Cold weather means comfort food for Philippa Vine – who gets a little help from a Farmers Weekly reader in her kitchen this month.

While it’s always flattering to receive an email from a reader, it’s all the more flattering to get one from someone who collects every month’s column but has misplaced one particular recipe.

The recipe in question was from way back in 2005 and was for Chunky Fish Stew with Herb Dumplings which, among other ingredients, uses mussels.

This made me realise that it’s such a long time since I’ve used mussels in a recipe that I ought to do something about it and so it’s thanks to Mark in West Sussex for prompting this month’s choice.

This must be one of my favourite seafood dishes and is delicious with chunks of homemade bread dipped into the creamy sauce.

I’ve used a small amount of saffron, which gives the stew a rich colour with an aromatic hint and goes so well with the mussels.

As I am writing, there is a biting cold wind coming all the way from Siberia with snow forecast and so comfort food is definitely on the menu.

I’ve done oxtail on the bone in a stew before so here I’m taking it off the bone (once it’s been cooked) and putting it in a pie. The oxtail cooks down into a delicious gelatinous stew accompanied beneath the pastry with those stalwarts of a winter casserole – mushrooms, bacon, carrots, onions, garlic and red wine.

To accompany the Oxtail Pie is a selection of winter vegetables served up in a creamy gratin that is similar to dauphinoise potatoes.

And so with a pie in the oven, the sledges down from the attic and four very excited children we are waiting for the snow…


Oxtail Pie

Serves 4-6

For the filing:

• 1 kg oxtail

• 2 onions

• 2 cloves of garlic

• 2 medium carrots

• 110g (4oz) chestnut mushrooms

• 50g (2oz) smoked bacon lardons

• 2 bay leaves and 4 sprigs of thyme

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 300ml (1/2 pint) strong red wine

• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

• 1 tablespoon tomato puree

• 2 teaspoons plain flour

• 1 tablespoon sunflower oil

For the pastry:

• 250g (9oz) plain flour

• 75g (3oz) shredded suet

• 75g (3oz) butter

• 1 tablespoon of finely chopped herbs (parsley, sage or thyme)

• 1 egg

• 2 tablespoons water

recipe2Trim any excess fat from the oxtails and cut them into sections if they haven’t ready been cut. Sear them in a pan using the sunflower oil until they are browned all over. Transfer to a casserole. Chop the onions finely and crush the garlic. Peel the carrots and dice them. Quarter the mushrooms. Fry all of these plus the bacon in the same pan as the oxtail adding more oil if necessary.

When they are starting to colour, sprinkle in the flour and stir to incorporate. Put in the rest of the ingredients and enough water (roughly ½ pint) so that the resulting sauce will eventually cover the oxtail. Season, cover the casserole and simmer until the oxtail is tender.

I find cooking it in a low oven at about 130C (Gas mark ½) and cooking it between 3 to 4 hours works for me. The meat should fall away from the bone. Allow to cool and then remove all the meat from the bones. Discard the bones and mix the meat back in with the sauce. Place this into a suitably-sized pie dish.

For the pastry, rub the butter into the flour and then add the suet. Add the herbs and salt and pepper. Mix in the egg and water until you have a dough. Roll out the pastry and cover the pie. Egg wash and bake for about 40 minutes at 180C (350F, Gas mark 4) until golden brown.


Mussels with Saffron and Cream

Serves 2

• 1 kg fresh mussels

• 2 shallots

• 1 red pepper

• 100g mushrooms

• 2 sticks of celery

• ½ red chilli (less or more depending on how hot you like it)

• 1 clove of garlic, crushed

• 100ml white wine

• 1 teaspoon plain flour

• Pinch of saffron

• 100ml double cream

• Black pepper

• Juice of ½ a lemon

• 20g butter

• Chopped parsley

Wash the mussels well in lots of cold water, discard any that remain open and remove all the beards and barnacles. Place them in a large saucepan with the white wine. Put a lid on the saucepan and put it over a high heat. Shake the pan a few times and when there is a lot of steam rising and they have all opened, tip them into a colander with a bowl underneath. Let them cool for long enough for you to handle them, then remove the mussels from their shells and place them into a clean bowl.

When the stock from the mussels has settled carefully pour it over the mussels leaving behind the last bit that has the sediment and debris in it. Steep the saffron in with the mussels. Keep a few nice shells back for decoration.

Finely slice the shallots, pepper, mushrooms and celery and sweat in the butter with the garlic until they begin to soften. Sprinkle over the flour and stir until it coats the vegetables. Slowly add the mussel stock holding back the mussels for the time being. Bring to the boil then add the cream. Season with the black pepper and salt if it needs it and then add the lemon juice. Bring back to the boil and put in the mussels. Serve in deep bowls and garnish with the mussel shells and chopped parsley.


Gratin of Root Vegetables

• 1 kg root vegetables (choose from carrot, parsnip, swede, celeriac, turnip)

• 50g (2oz) butter

• 2 cloves of garlic

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg

• 300ml (1/2 pint) double cream

• 150ml vegetable stock

Peel and slice all the root vegetables very thinly (with a mandolin if you have one). Butter an ovenproof dish that will take all your vegetables using half the butter. In a bowl mix the sliced vegetables, with the garlic, cream, stock and seasoning. Pack them into your dish saving a few nice slices to layer on the top. Melt the rest of the butter and pour it over the top of the vegetables. Preheat the oven to 170C (325F, Gas mark 3), cover the dish with foil and cook for 2-2½ hours. Test with a skewer after 1 ½ hours. Remove the foil and increase the heat to 190C (375F, Gas mark 5) for the final 30 minutes to brown the top.