I have spoken before of my difficult relationship with winter. There is something about the empty cold blue sky and long windy nights that leaves me feeling expectant somehow (no, not that kind of expectant), restless, waiting for spring. One thing I do love about winter though is the long walks I take in the mornings, and the stories that I listen to along the way. I am currently obsessed with historical podcasts, in particular ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class‘ (I am currently working my way through their back catalogue) and the podcast produced by The National Archives.
Some of my fondest memories as a child are the nights when either Mum or Dad would read to my sister and I before we fell asleep. When Jess and I shared a bedroom, Mum would settle herself between our twin beds and read to us from ‘Listen with Mother’ (a book produced from the BBC radio show of the same name). ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ she would ask. My sister and I would reply with a sleepy chorus of ‘yes’, and Mum would begin to weave a story in her smooth, perfect voice. Other nights my Dad would be on storytelling duty. These were the nights that Jess and I would be allowed to fall asleep in Mum and Dad’s big bed. All three of us would pile into their water bed, Dad snuggled in between, our very own captive storyteller. With his glasses perched on the end of his nose so that he could see on the awkward angle he was forced into. He would crack open ‘Stuart Little‘ or ‘The Giant Baby‘ and read us a chapter or two until our heads would drop back onto the pillows.
Listening to stories about historical figures or events makes me feel like I am back inside the cocoon of comfort woven during those story-filled nights. I am lost in the world of whichever character or adventure is the topic of discussion. From the strange life of Margery Kempe, to the spine-tingling true story of Broadmoor Hospital, or the real life pirate story of Stede Bonnet, I am kept captivated by the tale until the very last minute. Long winter nights are similarly made for tales – true or fantastic. A belly full of something warm and satisfying is all you need before settling back in your favourite chair with a book, or a podcast, or your favourite storyteller and losing yourself in the pursuit of adventure.
Red Wine Braised Beef Short Rib Stew
For the beef to most satisfyingly fall from the bones and melt into the thick vegetable and wine stew this must cook for at least four hours. A longer cooking time of six hours will render the flesh so tender and flavoursome that angels and demons will weep together. There was little conversation at our dinner table last night as Mum and Dad scooped their bowls of stew out with Rosemary and Pecorino Cornbread (recipe follows). Make this on a weekend when you can curl up comfortably with a book while the scent of red wine and paprika fills the house and drives away the coldest winter day.
A note about wine: I used Lambrusco because my Dad loves it and the rest of the bottle didn’t go to waste. You can use whatever your favourite red wine is, and then serve the leftovers with dinner (or drink it while you wait for dinner to cook – we don’t judge in my house).
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 chunky beef short ribs (about 800 grams)
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1 large brown onion, diced
- 1 large clove garlic, diced
- 1/2 red capsicum, thinly sliced
- 2 carrots, chunkily chopped
- 3 small-medium potatoes, diced
- 400 gram tin tomato purée
- 400mL red wine (measured in tomato tin)
- 1L beef stock
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- Preheat oven to 150°C (300ºF) and arrange oven racks to accommodate a large casserole dish.
- Heat the olive oil in a large stove top safe oven-proof casserole dish with a lid. Brown the beef short ribs on each side and then remove to a plate. Add celery, onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until the onion is clear.
- Tumble the capsicum, carrot and potatoes into the dish and add the paprika and thyme leaves. Stir so that all the vegetables are coated. Cook for about 5 minutes with the lid off.
- Add the short ribs back into the dish and add the bay leaves, tomato purée, red wine and beef stock. Give the mixture a big stir so that all the ingredients are covered by the liquid.
- Bring casserole to a simmer. Remove from the stove top and place in the preheated oven.
- Cook for four to six hours. Give the casserole a stir every forty-five minutes. At the end of the cooking time you may want to thicken up the sauce a little. Simply remove the beef ribs and in a small glass mix together one tablespoon cornflour (cornstarch) and one tablespoon cold water and stir this into the stew. Bring to a bubble on the stove top again and then replace the short ribs.
- Serve in big deep bowls with a decent chunk of cornbread. And maybe a little butter too. And wine, definitely wine (or red fizzy drink for Mum).
Rosemary Pecorino Cornbread (gluten free)
Just a few notes: one, I used fine grain polenta, not the the quick cooking or pre-prepared kind in the US this is probably labelled cornmeal; two, you can replace the buckwheat flour with plain flour if you are not cooking for a coeliac. If you cannot find pecorino cheese use a sharp cheddar or parmesan instead.
- 160 grams fine grain polenta
- 80 grams buckwheat flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons baking powder (gluten free)
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 eggs
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary (or 1/2 tablespoon dried rosemary)
- 1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese
- Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF). If you are cooking this at the same time as the short ribs above, 170ºC will be fine and may just require a few more minutes to cook. Line an 8-inch square baking tin with baking paper.
- In a medium bowl whisk together polenta, buckwheat flour, salt, black pepper, and baking powder.
- Whisk in rosemary and pecorino. Set aside for the moment.
- In a small jug measure out the buttermilk. Into this whisk the olive oil and eggs until thoroughly combined.
- Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and briskly mix in the wet ingredients.
- Pour batter into lined tin and slide into the oven.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Allow to cool, or not, before serving with a steaming hot bowl of soup, or simply a generous dob of butter.
Tell me, dear reader, what are your childhood memories of storytelling? Any favourite books? Do you still like listening to a soothing voice telling tales of adventure and daring?