Open your pie hole

Bless her heart.


Every good Southern girl knows what this means…

I grew up eating my mom’s version.  She uses canned beans, canned tomato soup, and instant mashed potatoes.  She calls it shepherd’s pie.  But lamb is the base of shepherd’s pie.  And lamb ain’t something that’s ever gonna happen at her house.  She hates it.  The closest thing to lambs at my folks’ place would be a wool sweater.

She makes hers with ground chuck, and when you make it with beef, it’s called cottage pie.

I’ve been in many different kitchens; both professional settings and private homes.

dream kitchen.png

Here’s the kitchen in my mind.

I’ve picked the brains of every cook I could get to stand still long enough to answer any one of a thousand questions.  I now have many of these generous culinary coaches on speed dial and email 911.  Because of their generous, patient, support, I have been able to develop my own personal cooking philosophy.

Here ‘tis:

“Treat every ingredient with respect and elevate it as much as is possible, be it a humble egg, or the most expensive cut of meat.”

So when I decided to make cottage pie, I wanted to use from-scratch ingredients.  I would also work to get the best flavor and most desirable texture to which each ingredient was able to rise.

Honeymoon Cottage Pie

cottage pie

1 lb. 80/20 ground beef

1 large yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, diced

1 lb. mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

½ cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons butter (if needed)

1/3 cup dark beer

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups low-sodium beef stock

1½ teaspoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped finely

2 bay leaves

2 cups frozen peas

2 cups carrots, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes

Mashed potatoes:

10 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

4 tablespoons butter

1/3-3/4 cup fat-free buttermilk

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Salt & pepper

Place potatoes into large pot with plenty of salted water.  Cook over medium heat until spuds are tender.  Drain.  Place back into pot and drop in butter.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and using a hand masher, mash until smooth/chunky.  Stir in buttermilk until just a little loose.  Taste for seasoning, cover and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350.

Heat a large heavy skillet to medium-high.  Brown seasoned hamburger.  When cooked, set aside, and leave fat in skillet (add butter if there’s not at least 3 tablespoons).  Put in onions, mushrooms, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves.  Season veg.  Cook until onion turns golden.  Stir in tomato paste.  When paste darkens and starts to stick to the bottom, deglaze with beer.  When the liquid’s cooked out, mix in flour and cook for 1 minute.  Pour in beef broth and stir until smooth.  Bring to a simmer and take off heat (it should be nice and thick).  Add back meat and peas and carrots.  Check for seasoning.

Pour into a greased casserole dish, or 6 individual ramekins.  If you use individual dishes, you can freeze some for another night. 

Top with mashed potatoes.  Smooth over the top, leaving no gaps.  Cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, remove foil and top with cheese.  Return to oven and cook under low broiler until browned and bubbly.  Serves 6.

This is even better with crusty bread and a crisp, green salad.  If you’re a beer drinker, serve it with a glass of the same type you cooked with.  You literally can’t get a better pairing.

Both Petey and I grew up in the 1960’s-70’s.  In this era most of the moms had been raised during the Great Depression and/or World War II.  They were sick of economizing, making do, and Victory gardens

This ennui resulted in a heady enthusiasm for cooking with cans of this, and jars of that.  The only fresh produce many kids from our generation ever saw was potatoes, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce.

Is it any wonder we have such a messed up relationship with food?  This stuff was considered good eats back in the 70’s.  And what’s up with the knife-wielding woman under the table?

So while many of those dinners we ate hold nostalgic appeal, processed foods do not.  Rehabbing this food using better techniques and fresher ingredients gives us the best of both worlds.

And since we baby boomers are looking at 50 in the rearview mirror, healthier is much smarter.  I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be around to embarrass my great-grandkids.

Embarrassing yes, but even I have my limits.

Thanks for your time.

Ally goat

“Walk away.  Just walk away.”

That’s a phrase one of my culinary heroes, Alton Brown, uses.  It’s meant to get the cook to back off and not overwork it or tweak it to death.  Like over mixing biscuit dough, developing the gluten, and ending up with tough, rubbery, inedible results.

It’s also what I tell myself when making mashed potatoes.

I mash them by hand with a good amount of butter.  When the spuds are mashed,  but still chunky, I mix in buttermilk, about ¾ cup at a time until they are just a little thinner than I’d like (they’ll tighten up while standing).  Then I cover them and walk away ‘til service; because if I continue to stir, I’ll develop the starch in the potatoes, and they’ll end up gluey.

But gluey can actually be a desired trait in a certain potato dish.

I love America’s Test Kitchen.  They have cookbooks, magazines, and a pair of PBS television shows.  Using theirCook’s Illustrated magazine, I finally got over my fear of cooking sugar; caramel, fudge, the whole candy thermometer megillah.  I also appreciate that if they offer a recipe, they have tested it into the ground.  One of The Kid’s culinary schoolmates was an America’s Test Kitchen intern and has verified that each dish was made with hundreds of variations to be assured of having the very best, most successful, recipe.

One Sunday afternoon I was watching an episode of ATK, and became extremely intrigued by a potato side dish they made.

It was called pommes aligot (pronounced “pom ally go”).  It’s a dish from the Aubrac region in France.  Aligot basically turns conventional mashed potato wisdom on its head.  The potatoes are whipped like crazy, cheese is added, and more stirring ensues.

The result is a rich, creamy, cheesy dish that is shiny and elastic.  The French sometimes use this as a dip for bread sticks and raw veggies, kind of like a fondue.

In France the dish is made with Tomme; a semi-soft cheese made in the Pyrenes and Alps regions.  It is almost impossible to find in the states.  Christopher Kimbel and the gang at the Test Kitchen came up with a gruyere/mozzarella combo to mimic flavor and texture.

I don’t buy a lot of Gruyere, and was pretty horrified by the prices.  I didn’t want to get too far off the reservation the first time I made the recipe, so I used Gruyere, but found a smoked version that was two bucks cheaper.  It added a nice, subtle smoky flavor to the finished dish.

Pommes Aligot


3 pounds red-skinned potatoes (6-8 medium)

3 tablespoon kosher salt + more for seasoning

Water to cook potatoes

2 cloves garlic, minced

6 tablespoons butter

1 cup whole milk

1 cup shredded smoked gruyere cheese

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (a big-gish pinch) 

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

Peel the potatoes, cut them in half, then into 1/2-inch slices. Place in a large pot with 3 tablespoons of salt. Add water to cover the potatoes by at least an inch. Bring to a boil and cook for fifteen minutes or until easily pierced with a paring knife. Drain the water. Put the potatoes in a food processor with the minced garlic, salt to taste and the butter. Pulse a few times, add the milk, and pulse until smooth. Return the mixture to your pot and turn heat to medium. Sprinkle in nutmeg and pepper.  Slowly add the cheeses, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon while doing so, over a period of 3-5 minutes, until stretchy, elastic consistency is achieved.  Check for seasoning.  Serves 8.

I made them on Sunday night with some Denver steaks I was lucky enough to catch on sale, along with peas and carrots.  It was a Valentine’s dinner that wowed Petey.  The spuds turn out glossy and gorgeous.

To be really honest they are at their most basic level, cheesy mashed potatoes.  But, the type of cheeses is unusual, and the method of preparation is fancier.  These are gorgeous, velvety mashed potatoes with a sexy French accent.

I googled “Sexy French”, and this rather attractive young man came up.  Is he French?  Don’t know, don’t care.

Thanks for your time.



Ode To An Onyx Lodge

Originally published in the Herald Sun 3/7/2012

I just wiped oil off one of my best friends. I toasted coconut, and we got a little sticky.
The name of my anointed friend? It’s characteristically simple and straightforward, just; “Cast Iron”. It’s big, handled, and has the heft to be a lethal weapon. It’s my Lodge skillet.
On the 1999 premiere of “Good Eats”, Alton Brown perfectly cooked steak in his cast iron. He extolled their many virtues. I decided to procure one.
I grew up ignorant of them. I remember, as a child, briefly seeing one at a friend’s house, in a sink full of cold, dirty, water. It haunts me, like someone who years ago witnessed a murder, and only now realizes the true horror of what they saw. Those things are indestructible, but they can be criminally disrespected.
Non-users may feel there’s a lot of work involved in the care and feeding. True, it’s easy to toss a pan in the dishwasher for five or ten years, and then get a new one. But do you know how I usually clean Cast Iron? I wipe it out with a paper towel. That’s the whole deal. And that is but one facet of the beauty that is my forged-by-fire friend.
Curiously, there is only one factory in the whole country that makes cast iron cookware. Lodge Ironworks, in the Appalachian mountains, has been around since 1896. And they still do it the same way.
I once bought a piece that was not Lodge; therfore, not made to US safety standards. When heated, it replaced the house’s oxygen with greasy fumes that smelled of outsourcing and death.
Don’t mess around. For something that can honestly outlast you (and not by murdering you), pay the extra few dollars.
I got mine off the dusty shelf of a sleepy hardware store, unseasoned. Let me repeat that: un…seasoned.
Ask anybody to describe granny’s skillet, and they’ll speak of something the color of the burnished, unfathomable black of (insert name of hated politician or celebrity here)’s heart.
Brand new, and unseasoned, they are closer to the depressing, gunmetal gray of Mitt Romney’s bachelor weekend in Altoona. Also when new, they’re whatever the complete opposite of non-stick is.
To get it as black as a licorice whip and slick as a cruise ship Lothario, the surface must be seasoned. Over time, the heated metal and fat forms a bond, that as it darkens, will become naturally non-stick.
*Microscopic gaps in the smooth, bonded, surface of cookware will shrink when hot (it all has gaps, even well seasoned, long-time possesions). So preheat before using, every time.
If it’s scrubbed after every use, or chunked into the Maytag, that marriage will wash away.
So how to clean?
The key is to, carefully, wipe it when it’s still a little hot. That’s when you deal with any gunk. When the surface is smooth and dry, you’re done. If that doesn’t work, pour some kosher salt in and gently rub. It’s easier with fat, so if needed, splash a little cooking oil into the warm pan. This method can also be used to reclaim neglected pans with an entirely rusted-over surface (like Aunt Eugenia’s set in the attic, maybe?).
What if it’s really messed up, and the salt ain’t gonna cut it?
This next tactic works, but can be dangerous, so at least wear some gloves, and think about maybe renting a haz-mat suit.
Take the pan, as hot as you trust yourself, and pour in some warm water; you’re deglazing the stuck. If the pan is molten, and the water icy, you’ll crack the metal–irreversibly fatal. So, ginger.
Sometimes it’s gloppy and dirty (like for my Skillet Taters). It’s then time for hot, soapy water. It will lubricate and cleanse. If all else fails, use a very soft scrubby sponge (I really dig the hourglass O-Cel-O). Go slowly and lightly, and stop as soon as you feel surface. Give it the same bomb-squad reverence you would a non-stick piece of All-Clad from Williams-Sonoma.

Skillet Taters
If you make these, your skillet will see some warm, soapy water later. Just be gentle.

3 cups unpeeled cubed into 3/4 inch approx. You want them similar size and shape. If you have fingerlings, slice into 1/2 coins. Baby potatoes, quarter or halve, just make sure there is cut are on each potato.
1/2 white onion, chopped
1 tbls each butter and oil (You can substitue bacon drippings, and sprinkle the finished dish with crumbled bacon, but I am not coming with you on your next doctor’s appt)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried thyme
pinch sugar
1/2 tsp favorite seasoning blend (I like Goya Adobo with bitter orange)bacon
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 tbls chopped fresh flat leaf parsey
squeeze of citrus, if you’re out, substitute splash of you favorite vinegar
pinch cayenne

In a pot of heavily salted water (it should taste like the ocean any time you boil anything), cook potatoes until just barely tender, a paring knife goes in, but with a little resistance.
Drain, and allow them to dry on the outside. This cuts down on popping and spitting later.
Get your skillet hot. Not quite smoking, because of the fats involved, but really hot.
Tumble in spuds and toss in the pan to coat with fat. Season potatoes with everything, except for onion, parsley, and juice.
When the taters are evenly coated arrange them in one layer. Then take your spatula and give them all little smoosh. Not quite a smash, something gentler. You want be able to recognize a slightly battered cube after smooshing it. Then leave them alone.
Reduce heat to medium, cook until the crustiness that has appeared is browned to your liking. Add chopped onions, toss everything around a bit and then put them in a single layer and smoosh. Don’t get too wrapped up in making sure each potato is perfectly golden, you want some amber colored crust, some blond crispiness, and even some black peeking out here and there. They are home fries, not NASA fries.
Cook until they and nice and crispy, maybe another 6-7 minutes. Stir in parsley.
Just before serving, spritz with citrus, and check for salt.
I like mine topped with a poached egg. Petey likes his with scrambled, and a steak.

If you’re forced to wash it, dry it immediately. Oxidation can happen quickly. Store it like a freshly showered body builder–very lightly oiled. It’s not just sexy, it provides a barrier against moisture.
After especially vigorous cleaning, give your faithful companion a spa treatment. Pour in about a quarter cup of cooking oil, wipe it all around, and let it meditate in a 250-300 degree oven for about an hour. Wipe out the excess while warm, and when it’s cool, put it away, so the saucepans can tell it how rested it looks.
One of the most classic things made in it, and an honest test of your cast iron stewardship, is corn bread.
My favorite is Mildred “Mama Dip” Council’s, “Sunday Cornbread”. It’s moist like it should be, and crispy where it oughta.
Clean-up after baking cornbread?
My seasoned, loyal comrade now wipes completely clean with one dry Viva. The first time it happened, I almost wept. The memory still touches me deeply.
Thanks for your time.

The Kid in headlights

Recently, I’ve learned something.

I’ve realized why my mom is so eager to have Petey and me visit, and why she doesn’t like it when we show up late, or leave early.

There’s no accounting for her taste, but I think she misses us.

This epiphany smacked me upside the head after The Kid moved out.

I went from being pregnant with my child living inside me, to a baby then toddler that was always with me. Later were schooldays, each one complete with crazy mornings followed by evenings with the whole family. Then it was college, with every break spent at home. The last step was adulthood, and The Kid’s own castle which has relegated us to a couple of phone calls a week and two or three quick (quick to me, anyway) visits a month.

Petey and I are seriously missing this human we’ve created.

It’s like trying to lure a fawn to eat out of your hand. I try to be subtle and not make any sudden movements. Or pester with too many phone calls and emails. I don’t want to scare Bambi off, and clumsily miss a visit or cut one short by being too “Mom.”

So, when we are lucky enough to have The Kid join us for a meal, I try to make sure everything on the menu is either a childhood favorite or something new that will really be enjoyed.

Whenever we eat at Mom’s and something doesn’t turn out perfectly, she gets upset. I have to admit that I’d get a little impatient because it was just a burned roll, or a veg that finished late — no big deal.

But now I understand. A few weeks ago The Kid came for Sunday lunch, and I made a family fave; porcupine meatballs (or as we call them, road kill). I was crushed when they didn’t quite cook all the way through, and the rice was a little crunchy in spots. We were so eager to have our offspring over, and I had screwed it up.

My rational side (and spouse) tells me The Kid probably never gave it a second thought.

Last weekend we had our precious guest for dinner. We had bacon wrapped tri-tip, salad, Whole Food’s really delicious yeast rolls, peas, and a tasty new potato dish.

Horseradish Baked Mashed Potatoes

3 pounds waxy potatoes

1 medium-large russet potato

1 Bay leaf

4 sprigs rosemary

1 1/4 teaspoons dry thyme, divided

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

Kosher salt

12 peppercorns + freshly cracked

5 tablespoons butter

½-1 cup buttermilk (approximately)

1/3 cup provolone, shredded

2 tablespoons horseradish

1/2 cup shredded horseradish jack (I use Taste of Inspirations brand available at Food Lion) tossed with 1/4 teaspoon of the thyme and paprika, then set aside.

Peel and cut up potatoes to similar size. Place in a large pot. Cover with cold water by about 2 inches. Add 3 tablespoons salt, bay leaf, 4 sprigs fresh rosemary. In an infuser or cheesecloth, place 1 teaspoon dry thyme and 12-15 peppercorns. Add to water. Boil until knife easily pierces potatoes. Drain, removing any herbs from spuds.

Put potatoes back into pot, along with salt and pepper to taste, and cold butter cut into pieces.

Mash with potato masher until mostly smooth, with a slight chunkiness.

Stir in provolone, horseradish, and about 1/2 cup buttermilk.

Check for seasoning. Stir in only enough buttermilk as needed, you want it stiffer than normal (like biscuit dough). It loosens while baking, and you don’t want it runny when serving. Spoon into greased casserole dish.

Bake covered for 20 minutes at 350.

Uncover, sprinkle on horseradish cheddar, and bake for 30 more minutes. Then put under broiler, and watch until the cheese is browned and crusty. Remove from oven, and let rest for 10 minutes.

Serves 6-8.

So there you have my pathetic tale of woe (and a new way to enjoy spuds).

Your children have the ability to turn you inside out forever. For those living in an empty nest, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

And for parents who are lucky enough to have kids still living at home — just you wait. It’ll come sooner than you think.

Thanks for your time.


Originally published in the Herald-Sun 5-7-2012

Tonight Petey and I are having chicken-fried steak for dinner. It’s one of The Kid’s favorite foods. When our scholar came home last Spring, being a highly trained culinary student, the decision was made to make it for the family–solo. No advice was asked for, and the finished dish almost made my stoic child cry. It was all wrong.
Flour had been replaced with corn starch (for crunch, I was told). And there was not enough fat in the pan to cook them. The soggy coating didn’t hold up. It fell off in big slabs. The Kid was heartbroken.
“What happened? I was trying to improve it, and it’s awful!”
What happened is the fiddling with the procedure. I did the same thing forever. My thought, when attempting to “improve” it was, “I know better.” I didn’t.
My mom has, for as long as I can remember, made awesome CFS. The meat is covered with a light, crispy coating. Inside it’s tender and juicy. And the gravy, good grief, the gravy.
It’s thick and white, flecked with pepper and bits and pieces of the stuff left in the pan after frying the steaks. Growing up, I was constantly trying to come up with compelling reasons why I couldn’t help clean up after dinner. On Chicken fried steak night, I volunteered to tidy up all by myself.
Not because I was so grateful Mom had made CFS. But because I would take the opportunity to snack on the leftover gravy (straight from a spoon). I know, gross. But this is amazing gravy.
So, when cooking it on my own, I decided to use techniques that I had started using in other dishes. I would use sherry to flavor the gravy, and add beef stock, to deepen the flavors.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Every time I made it, it was awful. Each time, I would tweak my procedure to try and fix it. I still couldn’t make a decent CFS. It was always wrong and disappointing.
One day I had an epiphany. My mom’s was awesome. At least two family members asked for it for their birthday meals. So, what the heck was I doing, trying to improve on perfection?
I started watching my mom when she made it. There was nothing fancy about the way she made it, no herbs, or fancy techniques, or liquor, or sauce reductions.
I decided to make it in this simple, straightforward way. That was the day I cracked the code. What’s the code? There is no code.
I finally had made delicious chicken fried steak.
It’s a country dish, made with inexpensive ingredients, that folks make all the time. When I got over myself, and understood that the recipe doesn’t need my adjustments, it worked.
I finally asked my mother, a Jersey girl, how she learned to make such authentic, yummy chicken fried steak.
She told me when she was first married, and living in North Carolina, money was tight, and she was having trouble putting a hearty meal on the table each night.
Mizz Chapel, her next-door neighbor, and a born and bred Southern girl, came to her rescue with a couple of simple, cheap, country recipes. One of them was for CFS. And because mom is not an improviser in the kitchen, she always made it the same way. Just the way Mizz Chapel showed her. The right way.
If you want to go nuts in the kitchen, and invent new recipes, and improve old ones, go right ahead. But if you want true, authentic chicken fried steak, don’t mess around with it. The reason why it’s been made the same way for years and years, is because this is the way that works.

Mizz Chapel’s Authentic Chicken-Fried Steak and Gravy
1 1/2 pounds beef cube steak
3 cups flour
2 eggs
2 3/4 cup whole milk
vegetable oil
salt and pepper

Double dredge the steak: in one shallow dish, put seasoned flour. In another, whisk eggs and 3/4 cup milk. First dip steak in flour, then egg wash, and then back in the flour.
Heat enough oil in a frying pan to come half to three quarters up the steak. Fry steaks until browned and flip and cook the other side. The oil will be absorbed by the breading, so you will have to keep adding a little oil to the pan. DO NOT cook in a dry pan, your meat won’t get crispy if you do. Place cooked steak in a single layer on a drying rack in a 200 degree oven. This will keep them warm and crispy until you’re ready to eat.
Gravy: Use the same pan, unwashed. Pour off the fat, leaving two or three tablespoons. Sprinkle into it a few tablespoons of the flour from the dredge. Stir together until the flour loses the uncooked flavor and aroma. Into the bubbling roux, pour two cups of whole milk. When it boils, the gravy is ready. If it’s a little thick, add a little milk until you’re satisfied. If it’s a little thin, carefully sprinkle in flour and whisk it into the gravy (if you aren’t careful, you will get lumps of uncooked flour, so be gentle).
Taste for salt and pepper, and serve on steak with mashed potatoes or buttered noodles. A fresh, simply cooked, country veg, like carrots or squash, is a nice side.

Thanks for your time.