What to cook for eight people – a big dish on a strict budget. I stood in a decent local supermarket, looking down at the items rattling around my basket. Three red peppers, a big bag of carrots. Raising my head, my eyes locked onto a row of tinned tomatoes. Plum tomatoes. A dim memory of Charley’s wise face telling me from above a cauldron of bubbling, dark red stew ‘Plum tomatoes, that’s the trick.’ That’ll do for me, I thought. Knocking a few tins into my basket I headed towards the meat aisle.
Back at the flat I went straight to the kitchen, aiming a ‘Hullo’ into the living room and passing Hana with an arm full of beers. I cleared a space on one of the counters and in not long had a mass of browning onion, garlic and sausage on the hob. The good thing about a stew, I thought cheerily, sticking on a Desmond Dekker CD, is that once it’s all in the pot I can join the others and just leave it to improve.
After squeezing the tomatoes in and adding the rest of the ingredients, it was bubbling nicely but still too light and orange in complexion. I started to look around the room for something small that would make a big difference. Now and again someone would wander in, looking for a drink and peering into my simmering pot. After Bouillon (fancy stock powder) and fresh basil the meal was definitely getting more interesting. Stirring in a slug of balsamic the liquid took on a seductive shade of red. Adding a dash of red wine to myself and then the stew, it brought out and at the same time levelled the sweetness of the vinegar.
A roar of laughter came from next door but I hardly noticed, excitedly selecting the nicest bay leaves. Moving to a drawer filled with junk, I rummaged for string and began tying them together. Leaving a foot at each end with the same principle as a teabag, I lowered the leaves into the stew.
Tasting it, I added rosemary, vaguely considered putting on another CD, tasted again, added more, then went for the vinegar. Starting to worry that my original ingredients were being overpowered I chopped more garlic, tasted, and ground in some more black pepper.
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Here’s what you need:
- Eight or so free range, pork sausages
- Dried rosemary
- A little red wine
- Balsamic vinegar
- Seven or so big carrots
- Two red peppers
- Three cans of plum tomatoes
- Two or three large potatoes
- Olive oil
- About 25g of fresh basil
- 15g or so of dried basil leaves
- About two feet of string
- Bouillon, or vegetable stock powder
- Ground black pepper
- Two or three cloves of garlic
- Two large white onions
First put a large pot on a medium heat and add a big slosh of olive oil.
Very finely chop the garlic, cut the sausages into chunks of about an inch, and add these to the pot, stirring regularly.
Cut up the onions fairly small, and once the garlic and sausages are starting to brown, add the onions. Again, stir regularly.
While the onions are cooking, skin and chop the carrots, and wash and chop the red peppers and potatoes. Like with the sausages, once the onion is starting to brown, add the vegetables.
Stir, then leave the veg for about ten minutes, until they start to soften, and then thoroughly squeeze in the plum tomatoes.
Add about 300ml of boiling water to four heaped teaspoons of stock powder, mix together, then pour into the stew. Leave the pot until it starts to boil then reduce it to a simmer.
Finely chop the basil, and along with this add three palm-fulls of rosemary. Also grind in quite a large amount of black pepper and give it all a good stir.
Add a very generous dash of vinegar, then roughly the same amount of wine, until the two seem to complement each other.
Mix everything around and leave for about ten minutes. After this, taste and see if you need more of any ingredient.
Gather a couple of bunches of bay leaves and tie them firmly together, leaving a length of string at the ends. Submerge these into the stew, keeping the ends of the string out of the liquid. Trim the ends so that they won’t burn while you’re out the room, and leave the stew for an hour or more, stirring every twenty minutes or so.
This is a meal that’s best if it involves a lot of tasting and assessing. If you ask me, most cooking is down to fine-tuning a balance between flavours, and that’s what you’re aiming to do here. That being said, this is also a dish that can be left to simmer for hours with almost no supervision. It can be served with pretty much anything; big chunks of bread, pasta, rice, or just a spoon.
When reheating; add a bit of water, a slosh of balsamic vinegar and grind in some black pepper. Add, taste and repeat until delicious.
‘We’re off, by the way.’
‘Yeah, thanks for having us.’
Surprised, I turn from my simmering masterpiece, wooden spoon in hand, to see an array of cheery, drink-flushed faces poking round the doorway. ‘What are you talking about? Where are you all going? Why do you have coats on?’
‘Well it’s pretty late, Stan. We’ve all got work tomorrow.’
‘Jesus,’ I glanced at the clock, bemused. Where the hell did the last two hours go? I suppose I was at the shops for twenty-odd minutes. ‘So none of you are going to stay for my stew? It’ll be ready really soon…’ I trailed off, knowing I didn’t have a good track record at this point.
There was a general consent of sorrys, next-times and sympathetic faces.
‘What about you Hana, you’ve got no excuse.’
‘I’m up early tomorrow too; I shouldn’t even have stayed up this late. I’m really sorry, I’ll try it tomorrow night.’
‘Yeah, yeah. It’s alright guys,’ I said, disappointed. ‘Don’t worry. Get home safe.’
They all left the kitchen. I returned to my stew, heard Hana bidding them goodnight, and then the front door slamming shut. Sighing, I threw down the tea towel slung stereotypically over my shoulder, flicked off the hob and turned towards the fridge for a beer. Jumping a little, I found a figure still standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
‘I don’t have work in the morning,’ said Katie, meeting my eyes.