The Perfect Casserole: Beef, Chicken, Pork, Lamb
How to Cook The Perfect Casserole: Beef, Pork, Chicken, Game...
Living in England, as a child, we would usually have a casserole of some sort every week, featuring a variety of meats and vegetables. I assumed this was a quintessentially English dish (despite the French name) until I started travelling around Europe in my twenties and later around the world. When I developed a keen interest in cooking I discovered that much of Europe has essentially similar dishes, just using whatever ingredients are abundant in the area. e.g. peppers in Italy, olives in Spain and lots of inexpensive table wine in France. I have continued the family tradition of having casserole about once a week and have created a few variations on a theme (depending on what ingredients I have available) I also often make a casserole when we have company because, the preparation can be done in advance then popped in the oven where it can bubble away slowly for hours and the time when it needs to be served up is not critical.
The Basics: How to Cook a Casserole
A meat casserole is simply cooked pieces of meat in a sauce, with vegetables, cooked slowly in the oven (or slow cooker). The meat can be almost anything: beef, lamb, pork, rabbit or chicken with just slight variations in how it is prepared, or more complex ingredients such as game birds or quails. The meat is browned first, on all sides, to seal in the juices. This would usually be done in the casserole dish, in which the finished dish will be baked (and probably served too) I use le Creuset casserole dishes of various sizes depending on the number of victims. Le Creuset look very traditional if you use them for serving the food too. Alternatively a frying pan could be used for this stage before assembling the ingredients in a casserole dish (or slow-cooker).
Le Creuset Casseroles
For a typical beef casserole:
Beef chopped into 1 inch cubes
herbs and bay leaves
Beef stock and/or red wine
Olive Oil for browning the meat
Olives for a Spanish variation
Sweet Peppers for an Italian variation (add towards the end of the cooking time e.g. last half hour)
Lots of red wine for that French (or Italian or Spanish) feel
The amount you use of each ingredient can be varied a lot depending on your preference or what you have available, but it is important to have plenty of sauce (i.e. stock, wine and/or tomato juice) during the cooking process. For 4 to 6 people I would use perhaps 2 pounds of meat, two medium onions, two large carrots, several cloves of garlic at least one pound (500g) of chopped tomatoes with a cup of wine and a cup of stock.
How to Cook The Casserole
How to Cook The Casserole
Step One: Browning the meat
Heat the oil in casserole dish or frying pan on the hob (i.e. stove) to a medium to high heat and brown the meat on all sides fairly quickly, sealing in the juices. This should just take a few minutes as most of the cooking is done slowly in the oven, but don't do more than six to ten pieces of meat at a time, otherwise there will be lots of steam and you won't get the surfaces evenly cooked. Put the browned meat into a dish and do the next batch of meat until you have cooked all of the meat.
Step Two: The Vegetables
Add more oil and cook the chopped onions over a medium heat until soft (maybe just five minutes) and add carrots, herbs and garlic (chopped, crushed or whole) halfway through. Add the bay leaves (one or two of them) and the meat and stir. If you are using wine add this now too and bring to the boil for a few minutes, then add the stock and tomatoes (if you are using them) Add any other optional ingredients, bring to a slow simmer.
Step Three: Put it in the Oven!
Put it in the oven at a low heat for two hours (or more)... And that's it! Serve with potatoes (or rice, pasta or anything else you fancy)
Variations on a Theme
Beef is perhaps the easiest type of casserole: The longer you cook it the more tender it gets. Lamb is also good, but chicken and pork may get quite dry if over-cooked. Pork remains quite tender if cooked with apples and/or cider (I use the alcoholic European variety and boil off the alcohol) For Chicken, my favourite method is French style Coq au Vin in which chicken thighs and drumsticks are marinated in a whole bottle red wine, with herbs, overnight or for a full 24 hours, then drained (saving the red wine for the sauce) fried once dry, then assembled into a casserole, using baby onions, the red wine (and no stock) The chicken remains wonderfully tender. Another variation is to use small game birds (or quails) browned on all sides, then boiled just in white wine and chicken stock on the hob (i.e. not strictly a casserole, but very tasty)
If you are a vegetarian the meat and meat stock may be omitted and replaced with suitably tasty vegetables, although some vegetables will not survive such long cooking times and may need to be added later (e.g. peppers). Mushrooms are great whether you are using meat or not.
If you are using chicken, whole thighs and drumsticks with or without skin can be used (slightly fried first) and for rabbit, wrapping in bacon can help seal in the juices and prevent drying of the meat.