Friday, 16 March 2012

Cookbook: Ragoût for the Ravenous

Man does not live by Mayonnaise alone, dear reader. From time to time another dish must be consumed. Today I therefore offer you a recipe which has nothing to do with the Golden Sauce, but is no less fit to honour your guests and please your loved ones: a simple ragoût, served on buttered toast.

Yes, I am aware that this is very down-to-earth indeed. But you know my motto: Impress Through Simplicity, Please Through Ease. You will learn, if you dare serve Mittington’s Ragoût for the Ravenous tomorrow evening, that nothing gratifies people so much as straightforward, tasty food with no hogwash attached. In gastronomy, as in so many matters of life, the Preposterous is for the Posh, and Happiness is for the Humble. Do not get led astray by the dream machine of modern advertisement or the ostentation of new-fangled cookbooks! Quality of Life begins with simplicity!

Enough said! Let’s start. You will need about a quarter of an hour to make this marvellous dish, and you must take those 15 minutes roughly three hours before you plan your Saturday dinner. Get together the following ingredients (which I present in the chronological order of the process):

½ litre water
½ a beef cube
1 bay leaf
some sweet butter and oil for frying
¼ medium sized onion
2 to 3 hefty spoons of wheat flour (roughly 50-75 grams)
50-75 grams of meat chopped small (see below)
½ a nutmeg freshly pounded
fresh black pepper
half a glass of milk
some fresh parsley
toasted bread and sweet butter

Now, this looks like an awful lot, but you need so little of everything that the time lost in preparation is negligible.

What meat should you use? Well, since throwing meat away is a sin, I always like to use leftovers from an earlier dinner, and I have found that veal gives the best result. Alternatively, you can use chicken or pork, and if you have none of that available, even some chopped ham will do. I am no fan of using fish for this dish; the taste is far too dominant. If you must be vegetarian, just leave out the meat altogether. The ragoût may still be eaten even if the bliss is but a shadow of the real thing.

So to work! First we make the broth. Put the water into a saucepan, toss in the bay leaf and the beef cube and bring to a boil. Let it simmer until the beef cube is dissolved. Then turn off the fire.

[NOTA BENE: do not put any salt into the broth or indeed into the ragoût until the very end after careful tasting! Beef cubes are quite salty by themselves and you may find that no salt is needed at all.]

Now take out another saucepan and put it on a low heat. Drop in a little oil, a spoonful of sweet butter, and the finely chopped onion. Fry the onion for a minute or so, making sure that the butter does not burn and the onions do not turn brown. Then toss in the wheat flour and stir well (with a large wooden spoon) until the mixture turns to sticky hot dough.

[NB: since it is the flour which binds the broth, the amount of flour decides how much ragoût you can make, and the amount of broth how thick it will be. This admittedly takes a little learning and experience, but make this fine recipe twice and you will surely get the knack of it.]

Now take out a small soup ladle (like what you use to fish eggs out of boiling water) and pour one ladle-full of broth onto the flour. Mix well until the liquid has been absorbed. The dough will be even stickier. Repeat this process, always stirring very well. After some four or five ladles, the mixture will begin to turn fluid. This is no reason to stop, but it is the signal to allow the ragoût to bubble a little before adding more broth. This bubbling (boiling is too grand a word) is essential to do away with the ‘floury’ taste. Take care, however, to keep stirring, so that the stuff does not burn.

Keep adding broth in this manner until the ragout has the consistency of thick mud. Now toss in the meat, the nutmeg and the pepper and stir well. Let it bubble a little more and begin adding small quantities of milk, until the sauce has the desired thickness. Kill the fire and let the ragoût cool.

[NB: the nutmeg really is what gives ragoût its soul. It makes all the difference. Please do your utmost to get a ‘fresh’ nut and pound it in a mortar. Use only shop-bought ground nutmeg if you have no choice; and then: use more, for ground nutmeg has not half the taste of fresh!]

Ten minutes before serving, put the pan back onto a very low fire. Butter one piece of toast for each guest and place it in the middle of a plate. Then stir the ragoût until it is fluid again. If need be, add a little more milk. Taste to see if it needs salt and add some if you really think so. At the last moment, throw in the chopped parsley. Stir ten seconds more, then pour ragoût over each piece of toast. Don’t try to control where it goes: it will run over the rims of the toast and there is nothing wrong with that. People should eat this dish with knife and fork anyway, not with their hands. Serve quickly while still hot.

EXTRA SPECIAL If you have time on your hands, and wish to turn your ragoût into an even greater feast, do the following. Next time you make any veal dish, set aside 75 grams of the uncooked meat for ragoût making. When the day arrives, bring 1 litre of water to the boil and toss in the veal. Let it boil on the lowest possible fire for about an hour. By that time, the meat is done, and the water reduced to half a litre. Take the meat out, chop it up and use it for the ragoût later on. Add the ½ beef cube to the liquid, and use this broth as described above.

POST SCRIPTUM: By Jove, over 1,000 words for one simple dish! I wonder if I’m beginning to suffer from cookbookitis!