Slow beef stew with dumplings

This is one of those meals which is so much more. The kitchen will be warm from the long cooking. The house will smell deeply savoury. You will have nothing at all to do in the run up to supper but welcome your loved ones home and enjoy the fire together. And if you are lucky, there will be leftovers for your lunch the following day, the flavours even richer and more deeply intertwined.

You can use any wintry root vegetables for this stew. I always include celery, because it adds a savoury depth that nothing else quite seems to achieve. Sweet root veg work well: swedes (rutabaga), parsnips, big old carrots. Then some onions or leeks, and perhaps a knobbly celeriac root. Just use up whatever is in the basket. The dumplings, too, can vary from meal to meal. You can leave them plain, with just a pinch of salt and grind of pepper into the breadcrumby mix. Or you can add a couple of spoonfuls of wholegrain mustard, or a scant teaspoonful of fiery English Coleman’s. Sometimes I sprinkle in dried thyme, or some little brown mustard seeds, intact and apt to roll about the counter. Do what you want with this, and make it your own.

For the stew:

100g cubed stewing beef per person

one head of celery (for five or six people – scale up or down as appropriate)

one good sized swede, or two or three parsnips

a carrot or two

one or two leeks or onions

a couple of tablespoons of plain flour

hot stock or water

a clove of garlic, if desired

a bay leaf, or some sprigs of thyme, or both

salt and pepper

For the dumplings:

All you do is turn the wireless on, put on your apron, and peel and chop all the vegetables. The main vegetables should be in half inch (1 1/2 cm) chunks. Put them all into a big heavy casserole (dutch oven). Put the meat on top, and sprinkle over the flour – all of it for a thickish gravy, less for a thinner one.

Mix it all roughly together, so that the flour is coating the other ingredients and won’t go lumpy when you add the liquid. Add the slices of garlic, herbs, salt and pepper and mix it up again. Then pour the hot stock over it: enough to come about halfway up the ingredients. The stew will get wetter as it cooks, and you can always add more water later, if you like.

Put it into a medium-low oven (gas mark 3, 160 degrees Celsius, 325 degrees Fahrenheit) and leave it for as long as you can. This really needs to cook for at least four hours. If you can cook it for longer, bring it to a simmer and then turn the heat a little lower. Take  it out of the oven from time to time, to stir it and check on progress. It all needs to meld together into a contented consolidation of its parts, so that they are identifiable but soft and yielding. Turn it up if you don’t think this will happen in time, but the stew won’t taste as good as one cooked long and slowly.

For the dumplings, follow the recipe for pastry. I use 250g butter and 500g plain flour for six hungry people, plus lunch for one or two others the following day. Add any flavourings before the water. Then, instead of rolling it out, make several one inch/ three centimetre balls, and leave them one a plate, somewhere cool. About 45 minutes before serving the stew, push them into the gravy so that they are half submerged, put the lid back on, and they will cook in the bubbling stew and its steam.

You don’t need to serve anything else with this, although you could serve it with pickled cabbage and an egg cup of Coleman’s mustard. Present it in soup bowls, warmed in the oven, with a fork and a deep round spoon, and (hopefully) a glass or red wine or a bottle of stout.