Perfect game stew
Game’s full flavour is infinitely more interesting than most intensively
farmed meat, and now, at the height of the season, it’s often great value for money. But its free-range lifestyle can make it tricky to cook. Whether you’re dealing with partridge or venison, though, you can’t go wrong with a slow-simmered stew that’s easily turned into a pie for high days and holidays.
Like the Lidgate’s Meat Cookbook, I’d recommend a 50:50 mixture of “dark meat, such as venison … mallard … and wild boar, along with paler game (pheasant, rabbit and suchlike)” where possible.
If you start with whole birds, as Gary Rhodes suggests in his (much underrated) New British Classics, then you can use the carcasses to make stock, but
I would take the meat off the bone for the stew – poaching whole birds as Jane Grigson does, or pot roasting them like Clarissa DicksonWright, is a right faff. Rhodes’ 24hour marinade just seems to dry the meat out. That said, most game dealers sell bags of mixed game that are ideal for the purpose.
Lidgate’s smoked bacon adds both flavour and much-needed fat, though, like Grigson, I’m going to roll up the rashers so they don’t disappear into the sauce altogether during the cooking.
Red wine and stock are the building blocks of most recipes for game stew, apart from the one in Grigson’s English Food, which has a white sauce that doesn’t feel robust enough for game. That said, Rhodes’ two-bottle gravy is more like a coq au vin, and lacks the meaty depth of Claire Macdonald and Lidgate’s more stock-heavy sauces.
Mushrooms are particularly popular with game, while carrots and onions are a good way to add sweetness to meaty things: use whole onions, and you won’t lose them in the gravy.
Rhodes’ garlic and celery feel more savoury than this stew needs. I’d prefer to keep the flavours a little softer with his redcurrant jelly, though it shouldn’t need the addition of his red-wine vinegar or Macdonald’s Worcestershire sauce as well. Feel free to add the latter if your stew tastes a bit flat, though.
Dickson-Wright’s medieval recipe is packed with cloves, cinnamon, ginger, white pepper and saffron, plus a teaspoon of sugar – delicious, and not exactly what my testers are expecting from a game stew, admittedly (“Is this a tagine?”), but a happy reminder of what passed for British food before boiled beef and cabbage. Instead, I’ve stuck with a more herbaceous combination of thyme, bay and juniper.
The cooking method
Though it’s perfectly possible to get a good result on the hob, it’s much easier to keep the temperature constant in an oven.
If you’d like to turn the stew into a pie, leave it to cool completely, then cover with puff pastry. Grigson reckons that “many people prefer a good shortcrust with meat”, but my testers disagree.
Perfect game stew (and pie)
Heat the oven to 150C/300F/gas 2. Heat the butter in a casserole dish over a medium-high flame and fry the bacon until golden and the fat renders out. Lift out and set aside. Repeat with the onions, herbs and juniper berries, then set these aside in a separate dish. Dust the meat with seasoned flour, then fry in batches, adding more fat if necessary, until well browned. Set aside with the onions.
Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pot, then stir in the stock and redcurrant jelly, and return the onions, herbs and game to the pot. Cover and put in the oven for 45 minutes, then stir in the carrots and mushrooms, and bake for 15 minutes more. Arrange the bacon on top and cook, lid ajar, for a final 30 minutes.
Season to taste and serve as a stew with mash and roast root veg. Or leave to cool completely, then tip into a pie dish and cover with rolled out puff pastry. Snip some vents in the top of the pastry, brush with beaten egg and bake at 200C/390F/gas 6 for 30-40 minutes, until golden.
Brown the bacon – roll it up, so it doesn’t disappear into the sauce later – then repeat with the onions and herbs Brown the meat in batches, then deglaze the pot with wine, return the meat and onions to the pot, and add stock
After 45 minutes, add the carrots and mushrooms, and cook for 15 minutes more, then pop the bacon on top beaten Serve the stew as it is with mash and root vegetables, or transfer to a pie dish, cover with pastry and bake