is certainly nothing new.  In Asia they have been using fish sauces such as Nam Pla and Nuoc Mam for centuries to enrich meat dishes.  And what do you think you are doing when you add a good glug of Worcester Sauce to your Bolognaise.  Maybe you never told anyone, because it just did not seem very authentic.  But I bet your Italian housewife is not unfamiliar with chucking the odd anchovy into hers. But you would have no idea that there was any fish present.  It is just adds an intensity.  

The recipe I have used is from Nigella "How to Eat" and I just changed a few details to adapt it for the slow-cooker.  As I have said before, I have a grudge and will always have to change something when it comes to Nigella, but these adaptations are worth noting because it allows you to alter any recipe that you find for yourself, for the slow-cooker. Firstly you need much less liquid.  As the lid is sealing the steam in, no moisture is lost and there is no need of added stock. The meat will provide enough of it's own juices as a substitute.  In this way you get a much more intense flavour.  After 6-8 hours cooking it will need no further reduction.  But it will be as thin in texture as when you started.  I have never been one to add flour to sauces or stews cooked by conventional means but when slow-cooking, it really helps to bring the whole dish together, so that when you get home from a hard days work and lift that lid to the fantastic aromas, your dinner is hot, delicious and ready to eat.  You don't want to start reducing sauces.  

Sometimes it is worth taking to effort to brown off the meat as you would in a casserole.  Sometimes, it is not necessary then it obviously saves a whole lot of time and mess.  I am in the process of testing all my recipes to where you can skip this stage without any detriment to the finished dish.  It is however often worth bringing all liquids in the recipe, to a boil before transferring to your slow cooker, to allow the slow-cooker to get to simmering point as quickly as possible.  It is at this temperature that it really works it magic.  

The idea is that, although you obviously put in the work at sometime, several hours ago, to get this show on the road, it is just long enough ago to feel when you get home, that someone else has been slaving away in your house all day to serve you dinner.  Someone is looking after you!

Beef stew with Anchovies and Thyme
If not using a slow-cooker then just omit the flour and add 300mls beef stock with the wine.
3 - 5 tablespoons veg oil or beef dripping
1.5 kilo stewing beef, cut into chunky strips 

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onion, halved then finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced or finely chopped
3 medium carrots, cut into batons the size of fat matchsticks
4 sticks celery, finely sliced
1 small bunch fresh thyme
6 anchovy fillets, well drained and chopped up or minced fine
3 tablespoons Marsala
500ml robust red wine
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoons tomato puree

Serves: 6 to 8.
Pre-heat your slow-cooker.  Put a heavy casserole on a high flame with 3 tablespoons of veg oil to heat up. It is not worth using olive oil at this stage, firstly because you need it to get very hot which will kill any flavour and secondly because when frying at at a high temperature the cleaner  oil the better and it will cause much less smoke. 
Add the beef in small batches and fry until brown all over.  Remove each batch to a plate with a slotted spoon and fry the next batch. Add more oil if necessary.  Do not overcrowd the pan as the meat will steam and not fry. When done tip the meat into the slow-cooker.  Sprinkle with the flour and give a good stir. Pour off any surplice oil from the casserole pan and add a couple of glugs of olive oil and turn down the heat.  Add the chopped onion, carrots and celery and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften, but not colour. After about 10 minutes or so add the garlic and thyme.  The bunch of thyme should be chopped very finely with a sharp knife for as far as you can cut.  Re-chop so that there are no stalks.  The remaining stalks can be wrapped in string and put straight into the pan. Add the chopped anchovies and stir well.  Cook for a few minutes before adding the Marsala, red wine and tomato puree and stir well. Bring to the boil and check for salt and pepper, and season to taste. Tip the whole lot over the meat in the slow cooker.  Put on the lid and cook for 8 hours on slow or 6 hours on fast.  Go out!  Come home.  Lift the lid and smell that.  Yum.  Give  a good stir and check seasoning.  Serve with boiled new potatoes or mash.


  1. Having looked at your recipes, you've help to convince me to buy to slow cooker.

    Just one question - what size cooker are your recipes intended for? I've just bought one with a working capacity of 2.5 litres. I know this is on the small size so I was wondering if I would need to adjust your recipes.

  2. I am so flattered that you have decided to buy a slow cooker because of my recipes. My cooker is the largest at 6.5 litres but it really is almost too big for everyday. I bought it so I could cook a whole shoulder of lamb, but all my recipes will fit in your size cooker and the cooking times should be the same. However, I have heard that different makes vary in temperature so timings are always a little vague. However, you can't really overcook a stew as long as you use good stewing meat. Let me know how you get on.

  3. Just to let you know how I got on with the slow cooker. I've been using it for about 6 weeks and have generally had great meals. I cooked Chinese pork spare ribs today (and finished them off under the grill)and they were succulent.

    I find it particularly good at curries and my favourite to date is Myanmar pork curry.

    I'm so glad that I spotted your slow cooker section as it really did prompt me to buy one - Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. I will definitely give the ribs a try, especially when it gets warm enough to finish them of on the barbecue. Keep in touch.

  4. Well I will definitely be dusting off my slow cooker and doing this one today. I have two large shin of beef slices in the fridge so this sounds perfect.


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