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Simply Special: how to make a warming winter casserole

The casserole pot not only comes out early in my year, it hangs about longer than it should.

Venison casserole
Venison casserole

I just can’t resist a warm, bubbling dish of stew on these cold, wet, soggy autumn days! I am always in need of food with a bit of substance and only meat with a generous suggestion of carrots, onions and wine will do that.

It is the sweet onions, chunky root vegetables and tough herbs that provide the flavour base, with the body coming from the meat and cooking liqueur.

The norm is carrot, onion and celery, and a bit of stewing beef from the butcher, however, I consider myself a game bird! Interestingly that’s just what this recipe is all about, light meat and high flavours.

We add carrots to a casserole for their sweetness but there is no reason why we cannot use parsnips or swedes/turnips instead; both have enough sugar to caramelise at the edges as we sweat them in fat at the start of cooking.

When a cold, wet family is looking for a hearty tea to brighten their day, earthy sweetness that can only come from root vegetables and bay leaves will contribute more than you would expect as they try to blow the dust off themselves.

Twigs of thyme never look enticing, but a slow stewing will tease out their goodness. However, that doesn't mean we should chuck stuff at the pot willy nilly. A few juniper berries with a pigeon, or some woody mushrooms with a pheasant can all go in the pot.

The gravy can really work if you involve a bone or two. Even a couple of chicken wings popped in when no-one is looking will help it along the way.

Whether you fine-tune your casserole with chocolate, redcurrant jelly, juniper or coriander, long and slow is how we go to create something that will slowly and surely warm you from the toes up.

So give this a try. It doesn’t have to be wet, you can also go for it on a crisp chilly bright autumn day!

Venison Casserole

- 1kg stewing venison, shoulder, neck or haunch (alternatively you could use a mixed bag of game cuts such as pigeon, partridge and pheasant)

- 50ml of summer harvest rapeseed oil

- 3 tablespoons of plain flour

- 200g of button onions (frozen is fine)

- 50g of unsalted butter

- Half a tablespoon of sugar

- 15g of extra-bitter chocolate (optional)

- 1 lemon

- 2 large carrots, chopped into large chunks

- 1 onion, chopped roughly

- 2 sticks of celery, chopped

- 6 cloves of garlic (peel, don’t chop)

- 4 juniper berries

- 1 bay leaves

- A large sprig of thyme

- 2 large strips of lemon zest

- 2 large strips of orange zest and juice

- 1 cup of red wine vinegar

- 500ml of red wine (nothing too expensive, £3-4 a bottle)

1 Preheat your oven to 170 degrees Celsius (gas mark 3)

2 Trim the meat and cut it into large, walnut-sized cubes before drying it on kitchen paper

3 Season the meat with sea salt and then brown it in the oil in a frying pan in batches

4 Transfer the batches to a large, ovenproof casserole dish after each has been browned

5 When all of the meat is well browned, fry the vegetables in the same pan and, when they are nicely coloured, sprinkle over the flour and cook for a minute or two until it is also lightly browned

6 Pour the red wine vinegar, red wine and orange juice in the pan and scrape off the residue from the base of the pan with a wooden spoon

7 As soon as the liquid comes to the boil pour it over the meat in the casserole and, if the meat is not covered, add a touch of water to the dish along with the bay leaves

8 Put the dish on the stove and bring it back to the boil

9 Place the casserole dish in the oven and cook for 2 hours, until the meat is intact but quite tender (alternatively, slow cook the casserole for 5-6 hours (4-5 hours on a medium heat in an Aga)

10 Leave to cool for 20 minutes

11 Melt half of the butter in a frying pan and add the onions

12 Let the onions colour gently on all sides before adding the sugar and let this caramelise a little before pouring in just enough water to cover the onions.

13 Cover with a buttered paper and cook for 10 minutes or until the onions are tender and the liquid has evapourated

14 Add the onions to the stew and bring it very gently back to a simmer

15 Finally, and this is optional, add finely grated chocolate to the casserole a bit at a time and stir in so it melts into the stew. Proceed cautiously and adding a little chocolate. Do not let the chocolate burn.

16 Add a knob of the remaining butter, a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt.

17 Serve with a large bowl of mashed potatoes and a glass of red wine.

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