While we all tend to talk breathlessly about the natural bounty of spring and summer, and I’ll admit, there’s plenty of amazing ingredients to choose from, for the budget conscious and time-poor, winter truly is a wonderland.
Sure, the choices contract a bit, and supply can be a little hit and miss in terms of quality, but winter has an ace up its sleeve that warmer weather can’t complete with – stews and soups.
There are few foods in our lives not made better for a little extra time on the stove; from that perspective, it’s all about the flavour. But the kinds of ingredients that do that best aren’t the sort commanding premium price in the supermarket. No, instead, it’s the cheaper cuts, the earthier vegetables and the bycatch fish that achieve this result best of all. It’s not simply a good idea to scrimp from a budgetary perspective, it makes damned good cooking sense too.
In the world of meat, you really can follow a rule of thumb. The cheaper it is, the better it slow cooks. Shin, shoulder, knuckle, brisket, chuck: all of these and plenty more can be braised perfectly.
But why is it that some meat slow cooks to tenderness while others become leathery? It all comes down to science. Connective tissue (whether the sinewy white stuff or the silvery top stuff) is mostly made up of a substance called collagen.
When collagen is gently heated, not too hot mind you (around 90°C is pretty good) and held there for at least 2½ hours, the chemistry changes, and the collagen breaks down to form gelatine and some other small things. This matters because while collagen is tough and stretchy, gelatine, is delicate and soft. It’s what food scientists refer to as a time-over-temperature transition. You absolutely must have the right heat and also enough time.
That said, you can also overcook these things, making them dry, so always keep an eye on the saucepan. Once it becomes tender so that it breaks under your fork, please don’t leave it in there, thinking it will be even better. It won’t be, you’re just inviting disappointment.
Some of the other ingredients that can help make these stews delicious, healthy and inexpensive are legumes: chickpeas, borlotti beans, kidney beans and so on. And best of all, if the idea of cooking them from scratch seems too hard, you’re perfectly entitled to grab some cans and use those instead. The one thing to keep in mind is that you add them last, that way they won’t break down too much and you can enjoy then in their full glory.
In short, don’t think of winter as a hard time to cook; it’s our best time to cook in bulk, save some money, and explore those secondary cuts that we’d otherwise miss.
Try some of the winter warmer recipes we have below, perfect for freezing and using during the week, lowering food waste, and saving valuable time.
- Cauliflower, leek and blue cheese soup with hazelnut kibble: Recipe_Cauliflower-leek-and-blue-cheese-soup
- Moroccan sweet potato and lentil soup with tomatoes and kale: Recipe_Moroccan-sweet-potato-lentil-soup
- Sausage, carrot and zucchini hotpot: Recipe_Sausage-carrot-zucchini-hotpot
- Chunky beef and forest mushroom casserole with shredded greens: Recipe_Chunky-beef-forest-mushroom-casserole