Monday, March 09, 2009

Cold Weather Calls for Comfy Food – January 9, 2009

*Yay, I’m finally in 2009! Methinks procrastinating this long is a bad idea because I’ve forgotten what I put in the shepherd’s pie. Will that stop me from posting a recipe? Of course not!

In the middle of a particularly cold winter storm, I was not looking forward to trekking out for groceries. I don’t live far from a grocery store, but in - 20 degree weather, I’d sooner take a fork to my eye. It’s just too damn cold.

Jimmy was working that night, so I knew he’d want something easy to eat after work. I considered making instant noodles, but dismissed the idea. Instant noodles are a terrible start to the weekend. I needed something I could pull together from what I already had in the kitchen, but wasn’t a horrible dinner. I normally have ground beef in the freezer because I buy the huge club packs when it goes on sale. Divide it into two-cup portions, freeze individually, and you’ve got ground beef for months. I also have quite the selection of frozen vegetables: peas, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, you name it. The potatoes were leftover from the bag I bought when I made clam chowder. The ingredients lit the way to shepherd’s pie.

I grew up eating shepherd’s pie, and it was easily one of my favourite things to eat in the winter. I think my mum made this often because it’s so easy. Start cooking the meat mixture while you boil water for potatoes and frozen corn. Once the potatoes are done, season and mash. Spoon the meat into loaf pans or larger baking pan. Add a layer of corn, followed by a generous heaping of mashed potatoes. (Here’s the difference between pâté chinois and shepherd’s pie. In shepherd’s pie, the corn is mixed with the meat, but in pâté chinois, the corn is layered. My mum’s shepherd’s pie is actually a pâté chinois, but we always called it shepherd’s pie.) Smooth and sprinkle the top with paprika. Cover with tin foil. Since all of the ingredients are fully cooked, you just need to reheat it in the oven. Remove tin foil for the last 15 minutes to brown the top. Better yet, broil that sucker until the mashed potatoes form a skin. Let cool for at least 10 minutes, cut, and serve with gravy or ketchup.

I don’t know how my mum does it, but hers always tasted the same. I’ve made shepherd’s pie a few times now, and it always turns out differently. The following recipe is a mash-up of what I actually used and what I remember my mum used. Had I posted this sooner, I could have written a more accurate recipe, but then blogging would be too easy, lol.

Meat Mixture:

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 package lean ground beef (about a pound?)
3 tsp salt
1 tsp ground pepper
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground cumin
½ cup beer or red wine
1 ½ cups stock (chicken, beef, or vegetable are all acceptable)
4 dried bay leaves
1 cup frozen corn
4 slices of bread, diced

1. Heat up a large pot with vegetable oil. When you can feel heat with your hand just above the pot, toss in the onions and the garlic. Turn heat down to medium, and sautée until onions are translucent.
2. Crank heat up back to high and brown the beef in the same pot. Don’t be afraid of the fat that renders from the beef. Pour off some of the fat into a bowl, and set aside.
3. Add herbs, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook until fragrant. There should be plenty of brown scum accumulating at the bottom of your pot.
4. Stand back and pour the beer (or red wine) into the pot. Stir like you mean it, scraping the bottom of the pot.
5. Once most of the beer (or wine) has evaporated, add the stock, bay leaves, and frozen corn. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to medium-low. Start preparing your potatoes.
6. Reduce the mixture until there is about an inch of liquid left above the meat mixture. Then, and ONLY then, stir in the bread. If you do this step too soon, you’ll end up with grey mush.
7. Check for taste. The meat must be flavourful, or the shepherd’s pie will be blaaaaaaaaand.
8. Turn off the heat, and continue to stir the mixture until all of the liquid has been absorbed.

Potato Mixture:

5 cups potatoes, diced
1 tsp salt
Reserved fat from meat mixture
½ cup milk
Paprika, for sprinkling

1. While the meat is simmering, begin peeling and dicing potatoes
2. Bring a large pot of salted water (about a tablespoon of salt) to boil.
3. Cook the potatoes until fork tender. You can overcook the potatoes, but do NOT undercook them. Your mash will turn out crunchy and unappetizing. Turn off the heat.
4. Drain the potatoes, and return them to the pot.
5. Mash the potatoes with abandon, adding the salt, reserved fat, and milk. The potatoes should be fluffy and creamy at the same time.


1. Spoon the meat into the bottom of two or three loaf pans, or a large rectangular baking pan.
2. Heap on the potatoes, smoothing as you go.
3. Sprinkle the paprika over the potatoes, and cover the pan with tin foil.
4. Put into a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes.
5. Here, you have two options.
a. Remove the foil, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes; or
b. Remove the foil, and broil for 5 minutes.
6. Take it out of the oven and let it sit for at least 10 minutes before cutting.
7. Cut up into squares, scoop into bowls (it’s easier to eat it that way), and serve with ketchup or gravy.

I always preferred my shepherd’s pie with ketchup and not gravy. It was just something we always did when we ate it at home. Admittedly, the first time I ate someone a shepherd's pie not made by my mum was in first-year university. They served it at the caf with a ladleful of gravy, and I was appalled. I asked for a plate without gravy and got my own ketchup.

When I gave Jimmy the option of accompanying sauce, he balked at the mention of ketchup, so I made a simple gravy. Using meat mixture pot (just after spooning it all out), I sautéed half a medium onion (sliced) in a tablespoon of butter. Once the onions got fragrant, I added a tablespoon of flour. I sprinkled some salt and pepper, and poured a little less than a cup stock while whisking as fast as my little arm could whisk. Adjust the seasoning to taste, and add a teaspoon or so of dark soy sauce (for colour). This only took five minutes to bring together, and I think it tastes better than packaged gravy.

The huge pan of shepherd’s pie was far too much for two people to eat late at night, so I put the pan in the fridge. I find it’s one of those dishes that taste better the next day. The potato firms up and the entire thing is easier to cut and scoop out. It tastes great after reheating, too.

I like it for the fact that it’s easy to put together, especially if you’ve made some of the components in advance. Because of the wait times in between reducing the mixture and cooking the potatoes, I’m able to multitask and get some other chores done. I can start a load of laundry before I cook, put it into the dryer just after the potatoes are done, and pick it all up just after I take it out of the oven. In the meantime, I usually do some dishes and clean up the mess I made in the kitchen. Having good food and a clean house on a cold day is so much more comforting than instant noodles.


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