How good does a wine have to be to cook with? I remember talking to a wine writer a few years ago and he went to a very posh restaurant in Paris. He ordered a dish that came with a reduction of Hermitage, the only problem was that the cook had used a corked bottle. I think he ended up sending the dish back. My schoolboy French would not have been up to”Waiter, my gravy is corked!”
The story illustrates the point that the most important thing when choosing a wine to cook with is that there aren’t any odd flavours, corked for example, or those strange rubbery taste you sometimes get in cheap wine. Or not so cheap wine. Avoid Pinotage at all costs! If your wine is a little stinky or rubbery or has clumsy oak flavouring, then that will come out in your dish. You don’t want anything too sweet either as that will make your dish taste weird.What you need is a reasonable quality wine, one that will provide a good winey flavour and plenty of acidity. Things like Cotes du Rhones, Barbera d’Astis, beefier Beaujolais are perfect for this. Nothing too fancy though subtleties will be lost in the cooking process.
Far more important than the quality of the wine, is the quality of the meat. I made one earlier in the year with meat from Tesco and then one at the weekend with meat from the butcher in Blackheath. The difference was startling. Not just richer tasting meat but a much deeper flavour throughout the dish. It was like the different between eating in a caff compared with a fancy Paris restaurant.
This is the recipe I used, it is based on Elizabeth David’s. It’s absurdly easy to do. You cannot fail as long as you use top quality meat. The wine can be a little more humdrum.
2 kg of stewing steak cut into thumb-sized chunks
1 large onion quartered
Stick of celery
2 bay leafs
Fresh parsley and thyme (and rosemary)
1 bottle of wine. I used Ultima Edizione Quatto Uve – a blend of grapes from all over Italy – lots of guts, fruit and flavour, no weird smells.
400g button mushrooms
400g shallots or baby onions
8 rashes of unsmoked streaky bacon
4 cloves of garlic
Small glass of port or other sweet wine (optional)
Two carrots (optional)
salt and pepper
Serves six or eight at a push
Put the beef in a large saucepan with the quartered onion, 2 cloves of garlic, one bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, some parsley stalks and a little rosemary if you have it. I find rosemary can be a bit overpowering so would rather leave it out rather than put in too much. Season, cover pan and leave overnight to marinade or for at least four hours.
Drain, keeping the marinade and beef but discarding the vegetables, herbs etc. Dust beef lightly with flour. Cut bacon into lardons and fry until crisp and the fat has come out.Leave lardons to one side. Now brown the beef in the bacon fat in batches and place in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When all the beef is browned put the heat on low, add a splash of brandy and set alight (not essential but great fun.) Now add the marinade wine, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf and two peeled cloves of garlic. Don’t add any salt at this stage. Bring to a slow simmer, cover and leave for two hours. Check occasionally that it is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Peel the baby onions/ shallots and quickly fry them in bacon fat, olive oil, butter or a combination of the three. Add to the beef. Quickly fry the mushrooms and add to the beef. Add the chopped cooked bacon. (If you want the stew to go further you could add some roughly chopped carrot at this point.)
Cover and leave on a low heat for one more hour. Now taste, add salt if needed. The meat should be melty. If it isn’t then the stew might need longer. At this stage a small glass of port or similar really lift the whole dish and brings out the winey flavours.
Ideally you’ll now leave it overnight somewhere cold. Any excess fat can be removed when it has solidified. When it’s time to eat, gently bring the stew to a simmer. Add a handful of roughly chopped parsley, black pepper and serve with mashed potatoes and something green, cabbage is nice.
You’ll want to eat this with something far better than you used for cooking: Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundy all go well though I had this recently with a bottle of Chateau St. Thomas 2001 from Lebanon. They were spectacular together.