Stewing in this recession is hard to stomach


Gone is the gourmet food of the boom to be replaced by cheap cuts in casseroles that play havoc with dental work

THINGS I miss about the boom? Well there are a few. Not being afraid that the ATM machine will snatch back my card and say, no more for you missy, is one. Buying a new coat, rather than having to do with an old one that has completely the wrong sleeves for this season is another.

Not having to eat stew is also up there on the list.

Beef bourgignon and other sloppy dishes vanished off the menu as the economy got going and by the peak of things, dinner parties were like episodes of Master Chef. I can recall organic fillets of beef, no end of scallops, sole plaited with salmon; giant prawns; asparagus; tempura . . . food that had had to be cooked at the last minute with restaurant style flourishes. Steam ovens and searing plates and blow torches came into play. Main courses stood proud off the plate, arranged in artistic stacks surrounded by reduced sauces, everything colourful and well defined.

Oh, it was a golden age of entertaining all right, much of it catered.

But now we’re back to basics, dinner party food has gone a bit murky, a bit institutional. We’re talking cheap cuts of meat, skirt of beef, shin, shank, knuckles and so on, slow-cooked and served up as daube, ragout, navarin or whatever you like to call it.

No amount of coriander or mint or lemon wedges takes the look off the result. They’re still all stew.

Along with shoulder pads, the casserole is back in town. Big vats of the stuff were circulating over Christmas with all the attendant fuss of I’ll hold it for you, and you serve, or mind the spoon, gosh, sorry, here, let me wipe that off, were they new trousers?, and so on.

Delicious! People said. Just what we need at a time like this – comfort food. Call me Marie Antoinette – and some of you have – but I disagree. Give me a well-defined portion – a bit of chicken, a ham sandwich – any day.

The new enjoyment of obscure bits of meat – nose to tail cuisine they’re calling it in New York – stirs up disturbing memories of the French family I stayed with as a child, who cooked the most appalling things. Not just cheap cuts, but stuff an Irish butcher might be arrested for selling. Their gala dish was a casserole of lambs’ feet that required a lot of sucking between the toes.

I feel no joy in dipping a serving spoon into a dish and hoping it will come up with something other than a lump of turnip and another one of bone. And in company you can’t put the things you don’t want back in and go fishing for something nicer.

There may not be anything nicer unless you actually like fat, which granted a lot of people do. My husband, for instance, regularly takes three kilos of lamb shoulder and renders it down for hours into a stew of tremendous depth and complexity. Still, it’s hard to find an actual piece of meat in there.

Fat, he says, is the best bit, but it’s not. No matter how deeply it’s infused with orange and clove and all the other ingredients, it’s still fat and you don’t want to see the remains in the pot the next day. Totally solid.

There’s that ghastly moment when you bite into what you think is meat and instead it’s all sticky and chewy and impossible to swallow and yet you have to – or be a savage and spit it into a napkin.

Even a well-trimmed beef stew – a carbonade if you will – has its dangers, namely the stringy bits of meat that lodge between the teeth. Let’s face it, we never got the hang of toothpicks, did we? The Spanish and the French know how to extract things behind their hands, with minimum waggling around. The polite Irish equivalent is often to use the corner of a business card to dislodge debris, but who hasn’t seen someone attempting to floss with a fork held at a 45-degree angle?

Bits of brisket can play havoc with that other great indulgence of the boom – expensive dental work. After a stew you have to floss for days, and still something can get away and lodge under the €900 crowns and before long you need implants.

Of course stew is nourishing and good and it’s part of what we are. Twenty years ago it was even touted as the answer to the working woman’s dilemma of how to have a career and a family. Simple, all you needed was a Le Creuset casserole dish. The idea was to pop all the ingredients in the oven after breakfast, set the timer, and go off to work. In the evening the stew would be ready. Luckily pasta came along and did away with that nonsense.

If there is to be a new protein ladder, with prime fillet up there in the clouds, then can I suggest mince? The other day, ordering bones, I watched the butcher gloomily feeding sirloin into the mincer. No one is buying it, he says, so I’ve the best mince in town.

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