Foodie Tuesday: The Daily Grind Need Not Grind Us Down

When I did a bit of checking on it, the name of my variant of Shepherd’s Pie seemed to be, by rights, ‘Pastel de Carne y Patatas’–but you know me, I can’t stick to proprieties very well. So I named it the more mellifluous sounding ‘Pastel al Pastor’, thinking as I do that shepherds get very short shrift in this day and age and can use a little flattering attention. What the dish is calls for it anyway, for it’s a rustic Mexican-tinged take on the comfort-food standard Shepherd’s Pie. In any event, like many longtime popular recipes, it got its start partly by using ground or minced meat, a hallmark of well-fed poor people’s diets since the cheaper cuts of most meats can become tenderer and allow much more expansive fillers and the disguise of plenteous seasonings in order to be palatable while still being relatively affordable.

Rustic and comforting it may be, but the simplicity of the end result in this recipe belies the multifaceted process by which it’s made. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it can be made in large quantities and frozen in smaller batches between times, so it can easily become a quick-fix dish after the first preparation. Shepherd’s Pie, in the vernacular, derives from the longtime concept of Cottage Pie, which in turn originated when cooks began more widely using potatoes to stretch those more expensive ingredients of the meal, the meats. Typically, these pies (and there are versions of them in an enormous number of countries, cultures and cuisines) are simply meat dishes, often made with the ‘lesser’ cuts or a mixture of leftover meats, with a potato crust. Probably the most familiar of them here in the US is the minced meat (and often, vegetable) mixture topped with mashed potatoes that is served in many a British pub and home kitchen and that we co-opted in our own American ways.

Mine, on this occasion, was to veer as I often do toward Mexican seasonings and enjoy my own little twist on the dish.photoPastel al Pastor

Seasoned minced or ground meats, topped with vegetables and mushrooms and gravy and served over smashed potatoes make altogether a hearty and countrified dish, not at all difficult to make but taking a little bit of time because of its individual parts. I make this in a generously buttered baking dish both because it’s easier to clean afterward and because–you guessed it–I love butter.

The bottom layer of the dish is made by frying a mixture of equal parts ground beef, pork and lamb, seasoned freely with salt, black and cayenne peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika and lots of cumin. Those without supertaster spouses will likely want to add some garlic powder as well, though it’s not essential. A splash of rich chicken broth or a spoonful of good chicken bouillon adds a nice layer of flavor, if you have it. Next, add a heaping spoonful of tomato paste and enough good salsa to make the meat mixture very slightly saucy, and just as the meats begin to caramelize, you’re done. [My go-to, if I’m not making my salsa by hand, is Pace’s mild Chunky Salsa with a prepared chipotle en adobo blended in thoroughly–I see on their web page that they’re reintroducing their chipotle salsa, so that’s probably fine too.] Drain the fat from the meat mixture and spread it in the bottom of your baking dish.

While the meat’s cooking, you can be preparing the vegetable-mushroom layer. I mixed about equal amounts of small cut carrots, sliced celery and sliced brown mushrooms, covered them with some of my ubiquitous chicken broth and cooked them until tender. Then I pureed half of them with a stick blender, adding a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle en adobo (that’s about a half a pepper), unflavored gelatin and potato flour for flavor and texture, mixed that with the remaining vegetables, and poured it all over the meat. I topped this with a cup or so of frozen sweet kernel corn and got ready for Potato Happiness.

Today’s version of this meal, Ladies and Gentlemen, was potato-fied with leftovers. I had half a baked potato and about a cupful of good french fries in the fridge, and they worked wonderfully when warmed with some cream and a touch of salt and smashed roughly. It would have been just fine to do the typical Shepherd’s Pie treatment of spreading the potatoes over the meat-and-veg before heating the dish through in the oven, but since this was all concocted of things I had around (taco meat I’d made and frozen, salad vegetables and leftover potatoes), on this occasion we just put nice heaps of mash on our plates and spooned the rest over them like meat-and-vegetable gravy.

For the more normal approach, I’d roast, boil or bake potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and combine with cream for the mash and then top the casserole, possibly adding some nice cheese either on top before browning it in the oven (a mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack, for example) or as a fine garnish, a serving-time crumble (cotija on top, anyone?). But ‘normal’ is overrated, and the dish was mighty, mighty tasty even deconstructed in this way. And it’s still flexible–yes, even a dish concocted of multiple leftovers has variety left in it, my friends. Add some peas (so many tasty cottage pies have peas in them), cauliflower, green beans, or any number of other vegetables. Make it spicier. Soup it up into a stew, with potato pieces incorporated. Change the seasonings to Indian and make it a post-Colonial curried version. You get the drift.

Thing is, of course, that this is precisely how the dish was conceived: as a loose general structure into which any number of variables could successfully be introduced, depending upon what was on hand. Save time, save labor, save money. Eat delicious potatoes and whatever flavorful wonders you can afford and imagine to combine under them.

Well, get along with you now, you know how it works. And you can be pretty sure that it’s going to taste good. That’s how folklore ‘recipes’ survive–on flexibility and reliability. Oh, yeah, and great fillers.

Even chicken, which sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to minced meat dishes because it’s left too unseasoned or cooked in ways that make it too dry, can make lovely ground meat dishes with a little effort. In the latest instance, I chose to precook mine in a sort of meat loaf sous vide, keeping the juices and additions in and on it until it was fully plate-safe, but this could easily be chilled in its loaf form, sliced and pan-fried without the intervening hot bath, I’m sure. And a food processor makes the loaf prep a snap, but it can be done with a knife and a pair of hands for mixing, too. In any event, I veered more toward Italy this time with my glorified chicken meatloaf concoction.photoCotolette di Pollo e Pancetta

[About 6 servings.] Mince and mix together the following and shape into a compact loaf: 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (dark meat stays moister), 3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon powdered lemon peel, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons cold butter and 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shallot. Wrap and chill the loaf until ready to fry it, or do as I did: vacuum pack it, cook it sous vide like a confit (low and slow–I let it go overnight), and then refrigerate until ready to use.

When it’s time to fix the meal, cut the loaf into slices about 1/4 inch thick and fry them over medium heat until lightly browned. With a well seasoned iron skillet or a nonstick pan, the butter in the loaf is quite sufficient to keep the slices from sticking, and they get a nice little lightly crispy crust outside their tender middles. I served mine with slices of fried cheese (any slow-melting mild cheese would do for this after-the-fact application, or you can top the meat slices with faster-melting sorts like mozzarella or provolone as the meat cooks) and a simple sauce cooked down from jarred passata (simple tomato puree–I like the Mutti brand passata I used, pure tomatoes with a little salt) mixed with the loaf’s excess juices, salt and pepper and oregano to taste. On the side, little ramekins of rice and buttered green beans are plenty, though of course there’s always room for invention on the plate. The whole assembly, since I’d put up both cooked rice and the confited loaf in the refrigerator beforehand, took not more than fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare.

¡Buen provecho! Buon appetito! Now, stop mincing around and get eating!