When life gets really tough for animated characters Wallace and Gromit, they have a sure-fire way to steady their nerves. ‘Hold tight, lad’, exhorts Wallace in A Grand Day Out, ‘…and think of Lancashire hotpot’.
There’s something robustly fortifying about hotpot; essentially a slow-cooked casserole trapped beneath a layer of sliced potatoes. It’s about as dainty as a rhinoceros in ballet shoes, but if it’s comfort and nourishment you need, there’s nothing better.
I was brought up on Lancashire hotpot. My Great Auntie Susie made it at least once a week throughout my childhood. When I got my first BBC job as a reporter at Radio Manchester, I lived with my Grandpa in his immaculate little house just outside the city and he assumed hotpot duties. It was the time of the bitter coal miners’ strike and I spent most of my time reporting on the clashes between the opposing sides. Grandpa had once worked at the pits himself and was passionately partisan. Over a hotpot at his kitchen table he would fume over the fate of the pits and the miners.
I didn’t have enough money to buy a car — slightly compromising for a news reporter — but Grandpa, always generous, offered to drive me when I needed a lift. We made an unlikely pair, arriving at collieries and picket lines in his ancient Ford Cortina estate. Even when I worked the night shift, he’d turn up if I got stranded. Midnight, 2am, 3.30 am — he genuinely didn’t mind. And usually, when we got home, there would be a hotpot in the oven and maybe even a rice pudding.
The truth is that I didn’t really like hotpot that much. It was familiar, it was cheap and it was filling. But it was bland and dull. My own version of hotpot isn’t one that Grandpa or my Auntie Susie would have recognised. It’s made with beef instead of lamb for a start and it’s rich with herbs, garlic and red wine and garnished with rosemary flowers and lemon zest.
Grandpa was the fussiest person I’ve ever known, although I think he would have liked this new incarnation of his familiar recipe. Both he and Auntie Susie would have been horrified by the rosemary flowers and lemon zest though, and would have dragged them methodically to the sides of their plates.
HOTPOT WITH HIGH KICKS
- 1kg good quality braising steak
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, chopped medium fine
- 4 carrots, peeled and cut into roughly 2cm chunks
- 1 leek, sliced into roughly 2cm pieces
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced finely
- 1 400g tin chopped organic plum tomatoes
- Half bottle red wine
- 500ml vegetable stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 good handful fresh thyme leaves
- 3 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 or 4 waxy potatoes per person
- Handful rosemary flowers or finely chopped rosemary and zest of a lemon
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C.
Season the meat and brown it with three tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed casserole or pan. You will need to do it in batches to make sure you brown it, rather than boil it. Remove the meat to a bowl and add the carrots, onions, leek and garlic to the pan. Saute the vegetables for five minutes until they start to take on a little colour. Keeping the vegetables in the pan, deglaze it by adding the red wine and stirring to remove all the goodness sticking to the bottom. Simmer for a couple of minutes and then add all the rest of the ingredients, browned meat included, apart from the potatoes, rosemary and lemon zest. Bring back to simmering point, cover and then place in the oven for around three hours, but a little longer won’t do it any harm. Check on it after a couple of hours.
Remove from the oven. The meat will be tender, melting and delicious but you will most likely need to reduce the sauce a little. Place the pan, uncovered, on a gentle to moderate heat on the hob. Once the sauce is a rich, silky consistency, check the seasoning.
While the sauce is reducing, boil the potatoes in their skins for 15 minutes. While still warm, remove the skins and slice the potatoes. Either place the slices on top of the meat in the casserole dish, or divide the beef into individual bowls and cover with potato. Season the potatoes, brush with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and place back in the hot oven for 15 more minutes. Traditionally the potatoes would have been added raw at the very start of cooking. This method gives the poor old potatoes less of a bashing. Serve the hotpot with a scattering of rosemary and lemon zest.
Whichever version of this old classic you choose, the beauty of a hotpot is that it will sit happily in the oven for hours at a time, just waiting to spring out and do a song and dance routine. A bit like Grandpa, really.