Stews, casseroles, ragouts, hotpots, carbonnades, navarins… there are any number of names for what is essentially the same method of cooking meat.
All of them spring from that momentous (though unrecorded) moment in history when someone discovered that they could protect their meat from the fierce direct heat of a fire by insulating it in a clay pot. The advantages were soon obvious, I’m sure: the pot could also contain liquid and vegetables and flavouring which the meat could absorb, and the longer slower cooking made the meat more tender, no matter what part of the animal it came from. Nothing has really changed today, except perhaps for the clay pot, now replaced by decorative oven-to-table casseroles.
We tend to lump together all recipes that are cooked in a pot and call them casseroles. But strictly speaking, there is a difference. Stewing is done on the top of a cooker with heat being applied directly to the underneath of the pot; while casseroling takes place inside the oven with heat circulating all around the pot. In both cases the meat is cut up fairly small and cooked in a liquid (stock, wine, water, cider or whatever).
Braising, like casseroling, is done in the oven, but the meat is cooked in much larger pieces and only a minimum of liquid is added, so that the meat actually cooks in the steam for the most part.
The numerous other names given to meat cooked in a pot refer to specific recipes, or types of recipe (eg, the hallmark of a good hotpot is a layer of crunchy golden potatoes over the top).
But whatever names we choose to give it, I now feel that the casserole has become one of cornerstones of British family cooking. With more and more women devoting their time to careers, feeding families of four or more with expensive steaks or chops is not a very practical proposition. Casseroles on the other hand can be prepared (even cooked) ahead.
They can be left to simmer slowly without attention from the cook, and costs can be kept down quite a bit by stretching the meat with the addition of vegetables and pulses. Most casseroles freeze well too, so one batch of cooking can make several meals.
It is for these reasons that it’s helpful to have a good collection of casserole recipes, that range from the everyday to those suitable for entertaining. They show, I hope, how with a little bit of imagination a couple of pounds of stewing meat can be transformed into something really delicious and special.