Saturday 3 September 2011

Spicy sausage stew for a sunny day in Spain

Spicy sausage stew #8 - served with mixed potato and corainder mash
The weather gods appear to have misunderstood the meaning of British Summer Time. This year we lost an hour as normal, but didn’t seem to be gaining any increase in temperature in return. So when my boyfriend told me we had the chance to escape breezy Britain for a trip to sunny Spain with his family, I jumped at the chance.

I’d been caught out in the rain so many times over the past couple of months, I’d finally accepted there was no point in purchasing the Gladiator sandals I’d promised myself – so this sojourn sounded like a dream come true. As someone who grew up by the sea, there’s nothing I love better than siesta-ing on a soft sandy beach, listening to the backing track of waves lapping the shore. However, he confessed there was just one tiny thing about the holiday I should probably know in advance…

…we would be camping. Given that my only previous experience of sleeping under canvass was at music festivals (where it was simply a means to the end of watching my favourite bands perform live), the prospect of sharing my bed with the bugs didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. But I was desperate for a spot of sunshine, and reasoned that a holiday with 3 strapping young men (plus 2 generous parents in need of a rest) would actually be the perfect opportunity to practise my mass cooking.

My menu consisted of meals that I predicted could be produced with limited cooking facilities and I hoped everyone would love as much as my partner does – a vast vat of fiery beef chilli, a tureen of gooey chicken and bacon risotto, a mound of rich spaghetti bolognese, a Mexican feast of fajitas wrapped up with fresh tomato salsa. Much to my delight there were no culinary disasters, and every dish appeared to go down a storm (even the vegetables mixed in with the pork stir-fry!).

I learnt that when cooking for a larger group of diners, it’s necessary to fry your meat in batches and make sure you have a wide array of big pans to hand in case your ingredients start overflowing. Luckily I had access to a caravan with an oven and a set of hobs – veterans of outdoor cooking may say this is cheating, but I honestly don’t know how I would have coped otherwise…and it did mean I was able to serve paprika-spiced potato wedges alongside the chilli!

Without a doubt everyone’s favourite meal of the week was my spicy Spanish sausage stew. Two of my food heroes, Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver, have created similar casserole recipes and my version incorporates recommendations from each chef, plus a few additions of my own which were a secret until now. It requires relatively little looking-after, can be made in advance as the barbecued tomato flavour improves over time, and is so delicious that it’s the perfect way to persuade children (and meat-loving males!) to eat some healthy vegetables and pulses.

When I cooked this stew abroad I was too flustered by the pressure of making sure the family got fed to take photos of the various stages, so I recreated this step-by-step guide in the relative peace of our little London flat, which will transport me back to sunny Spain even on the darkest of autumn evenings.

Spicy Spanish sausage stew (serves 4, but quantities can easily be increased if there are more mouths to feed)
6 - 8 good quality sausages
4 rashers of smoked bacon, or 100g chorizo
1 large red onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves of garlic
2 bell peppers (red, orange and yellow will all emphasise the Southern feel of the dish)
1 tin of kidney beans
1 tin chopped tomatoes
250ml - 500ml chicken stock (depending on how long you can leave the stew cooking)
1 medium red chilli pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 dash cayenne pepper
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons (or more) balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons (or more) runny honey
Olive oil
Seasoning (salt and pepper)
Split your sausages in half by gently squeezing the middle section and twisting the ends in opposite directions, then cutting through the knot in the skin. Heat oil in a pan and fry the small sausage patties until they turn golden brown.
Using a heavy-based pan or casserole dish and some of the oil from the browned sausages, fry together onions, garlic and smoked bacon until soft. I used some impressive soft and fresh chorizo from the local Spanish food market in my camp-side version of this stew, and I’d recommend using than instead of lardons if possible. (just fry the spicy sausage until the bright red oil mixes in with the onions).
Put the sausages back in the pan, along with summer-hued bell peppers. Now add smoked paprika to the casserole, plus a dash of cayenne pepper and a fresh red chilli if your family are spice fanatics!
Pour chopped tomatoes into the spicy sausage mix, along with kidney beans and a few bay leaves. If your children aren’t willing to try kidney beans, regular baked beans also work well and will give the sauce extra sweetness.
The secret ingredients that transform this dish are sharp salty balsamic vinegar and sweet honey. Start by adding equal quantities of each, plus a generous handful of seasoning. Depending on how urgently you need to put dinner on the table, increase the liquid level with some chicken stock, bring the sauce to the boil and let it bubble for at least 20 minutes. Keep testing the sauce to check its flavour – the stew should take on a deep barbecue flavour as it develops, and may need more honey or balsamic adding to enhance its richness.
The spicy sausage stew is ready to serve once the sauce has transformed into a thick gravy. Mashed sweet potatoes, rice, wedges, or chunks of fresh bread are all ideal accompaniments for mopping up the pool of fiery tomato liquor.