Nigel Slater cooking with beer as “star ingredient”

I like Nigel Slater, and I like his style of cooking. Even if he is the epitome of a Guardian Reader’s cook, he is un-chef-y and cooks for flavour rather than show. BBC are showing Series 2 of his Simply Suppers, and if some of the seasonal dishes he presents are a little out of place in these chilly days, there is one that isn’t and what’s more, beer is proclaimed as the “star ingredient”.

The dish in question appears in Episode 5, named “Unsung Heroes” and the recipe is for Beer and Beef stew. It is clear he means for beer to be the hero in the dish, because it adds what he says is an “endless depth” to the finished dish. This is very heartening to hear on a mainstream British cookery programme.

The Beef and Beer sketch begins with a visit to the West Berkshire Brewery and an interview with brewer Will Twomey, with shots of him in action emptying the mash tun, checking the boil and adding late copper hops that will “be stripped of their essential oils and impart their flavour to the beer”. Will tells of the huge range of styles of beer and the 100-plus varieties of hops, and that darker, maltier beers are more suitable for cooking. Nigel thinks there is “something comforting about the naturalness of ingredients” in beer. A very encouraging start.

Back in the kitchen, Nigel takes the praise of beer as an ingredient up a notch, saying that sometimes, it can be even better than wine. (He presumably just means when cooking. Steady on!)  He goes on to offer that cooking with beer gives “whole waves of flavour: a little bit of bitterness, a bit of sweetness, and depending on what you put it with, you can get some amazing results.”

The recipe is straightforward, with one exception: he takes his cut of stewing beef, and instead of cubing it, he cuts it into steaks. I agree that this will not only look good on the plate, but it will keep the juiciness of the meat better. He seasons then browns the steaks, without flouring, and removes them from the pan, to then fry sliced onions slowly in the juices for 15 minutes. Only then does he add flour, risking the wrath of the sauce police, but Nigel doesn’t care; he wants this sauce to be thick and comforting to keep the cold out on a windy night.

Returning the meat to the by now, glossy, sticky, honeyed onions, he then adds his star ingredient, the beer. And this is the only disappointing aspect of the entire piece. He just calls it beer. Yes, we like that you give it all the praise, but weren’t you listening, Nigel, when Will Twomey said there was a huge range of beer styles from which to choose? Do we take it as read that you went with his advice of a darker beer? What is your opinion as a cook of Will’s (presumably) untutored cooking tip? I would suggest a Chimay Blue, or a porter like Bateman’s Dark Lord.

Still, let’s not let that detract from the event. I’ve spent many a Saturday breakfast hurling abuse from my sofa at BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, as their wine experts recommend a wine to accompany the guest celebrity chef’s pre-Football Focus creation, when a beer would be more appropriate.

The final ingredients are added: a dollop of mustard for even more depth, and some thyme. While it’s all gently simmering for 50 minutes, Nigel has time for one more surprise: he makes a rough kind of apple sauce to go with the finished dish. He says it provides a light contrast. Interesting to suggest apples with beef not just pork, I will try it. I have added mustard to beer dishes and it depends what result you want. It can take the focus from the beer, and then the dish can benefit from a few tablespoons of some really dark beer stirred in at the end.

The minor gripes aside, I want to emphasise how encouraging it was to see this on prime-time TV. And I hope more people are inspired by his view that: “We very rarely use beer as stock. As it cooks it mellows and sweetens slightly. And you end up with a sauce that’s really glossy and very deeply flavoured”, and that the beer gives “endless depth to this dish”. Right at the end, though we are reminded of beer’s position as he offers, “Even if you’re not a beer drinker, it’s well worth having a few bottles in the cupboard.” Never mind; it’s a start.

If you are in the UK, you can catch Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers on iPlayer.
This was from Episode 5, from about 16 minutes in.

West Berkshire Brewery

One thought on “Nigel Slater cooking with beer as “star ingredient”

  1. Update! Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery ran a blog and Twitter campaign in July to get the BBC to allow some space for beer on BBC’s popular Saturday Kitchen cookery programme. I support it totally. However, this blog post from December shows the BBC is not a total beer desert. Is it something to do with the producers of Saturday Kitchen? I wish the BBC would build on this.See also: 6 July Nightjar Post: Craft beer revolution still not being televised. @HardknottDave takes on Saturday Kitchen

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