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Khan Chittibabu

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So if the thrill of all that self-denial has already worn off, I'd like to suggest something a little more wholesome to fill the gap where mince pies once lay, and that something is ... OK, it's another pie. Because everyone, with the dishonourable exception of my mum, likes pies. And now that you've been going to the gym three times a week since New Year's Day, you can afford to relax a little bit. Right?

Steak is a bit of a vague term here: obviously no one's expecting you to use fillet in your pie (well, I'm not at least), but I found the cuts often recommended for pies to be, in general, tough, even after three or four hours on the stove, regardless of where I bought the meat from.

Having tried stewing steak in the Hairy Bikers' recipe, braising steak in Valentine Warner's recipe in his book The Good Table, and chuck steak in Tom Norrington-Davies' Just Like Mother Used to Make, I seize upon Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's shin of beef with alacrity. He recommends an extra half hour cooking time for this sinewy cut, but it's well worth it: the meat falls apart under the fork, and proves gelatinously juicy in contrast to the dry steak.

Hawksmoor at Home yields the wonderfully named "cheek and tail pie", made, perhaps unsurprisingly, with ox cheek and oxtail. These cuts need cooking for nearly four hours, but again, the results are far more interesting than plain old chuck or stewing steak, and they're cheaper too, which always warms the cockles of the heart. Like Fearnley-Whittingstall, Hawksmoor also use bacon in their pie: big, chunky wobbly lardons of it, which add a burst of smoky flavour to every bite. The fat also helps to flavour the gravy (just in case you were in danger of mistaking this for a health food).

Browning the beef over a high heat first, rather than just colouring it, as Warner suggests, adds extra flavour, but most vital is long, slow cooking afterwards. I find it easier to achieve this in a medium oven, as Warner recommends, than on the hob, where, even over a low heat, it's difficult to keep a covered pot from boiling. (If you have a heat diffuser, however, you may find this easier to achieve.) Letting it cook for a time uncovered, as Warner does, helps to thicken the sauce, although I think he goes a bit far: a bit more liquid in his stew wouldn't have gone amiss in my opinion.

There ought to be a nod to vegetable matter in order for the pie to qualify as a complete meal in a dish. Onions are a must, given they go so well with both beef and ale, and should be browned first, rather than just softened, to add maximum flavour. Warner's pickled versions are a great idea, but some of my tasting panel felt they were a little strident: more popular were Fearnley-Whittingstall's whole baby onions, which also remain intact throughout the cooking process rather than disappearing into the sauce like the chopped alternative, although if you can't get hold of them, small round shallots will do admirably. Or throw caution to the wind and give the pickled sort a try: trust me, the vinegar cuts through the gravy beautifully.

Carrots are a classic addition, used by Norrington-Davies, Hawksmoor and the Hairy Bikers, but I'm not particularly keen: the long cooking time required means they are inevitably mushy by the time the meat is tender. One idea is to add them at a later stage, but I'd prefer to serve them separately, cooked to perfection.

Mushrooms are also bafflingly common: Fearnley-Whittingstall uses two different sorts, button and field, while the Hairy Bikers and Hawksmoor stick with plain old button mushrooms. Fearnley-Whittingstall explains that their "juices will help prevent the stew drying out", but I find they actually add too much liquid, meaning the gravy is distinctly thin and watery. Although they work well flavourwise, I'm not particularly keen on the slightly slimy texture they lend the pie. Definitely an optional extra.

Ale is obviously non-negotiable, though many recipes, including the Bikers and Warner, don't specify what sort. Fearnley-Whittingstall and Norrington-Davies demand stout, while Hawksmoor go for pale ale. Beer writer Melissa Cole recommends barley wine, or dunkel weiss (a German dark wheat beer) instead, on the basis that "stout can get a little too bitter". To be honest, the different ales make less difference than I anticipate, but I agree with Cole that a slightly sweeter ale gives a more rounded flavour to the gravy: I have good results with less bitter stouts than the ubiquitous Guinness, such as London's Meantime, or Fuller's Golden Pride.

Hawksmoor marinate the meat in ale before cooking, which is a nice idea, but I prefer to keep the ale flavour in the gravy and allow the meat to speak for itself. They also, like the Bikers and Warner, top the stew up with beef stock which I think works much better than ale alone, or Norrington-Davies' ale and water combination: the savoury, meatiness gives the gravy real body.

Garlic, as used by Hawksmoor and the Hairy Bikers, feels worryingly continental – ditto Norrington-Davies' and Warner's tomato puree. The same sweet and sour effect can be achieved with a little dark sugar, and a dash of vinegar – or, as Hawksmoor brilliantly suggest, a dollop of brown sauce.

HP is one thing, but I'm going to reach further into the British pantry, and add a spoonful of cocoa as well: an idea nicked from Norrington-Davies, who says he picked it up while working with Spanish cooks. Unless you're a super-taster, you're unlikely to able to pinpoint exactly what's providing that slightly bitter note, but it rounds things off nicely. This is a sauce with punch.

Thyme and bay seem to be the classic herb choices, and I have no quibble with either: thyme in particular works well with beef. I can't tell what, if anything, Fearnley-Whittingstall's parsley adds, and fishing it out, all slimy and brown, is an unpleasant task, so I'm vetoing it.

The Hairy Bikers use puff, Fearnley-Whittingstall a rough puff, and Hawksmoor a suet pastry (although they also suggest trying bone marrow, if you happen to have any lying around). Warner's stew is, strictly speaking, destined for a pudding rather than a pie, so I experiment with the rich shortcrust in Angela Boggiano's excellent book Pie instead. (Norrington-Davies' stew is actually just that, hence the lack of pastry in the picture.)

I'm torn: the lightness of the rough puff is a pleasant contrast to the hearty beef filling, and I like the crunch of the robustly buttery shortcrust, but in the end I can't help falling for Hawksmoor's crumbly bone marrow and butter pastry – although I'll be ditching the butter and egg yolks: I don't think the dish needs any extra richness. Crisp on top, soft and almost doughy underneath, it's like a beautiful hybrid of pudding and pie. What could be more warming than that?

Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests lining the entire dish with pastry, rather than just the top, waxing lyrical in the River Cottage Meat Book on the pleasures of "soggy, gravy-absorbing pastry underneath ... and a wonderful, flaky, crispy baked-pastry crust on top". I'm not keen, personally: I find the gummy bottom pastry tends to get left behind, and in any case, the bottom of the pastry topping, having absorbed all that meaty steam in the oven, is quite soggy enough for my liking.

This is truly a pie to see you through the dark months ahead – I can't pretend it's diet-friendly fare, but it goes well with steamed greens and a little really does go a long way. As with self-control.

Serves 4

Large chunk of dripping700g boneless beef shin or ox cheek, cut into large chunks20g plain flour, seasoned200g smoked bacon lardons225g whole baby onions400ml sweetish dark ale400ml beef stock4 sprigs of thyme, leaves roughly chopped1 bay leaf1 tbsp dark muscovado sugar1 tsp red wine vinegar1 tsp cocoa

For the pastry:400g plain flour, plus extra to dust1 tsp baking powder2 tsp mustard powder (optional)½ tsp salt175g suet (or chilled, grated bone marrow if you have it)Iced waterA little milk, to glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 150C (fan). Heat a generous chunk of dripping in a large frying pan over a high heat, and toss the beef in seasoned flour to coat. Sear the beef in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan, until properly browned. Spoon into an ovenproof casserole once done.

2. Turn down the heat slightly, and add the lardons and the onions to the pan. Cook until the bacon fat begins to melt, and the onions to brown on all sides, then tip into the casserole.

3. Pour a little of the ale into the pan and bring to a simmer, scraping the bottom, them pour the whole lot into the casserole with the meat. Add the rest of the ale, and the stock, herbs, sugar, vinegar and cocoa and bring to a simmer.

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