The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

A disaster that introduced us to a new ingredient

Photo: Beef casserole

Photo: Beef casserole

Quite a few people think that we create a new recipe with ease. They imagine us stirring, whisking and happily tasting. Each dish a simple triumph.

The reality is different. We have a lot of fun playing with ingredients but often enthusiasm and daring has us sliding down that slope where the rubbish bin rather than the plate is the preferred option.

This almost happened a few days ago. Danny picked up a couple of packs of reduced price braising beef. We had loads of vegetables waiting in the wings. An eclectic group, ranging from courgette to parsnip.

We decided to make a dish with 50/50 beef and vegetables, simmered in passata and some superb beef stock from the freezer. Danny drifted up to the Rat Room leaving me to add the essential flavoursome additions. I’d had great success adding a teaspoonful of white wine vinegar to a few new recipes. As I was making a large amount of this casserole I thought it deserved a whole tablespoon.

The casserole smelt wonderful as it bubbled away for hours in the slow cooker. I crept downstairs at 01:00 to turn it off.  It tasted great for the first five seconds until the vinegar kicked in.

There was no need to clean my teeth.

Early the next morning I looked up ‘too much vinegar’ on Google. Sugar seemed to be the antidote but I preferred to sauté some more sweet Romano peppers and add them.  It was better but still veered more towards meaty mouthwash rather than stew.

Then I remembered that I’m working at the house of a really good cook who has years of experience and is happy to share her secrets.

As I kicked off my boots to step indoors I casually mentioned my problem.
“I just wondered if you could help me. I’ve made a beef casserole and added far too much vinegar.”
“Give me a moment, Fiona.”
There was a long pause, when she clearly wondered why an apparently sane person would add vinegar to a beef casserole.

Her solution was simple.
“Add prunes. Beef braised with pickled walnuts and prunes is superb. You don’t need the pickled walnuts because they would add more vinegar. Just drop some soft prunes into the sauce. Simmer for a while and I reckon that it should work.”

Our larder is bursting with ingredients but not a single prune. Apart from Devil’s on Horseback, I considered prunes to be a dull, breakfast stewed fruit dish. So when I was leaving, she pressed half a pack of soft prunes into my hand.
“Don’t tell Danny what you are going to do. Let him taste it first!”

At lunchtime I hid the secret ingredient in the barn. Danny was curious.
“It begins with P and ends with S,” I teased.
“Pistachios, Pastis…Pears?”

This evening we feasted on a wonderful beef casserole that would have been fit for a memorable dinner party, if there had been leftovers.

Prunes are now top of the shopping list. A disaster had led us into new territory. Prune shaped and bursting with promise.

  Leave a reply


  1. What a great idea – first to add a little wine vinegar to a stew and then to add the prunes. Congratulations.
    Barbara form Portugal

  2. Cara @ Turvys

    Prunes are a fabulous addition to stews and casseroles. We love Chicken with Prunes – the sauce is just fabulous, and the other week I made a rabbit and prune pie. Fabulous!

  3. That’s a great tip – I’d never in a million years thought of that.

    It’s not the first time you’ve offered these rescue ideas. I’m thinking you could start a new category on your blog on this – or even a book???

  4. Kelly the City Mouse

    Oh! I meant to add that Verjus is a lovely, softer substitute for white wine vinegar when red wine flavor is just not what you want. It has such a pleasant fruity flavor, plus the sharp tang of a mild vinegar.

  5. magic cochin

    I bought a bag of prunes as they were a key ingredient in the Christmas Cake recipe I made. There are lots leftover so this has given me inspiration. Beef with pickled walnuts and prunes sounds gorgeous!

    Thank you!

  6. kate (uk)

    Prunes and meat=excellent. Prunes and rabbit in a casserole,yummy. Prunes and fillet of pork in a pan with cream,gorgeous. Prune stuffings,scrumptious.
    BUT- white wine vinegar….use red wine or sherry or if you really want it white, some martini! Vinegar is one of those ingredients that needs to be approached with caution, I know this sounds mad, but have a vinegar tasting session and then you will get the feel for what vinegar to use when. You will be shocked how awful some of them taste and how nice others do. But a tasting session will prevent future disasters!Some vinegars are only good for cleaning the windows and paintwork.
    But they are VERY good for that, so it won’t be wasted.

  7. Jane aka:aromatic

    Sounds wonderful, really must try the prune idea out.. the world of blogging is wonderful I am learning sooooo much!!
    Thank you Fiona!!
    Jane xxx

  8. In the slow cooker I make Chicken with Prunes. A complete DELIGHT. Serve it with anything, cous cous, rice, potaotoes, piles of veg. You cant go wrong.

    I think it is either Turkish or Greek, I have had it in both countries. Truly delicious.

    Like this but add toasted almonds when serving, it gives it a lift. Perfect for when entertaining as you can make it the day before. arm it in the oven, make some cous cous, and dinner is served.

  9. Kelly the City Mouse

    Sounds like a delicious result! Thank goodness for those seasoned cooks with their hidden secrets.

  10. Veronica

    🙂 Glad it all turned out well! How could you not like prunes? They are marvellous in winter casseroles — particularly with lamb and pork, I’ve never tried them with beef.

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