Here’s another Finnish recipe for a filling stew (Merimiespata – or Sailor`s Stew) that’s great for one of those winter evening’s that are fast approaching us up here in the frozen arctic wastes of Canada (well, OK, Toronto). Now historically, Finland’s harsh climate meant that fresh fruit and vegetables were largely unavailable for nine months of the year. This led to a heavy reliance on staple tubers (initially turnips, later potato), dark rye bread and fermented dairy products, occasionally enlivened with preserved fish and meat. Traditionally, very few spices other than salt were available, and fresh herbs like dill were limited to the summer months.
Many Finnish traditional dishes are prepared by stewing them for a long time in an oven. And as I was looking for another stew/casserole type dish to try out on the kids, Merimiespata, or Sailor’s Stew, seemed to fit the bill. Now I don’t have a cast iron pot or a wood stove so I couldn’t do this the traditional way. Nevertheless, misgivings about these missing components aside, I hauled out a large casserole dish and my trusty cooking knives and got to work……
After a side trip to pick up some beef, making sure I had enough potatoes, sending the kids deep into the fridge to find a bottle of beer and discovering that I’d run out of thyme (which, to be honest, is just there to make it look pretty), it was time to get seriously down to work preparing Merimiespata. First, the ingredients….. (this recipe’s adapted from a range of sources – you’ll find a few variations on this if you look around) but here’s what I settled on
- 1 (600gm but you can use more) boneless lean beef, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon oil (I almost always use Olive Oil but suit yourself)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 large onions, sliced thinly
- 1 kg potatoes, peeled and cut into slices – as thin or thick as you prefer
- 2 large carrots, sliced (I like ’em chunky but again, suit yourself)
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 large packet of fresh mushrooms, quartered
- 2 cans beer (some recipes recommended pale beer specifically, I used a pale lager)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce (use 1.5 tsp salt if no soy sauce)
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns or ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- A few bay leaves
- Beef broth (Ok, I used beef bouillon cubes & water, I’m not a perfectionist)
- Fresh thyme (makes a nice garnish) or Parsley
- Somewhat surprisingly for a Finnish recipe, no Dill, but then, it`s a winter dish and Dill was only available in Summer in the old days
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)
- While the oven’s warming up, cut the meat into cubes and place in a plastic bag with the flour. Toss to coat evenly
- Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Remove beef cubes from the bag, shake off any excess flour. Brown beef cubes on all sides, and remove to drain
- Saute the diced onions for about 5 minutes, until onions are translucent, soft and slightly caramelized. Make sure you don’t overcook them.
- Place half the potatoes on the bottom of a casserole dish. Place the beef cubes over the potatoes, then layer fried onions, carrots and mushrooms over the beef. Layer the remaining potatoes over the top. Pour in the beer, beef broth (or beef bouillon cubes & water) and soy sauce (make sure there’s enough to cover the contents of the dish). Toss in the peppercorns and bay leaves
- Bake with the lid on the casserole dish for 2 hours in the oven at 350F, until the meat is very tender (test it to make sure)
- Remove from the oven, garnish with thyme and serve
- (Traditionally served with pickled beets and rye bread)
As recipes go, it’s easy to prepare and make and it tastes great on a cold night. There aren’t that many main ingredients – beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, beer and a bit of flour. Some recipes say slice the beef, some say cube. Just follow your preference on this one. I like cubes, I think they look more appealing so that’s what I went with. It takes 2 to 3 hours to cook – if you want the beef even more tender, drop the cooking temperature to 250F but leave it in for six hours or so. Or cook it in a vacuum pot and that way you can leave it to cook all day while you’re at work and then just finish it off in the oven when you get home. Either way it tastes great. And with all the meat and potatoes in there, it’s a full meal in its own right. You can happily eat it with some bread on the side, pickled beets, a side salad or cooked vegetables if you feel like a little extra work.
Traditionally, this dish was served with pickled beets and rye bread, so for some real authenticity, I suggest you try that. Also, turnips were common in Finnish traditional cooking, but were replaced by the potato after its introduction in the 18th century so there’s another alternative. I’ve also noted a few variations of this recipe where mince is used rather than beef cubes – but personally, I prefer the beef cubes. Once again, this one passed the kid’s palate test, although next time I’ll make the cubes of beef a bit smaller and I might try a mix of turnips and potato for a change. Goes well with a nice beer on the side.