A Downton Abbey Tea and Basic Beef Stew

My husband and I are as obsessed with Downton as the rest of the world, and the time has come for the U.S. to catch up as season three gets underway on January 6th.

My friend Cindy suggested I throw a Downton Abbey tea party, but the time to pull everything together wasn’t there, so this post will have to suffice.

The following ideas are what I might do…

Split the guests into two groups–Upstairs and Downstairs. Everyone should dress accordingly. Maybe limit the costume to one item signifying your household ranking–hat, gloves, bow tie, bustle, apron, etc.

Have two sets of food. Upstairs: cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon sandwiches, miniature quiche, chocolate tiers and champagne. Downstairs: sausage rolls, basic beef stew (see recipe below), Parker House Rolls and beer. If you are serving tea, Darjeeling for Upstairs, Barry’s (or another strong dependable black tea) for Downstairs. Are people limited to eating what is at their station? Absolutely not. People always find ways to come together, and sneaking back and forth between the two worlds is half the fun. I would call the Upstairs Menu: Appetizers and Dessert; and the Downstairs Menu: The Main Course.

A Downton Abbey game might be nice, but not if it leads to a lot of conversational cross fire. You want to be able to catch every moment of the show. Something I made up in five minutes, but sounds like it might work:

Have an “Incident” bowl fill with scraps of paper naming things likely and not so likely to happen on the show–all should be possibilities. For example:

Someone suffers a minor injury
Someone suffers a major injury—hospitalization is required
Thomas and O’Brien conspire
Someone dies
Someone almost dies then lives
A wedding is announced
A wedding is cancelled
Someone goes to prison
Isobel Crawley finds a new way to be “useful”
Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham smiles
Someone spreads a rumor
Someone has tea
A special guest is invited to dinner
Someone has a clandestine affair
One of the servants leaves for another life
Someone gets pregnant
Someone has a baby
Someone loses a baby
Daisy has a moment where she isn’t completely frustrated by every facet of her life

Everyone draws one slip of paper before the show begins. If your incident occurs, you’re out. But you can get back into the game if…

Have another “Trivia” bowl containing slips of paper with trivia questions based on seasons one and two. For example, What is Thomas’s last name? … Barrow. Guess correctly, you’re back in, and you can draw another slip from the Incident bowl. Two strikes and you’re out for good.

If more than one person is left by the end of the show, the remaining players draw slips from the Trivia bowl in turn until only one remains.

And just for fun… My husband and I have both worked in theatre and what I’m about to suggest would appeal to a lot of people we know, but might give others a panic attack so proceed with caution. In the spirit of the show, I would encourage the inner ham in everyone by giving a door prize for the best back story. At some point in the evening–perhaps over dessert, after everyone is fueled by the show–guests might deliver a soliloquy on their checkered past. The illegitimate birth, the prison time, the wife-husband-child no one knows about, the parking tickets, the reform school, the hasty affair on a small uncharted isle, the war injury, your true gender, the Swiss bank account, the gambling debt, the foot fetish and the incident in the shoe store, your gift for telepathy and the ghosts that haunt you, your 80s record collection–all the legacies of succumbing to yearnings oh so very long ago…



The Sausage Rolls recipe can be found here.

The Parker House Rolls recipe can be found here.

Basic Beef Stew (makes 6 servings)

Note: The stew will need to simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the beef is tender, so plan for that, or make the stew the day before. The flavors only get better with time.

Most recipes plunk everything in the pot and let it simmer. I like to chop the onion, celery and some of the carrot fine, and add at the beginning. By the end of the cooking time, they will add texture and flavor to the sauce. I add the potatoes and larger pieces of carrot towards the end so they don’t get quite as mushy, but still have time to absorb the flavors of the stew. You can also add other vegetables like rutabagas, parsnips, turnips–cut into roughly the same size as the second batch of carrots and added at the same time.

2 lbs. (900g) beef stew meat, cubed
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup or 240ml)–you can use yellow, white, red, but I wouldn’t use a sweet variety
4 carrots, 1 chopped (about 1/2 cup or 120ml) and three sliced into 1/2 inch disks
1 rib celery, chopped (about 1/2 cup or 120ml)
1/2 lb. (225g) button mushrooms, cut into halves, quarters or smaller depending on the size of the mushroom (bite size)
2 teaspoons (10ml) dried thyme
2 Tbsps. (30ml) tomato paste
2 fresh bay leaves—if you only have dry, that’s OK, but the flavor of fresh bay is better
2 lbs. (900g) or so small to medium waxy potatoes*– peeled and halved or quartered depending on their size
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1/2 cup (120ml) fresh parsley, chopped
2 cups (480ml) low sodium beef broth
1/2 cup (120ml)  dry red wine (use what you have, don’t fuss–I usually use Zinfandel but had Pinot Noir on hand and it was great)
Olive or vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. (30ml) flour mixed with 4 Tbsp. (60ml) cold water to make a slurry (no lumps please)

*Waxy potatoes will hold their shape even after being cooked for long periods of time. Floury/mealy potatoes will fall apart. All-Purpose potatoes are somewhere in between. Given there are over 4,000 varieties of potato throughout the world… let’s try for quick crib notes on type. In general, red, new, fingerling, and yellow should all be fine. If you want exact names and pictures, this is a great site. You can also make a big bowl of mashed spuds with lots of butter and cream and smother them with the stew.

If possible, let the beef sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes. Pat the meat dry with a paper towel. If it’s wet, it won’t brown. Give the meat a light sprinkling of salt and pepper.

In a Dutch oven or stock pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil or vegetable oil over medium high heat. Add the beef. It should sizzle when it hits the oil. If the pot is too small to cook all the beef at once, do it in batches. I have a five quart Dutch oven and it took two batches. Don’t overcrowd the meat–give the pieces a little room around each one, otherwise they won’t brown as well. Transfer browned meat to a dish.

At this point you will likely have a dark layer (fond) on the bottom of your pot. This adds a lot of flavor and will come off when you deglaze with the wine. There should be a bit of oil and a little fat from the meat in the pot. If not, add another tablespoon of oil.

Add the onion, chopped carrots, celery, mushrooms, and thyme to the pot. Cook over medium until the onions are getting soft, about three to five minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for a minute, stirring well. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring well.

Add the wine and deglaze the pot, scraping the bottom to release any stuck bits. Add the broth and give it a good stir.

Add the beef and any juices in the dish back to the pot. Add the bay leaves.

Simmer, covered for two hours. Check on it every 20 minutes or so, to give it a stir and make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Add the potatoes and carrot disks and cook for another 30 minutes to an hour until the beef is fork tender and the potatoes are cooked through. It might take a little longer. It might feel like it’s taking forever, but it will happen. Fork tender doesn’t mean you can spear the meat with a fork, it means the fork will pass through the meat like it was passing through butter.

Add the flour and water slurry and simmer until thickened, a few minutes.

Add the parsley.

Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves, which might be difficult to find, but they are a choking hazard so you want them out of there.

Serve with rolls.