I am delighted to be able to tell you that I have won a place on the British Olympic Suet Eating Team for Paris 2024. Or at least, I will have done as soon as my lobbying of the IOC finally wins out and the 100 Dumpling Dash and Freestyle Steak and Kidney Pud Eating are accepted as internationally significant disciplines. In short, I love suet so much that I might change my name to Roly Poly.
The appreciation of this fatty fancy seems to be a peculiarly British thing, though I'll be delighted to hear otherwise if it will add to my potential holiday destinations. You can keep your leaning towers and mighty canyons if there is a suet pastry somewhere else. When I explained to an American acquaintance why a spotted dick is not something to contact your health care provider about and what suet is and brings to the party in your mouth, they pulled the kind of face a small child pulls when taking a spoonful of medicine without the sugar.
I don't care, I'll eat it in almost any form, though I have a particular fondness for it in the shape of dumplings, fluffed up atop a comforting stew or casserole. With that in mind, and writing as the cold weather gets a proper grip, I thought I'd share my recipe for a casserole, here using dark and deeply tasty venison, though you could use beef or even lamb if you'd prefer. Don't be put off by the addition of orange and a teensy bit of 70% chocolate as they add subtle layers of flavour rather than a dominating note, though I'd leave it out if you do a lamb version. And, if you are a weirdo who doesn't like suet, the casserole recipe on its own is delicious.
Ingredients (serves 4)
For the casserole:
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely sliced, chopped or grated
- 3 rashers smoked bacon, chopped
- 2 carrots, chunkily chopped
- 2 sticks celery, roughly chopped
- 1kg haunch or shoulder of venison, cut into large dice
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 sprigs of thyme
- 3 slivers of pared orange zest (use a potato peeler)
- ½ bottle red wine
- 500ml beef stock
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 square of 70% dark chocolate (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 3 tsp cornflour
- 1 tbsp cold water
For the dumplings:
- 50g suet
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
- 100g self-raising flour
- 5-6 tbsp cold water
Preheat the oven to 150ºC/300ºF/Gas 2.
Heat the olive oil in a large casserole dish over a moderate heat and add the bacon and cook until just beginning to brown.
Lower the heat and add the onions and cook with the bacon until softened, but not browned, then add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more.
In a large frying pan, brown the venison cubes a few dice at a time so as not to crowd the pan and cause the meat to steam rather than brown. Spoon into the casserole dish.
Add the carrot and celery, bay leaf, thyme, red wine, stock, Worcestershire sauce and pared orange zest. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and bring up to a rolling simmer.
Once the casserole is simmering put it into the preheated oven and cook for two hours.
While the casserole is cooking, make the dumplings. Mix the suet, self-raising flour and thyme with 5-6 tablespoons of cold water and mix it until it comes together as a firm-ish dough. Roll the dough into four rounds, cover with clingfilm, and leave to rest until you need them.
Mix the cornflour with a tablespoonful of water to make a loose slurry.
Once the two hours is up, check the venison. If it needs a little more time to get very tender give it another 15 minutes or so and so on. Then remove the casserole from the oven and put it on to a low heat on the hob. Stir the cornflour and water and then add it bit by bit, stirring to mix it well. You may not need all of it to thicken it to the consistency you like. Then stir in the square of dark chocolate until it melts.
Once you have the casserole thickened gently lay the dumplings into the casserole so that they sit just nestled into the mixture. Put the casserole lid back on and simmer gently for another 25 minutes, until the dumplings have puffed up.
Serve in warmed bowls with buttered Savoy cabbage, broccoli or some other greens. You don't need potatoes or other starches with this as the dumplings do that job, but don't let me stop you (I've certainly done it!)
This is a hearty, comforting and undoubtedly rich dish. I would look for the same qualities in the wines you choose to drink with it. Two super-value examples come to mind in the form of Parcelas Ecológico Monastrell, Yecla, a rich, ripe Spanish charmer, and the round, plummy but well-balanced Minervois, Plaisir d'Eulalie, Château Sainte Eulalie, a wine that never fails to impress. The Châteauneuf-like Lirac Rouge La Fermade, Domaine Maby is spicy and packed with fruit to stand up to the casserole (and any Châteauneuf-du-Pape would be grand too). The Society's Exhibition Victoria Shiraz, packed with its 'lush bramble and blackcurrant fruit, sprinkle of cocoa and twist of spiced orange peel' is perfect. Finally, what about a classic Saint-Emilion?