Slow-cooked meat dishes which use red wine as both a marinade and a cooking liquid are those which most of us remember as an early revelation in our introduction to French food. This is comfort food: rich and satisfying. Food with implied memories of the slowest simmering pots on the stove, the house filling with a delicious and all-permeating aroma, as the constituent elements combine into a glorious amalgam. Thus do the toughest pieces of meat give of their best Indeed, the last thing you want in a daube is an expensive lean cut, for this will only emerge tough, dry and disappointing.
You will find many supposedly classic recipes which call for lean cuts barded with pork fat Why? It does not work as well, involves pointless preparation and will cost more. Always choose a stewing cut like shin or ox cheek, which layer muscle with connective tissue and some fat The end result will then be meltingly tender and moist.
Ox cheek is perhaps the best cut of all for a wine-enriched stew. It is the muscle which has worked hardest in the beast’s life - chewing the cud - and will take perhaps four or five hours to cook. Each cheek makes two servings, certainly at least one-and-a-half.
In the restaurant the cheeks are removed when cooked, ding-wrapped and chilled. Before serving they are then sliced thickly and heated in the finished sauce.
You are unlikely to find ox cheek in the supermarket, but it is worth asking your butcher if he can get some for you. At the time of writing, restaurants are discovering its advantages, which means it is only a matter of time before the good news percolates via food writers and word of mouth to a wider audience... and as ox cheek becomes more sought after, so inevitably the price will rise.
One word of warning: we tend to have been sold the idea that all stewing cuts need to cook all day long to yield their treasure. This is not always the case. Even shin may be fully cooked after as little as two hours, while other stewing cuts (in England known to the meat trade as ‘clod’ and ‘sticking’, which I have always thought would make a great name for a butcher) may cook in 90 minutes. If you go on cooking past that point the gelatinous and fat elements will cook out into the braising liquid and the meat will progress from moist tenderness to flaking and unpleasant dryness. It is therefore worth testing after about 90 minutes, by removing a piece and cutting a small slice off it to taste. Repeat at regular intervals until you are happy with the result (In the case of ox cheek this will certainly be several hours!) Then next time you cook that same cut en daube you will have a good idea of how long it should stay on the stove.
If you feel the meat is cooked but that the cooking liquid needs reducing, the meat can be removed with a slotted spoon at this stage and then the liquid boiled to cook it down to the required amount If you think the texture is too thin and it needs further thickening, then a beurre manié can be used: this is an amalgamation of equal amounts of flour and butter which is whisked into simmering liquid in small lumps, instantly thickening the sauce. It is unlikely that you will need this refinement but the technique is a useful one to have up your sleeve. Unlike flour-thickened sauces which need a long cooking period to eliminate the taste of four (like the roux of a velouté, or indeed the seasoned flour with which you coat meat before sealing and browning), sauces thickened with beurre manié can be consumed after a few minutes’ cooking. Alternatively, use potato flour as an end-ofcooking thickening agent.
In France, daubes and other slow-cooked dishes are called plats mijotés. These are the essential elements in the cuisine du terroir or cuisine bonne femme: a conscious effort to return to the roots of a country-based food culture, where traditional values predominate and where food reflects the natural rhythms of the seasons. I cannot think of anybody who eats meat who is not captivated by a good daube. It is loved by young and old alike, the culinary ingénue and the food sophisticate. It needs nothing more than mashed potatoes to provide bliss at the table.
The day before: trim the ox cheeks of any skin or visible gristle. If using shin, then cut it into portion sizes, working along the muscles • Peel the carrot, onions and celery and prepare a mirepoix • Peel and slice the garlic • Put all these ingredients in a large bowl to marinate in the red wine overnight.
The next day: gently wash the mushrooms • Destalk the parsley • Season some flour • Drain the meat and vegetables using the colander over a bowl to reserve the wine. Remove the meat and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve the vegetables and bouquet garni.
Melt the lard or other fat in the frying pan and brown the ox cheeks or pieces of beef shin all over 2 at a time, first coating them in the seasoned flour. Put the browned pieces in the casserole. When all the meat is browned and in the casserole, place over a very low heat turning after 5 minutes and sprinkling with a little more flour.
Meanwhile brown the vegetables and aromatics in the pan in a little more fat Pour over 575ml /1pt of boiling water and stir up the sediment to deglaze. Add the contents of the pan to the casserole. The beef should have had at least 10 minutes’ browning and the flour will have darkened and blotched on the surface. Add the wine marinade and stock or an equivalent amount of consommé and water and stir all together.
Turn up the heat to medium and bring to a bubble, immediately turning down the heat to achieve the barest simmer. Cover and cook for 4 hours for cheek, 1½ hours for shin. Occasionally take off the lid and skim and stir. Note that the only salt and pepper used so far is the small amount in the seasoned flour.
At the end of this time, add the bacon in a piece and cook for a further 60 minutes before testing the beef to make sure it is cooked as described above.
Remove the casserole from the hob and transfer the beef and bacon to a tray using a slotted spoon. Pass the sauce through the conical sieve to take out the aromatics and vegetables and pass a second time through a finer sieve back into the casserole.
Cut the bacon into lardon strips and fry these gently in the frying pan until golden. Add the button onions and continue to cook until they too are golden and then tip both into the sauce. Do not wash the pan, but turn up the heat and sauté the mushrooms until browned, then add them to the sauce.
If serving immediately, slice the ox cheeks thickly and return them to the sauce and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste the sauce and season if necessary. Otherwise cling wrap the meat and refrigerate and allow the sauce to cool before refrigerating. Both can be held in this way for up to 3 days and then gently, reheated before being served.
Serve on large warmed plates sprinkled with chopped flat leaf parsley and accompanied by mashed potatoes. This recipe is really a cross between a daube and a bourguignonne, the best kind of winter grub.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.