Saturday, March 12, 2011

Not like your mom used to make

One of the old standbys is an icon of comfort food, shepherd's pie. It is originally an English dish, the basics being meat, with a layer of mash potato on top and baked. A pretty basic casserole when you get right down to it, the coastal areas creating a fish pie, replacing the meat with fish. Its very traditional fare in old Britain, along with bubble and squeak, and steak and kidney pie.

When the dish made it across the Atlantic, it was a natural for potato's homeland, and there was always plenty of meat to throw this dish together easily. The more commonly known version, with the layer of corn between the meat and mash is very much an American heartland variation; when french Canadian laborers working in the US brought it back home, it was christened "pate Chinois" (Chinese pate), not because of the common myth that this was served to the Chinese migrant laborers working on the railroads (pate a Chinois), but because it originated from the town of China in Maine. The idea came from the fact that its pretty much a poor man's hearty dish, made with the cheapest and most commonly found items in any kitchen, and is designed that it can feed a small army for pretty cheap.

When you look at it, its one of those dishes that's nearly impossible to screw up; at most you might have lumpy mash potatoes, but its a pretty fool-proof recipe: brown the meat, spread onto a baking dish, layer corn, cover with mash, stick in the oven and cook till golden brown. Serve and enjoy.

Basic stuff. But it can easily be improved upon in simple ways, and cheap too. Its the power of creative thinking. In this version, I'll be exposing how to make a simple, yet delicious near-vegetarian dish that will make even hardcore carnivores ask for more., and most of it will be made using pantry stapes and leftovers.

First off, you need to make the mash. You could go with just potatoes, but you can vary the texture and flavor by mixing it up with rutabaga, carrots, squash, sweet potato (yams), or parsnips. You need to cook them until they are all soft; cut the toughest roots the smallest to balance out and reduce the cooking time. Once that you can go through them easily with a fork, drain and put back on the range, tossing until the leftover water is gone. Add butter and your choice or milk, cream, sour cream or yogurt. Each will bring out different textures and flavors. Season with salt and pepper, and some herbs if you have any (keep it simple; parsley can do wonders) and reserve. As you prepare the rest the mash with firm up, which will help later.

Now you need to work on the base: start by softening up an onion, quartered and sliced, or diced, as it strikes your fancy in a good amount of cooking fat. I like to use the tail end of cured hams, like prosciutto, which you can pick up at the deli shop, or if you buy your meat in bulk, the chunk of fat and skin that I trimmed from a pork shoulder or belly. Trimmed chicken or duck fat and skin would do just as well, depending on your supplies and requirements. Use a pinch of salt to help the onion sweat.

Once that the onion is translucent and soft, add sliced mushrooms and as much crushed garlic as you like. Cook slowly, until the mushrooms are well soaked with the cooking fats, and feel free to toss in a bit of good vinegar (like balsamic) or wine if you have any just lying around. The last element to toss in is a can of mixed beans. You could do it with a single variety, but the mix will provide a nicer range of flavor, texture and visual element to the dish. Let it cook, stirring and mixing it not too roughly for a couple of minutes. at

I like doing this is a large cast-iron pan, to minimize cleaning up afterwards. When the base is ready, even it out and add a layer of corn and/or peas on top. You don't need to put a mass of it, just enough to cover the base layer. Whether you want to mix cream and niblets is up to you; its not a bad idea, as it adds some moisture to a dish that could be sometimes a little dry. Then layer the mash on top until it is entirely covering the lot. Finish it up with a few bits of butter, a few cranks of the pepper mill and a few pinched of herbs, like oregano and parsley, then put in a pre-warmed oven at 400f until the top browns.

A twelve inch pan should provide a good six-to-eight portions, depending on the appetite and whether it is served with a side-dish, like good bread, a salad or a soup.

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