Slowly for a change

Whenever I'm traveling and leaving the boys by themselves, I always stock the fridge with a few nice leftovers and some easy-to-make dishes. Tonight we're due to get the biggest snowfall of the year, one that will make tomorrow's travels a challenge at best. If I'm honest, I'd love nothing more than to stay right here in wintry (yes wintry, not wintery) Chicago and see flake fall upon flake. Pants tucked into boots, we'd make our way to the street where everyone moves slowly for a change.

Some of my best childhood memories include a good old-fashioned snow day when the sleds were brought down from the garage wall and we headed to our local hill for hours of fun. Once inside, the cocoa would be poured into our special mugs (marshmallows required) and we would thaw by the fire.

Instead of thinking of the impending hustle and bustle that tomorrow morning will bring, I thought a nice big pot of beef stew would warm us through and leave enough to sustain Martin and Indy until I return.

My Aunt and Uncle were due to join us tonight, but they quite cleverly decided to drive south before the snow rushed in. We missed spending the evening with them, but decided leftover stew was better than no stew at all.

I adore this stew recipe for several reasons, but mainly because you do not have to brown the meat before popping it into the oven. You simply saute the onions with the sage, coat the beef in seasoned flour and add it all to the pot. It saves an untold amount of time and it can be in the oven and bubbling away in no time. You can make this with whatever root vegetables you prefer.

Whenever I'm making a weekday supper for guests, or in this case, just for the two of us, I want a few little nibbles that are easy to prepare, a one pot dish for the main event and a tasty dessert. It has to be something I can prepare before hand and pull out of the oven when we're ready to eat, rather than doing all the hard work after guests arrive.

For tonight's dinner, I kept our pre-dinner nibbles simple but special. I bought two adorable button-sized goat cheeses and marinated them in lemon zest, dried red chili, garlic and rosemary and extra virgin olive oil. I bathed them like little children over the course of an hour or so and kept turning them in the oil to coat them evenly. You could also put them in a little bell jar and cover completely with olive oil and keep until you're ready to use them, but this worked nicely.

Served with some marinated olives and mushrooms, it was a perfect start with a glass of wine.

All you need with this beef stew is a hunk of fresh French bread, warmed slowly in the oven, to soak up all the lovely juices. I'm always a sucker for a mustardy vinaigrette and some butter lettuces, but don't let me talk you into another step if you're not up for salad. Meat, potatoes, veggies and a thick red wine sauce are all a winter's night requires.

Don't forget that you can add any of your favorite vegetables to this recipe, the following are just suggestions.

Wintry Beef Stew
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's Jools' Favourite Beef Stew
Serves 4

2 lbs stewing beef cut into 2 inch pieces
olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
handful of sage leaves
flour to dust the beef pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and quartered
4 carrots peeled and halved or baby carrots, peeled
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into to cubes
1 lb small potatoes (I used fingerling potatoes)
handful of sunchokes (jerusalem artichokes) peeled and halved
1/2 bottle of red wine
1 1/4 cups of vegetable broth (you can use beef broth if you'd like but I think the red wine makes it rich enough)
2 tbsp tomato puree
zest of one lemon
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
handful of rosemary, leaves picked and roughly chopped

Preheat your oven to 300F. In a large casserole pan that is good for the stove top and oven, add the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the onions and sage leaves until translucent (about 3-4 minutes). While they are cooking, coat the beef in seasoned flour and add to the pan once the onions are ready.

Add the tomato puree, all of the vegetables, wine and stock and stir together to combine well. Season generously with salt and pepper and bring the mixture to a boil on the stovetop. Once it comes to a boil, put the lid on and put it in the oven. Cook for about 3-4 hours until the beef is completely tender (this will depend on how fresh your beef is.) Test it by taking a piece of beef out and mashing it with a fork. If it falls apart easily, it's finished.

If you want to keep this warm in the oven until you're ready to eat, just lower the temperature to 225F. When you're ready to serve, combine the lemon zest, chopped garlic and rosemary and sprinkle on top. Just like the gremolata (this time with rosemary instead of parsley) I topped my cassoulet with, this last minute injection of flavor will make the dish sing.

For a final indulgence, try this superb dessert from one of my favorite cookbooks, Living & Eating by John Pawson and Annie Bell.

Simply scoop your favorite vanilla ice cream or gelato (in this case, I used Ciao Bella Tahitian vanilla gelato) and top with a shot of espresso. The ice cream needs to be frozen solid and the espresso piping hot. It's a grown-ups version of an ice cream float.

Tomorrow morning I'll be wishing that shot of espresso was waiting for me as I contemplate a snowy trek to the airport.

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