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.

Elementary School Romance

Special Note: Starting next week, The Henderson (NC) Daily Dispatch will be running a weekly original column by me as well.  I will also post it on the blog. d.

I’ve written before about how Petey is the perfect spouse for me.

But on the fancy/romance scale, he lands well above Blackbeard, but somewhere below Pepe Le Pew.  Hi heart’s in the right place, but he eschews elaborate trappings—he is absolutely and completely unpretentious.

More romantical than him…

But less than him.

So I started thinking about what would be a welcome Valentine’s dinner for him.

He wouldn’t want anything with complicated sauces, or something that has to be put together with tweezers.  I also don’t think he’d be impressed by a dish that comes to the table on fire.

Plus, me and open flames?  Probably not the best idea.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

What I came up with was bacon-wrapped tenderloin, boxed scalloped potatoes (hear me out before you make up your mind about them), peas and carrots, and an apple crisp.

The steak comes with some uncomfortable questions.

How many of you have made a tenderloin, and desired to cloak it in bacon?  And how many of you ended up with the meat marred by flabby, greasy uncooked bacon in the finished dish?  And why can restaurants serve up perfect, gorgeous crispy bacon around the food?

The answer is par-cooking.  It works like a charm.  I checked in with one of my favorite restaurant chefs, James Clark at the Carolina Inn, and he said that’s what pros do as well.

bacon filet

I’d marry it.

He bakes the bacon until it’s half-cooked, and I microwave, but the result is the same.  Partially cooking it before wrapping will ensure a brown, crispy, and delicious belt for the finished steak.  Then wrap, and cook the meat to your liking.

About the spuds: I told you that my spouse doesn’t go in for fancy, and the potato dish for his special dinner is the perfect illustration of this.

At the supermarket, in the aisle with the Hamburger Helper and their ilk, are potato kits.  Amongst them are scalloped potatoes.  The store brand is just as good as the name brands.  You shouldn’t pay more than a dollar.  In fact, the last box I bought was 85 cents.

They’re easy to put together, and cook at an appropriate temp for the steak, if that’s how you choose to finish it.  I’m almost ashamed to tell you, but I enjoy them as well (though they wouldn’t be on my special dinner menu).

For a veg, Petey enjoys the ubiquitous elementary school side dish, peas and carrots.  But not the colorless, flavorless, canned version from childhood.  Mine are fresh, colorful, tasty—and easy.

Pretty and tasty

Peas and carrots

1 ½ cups frozen peas

3 carrots, washed, peeled, and cut into ¼ pieces

½ cup chicken stock or water

3 tablespoons butter

½ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper

Put everything except peas into skillet, cover, and cook on medium until the carrots are crisp/tender.  Uncover and cook until the liquid’s mostly gone.  Add peas and cook until hot and liquid’s thickened into a buttery sauce.

Taste for seasoning and serve.  Serves 2-3.

For dessert I came up with chocolate pudding.  Then I realized that chocolate pudding is a childhood favorite of mine.  Petey’s always loved apples and cinnamon.

The way to Petey’s heart.

Petey’s caramel apple crisp

For filling:

4 apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/8 inch slices

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch salt

Juice of ½ lemon

Crumb topping:

1 cup rolled oats

½ cup flour

1/3 cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons butter

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla

For plating:

Vanilla ice cream

½ jar favorite caramel sauce

Preheat oven to 350.  Grease 8×8 baking dish and layer apple into it.  In a separate bowl, whisk together rest of filling ingredients and pour over apples.

In another bowl, mix all topping ingredients except butter.  Put butter into bowl, and with fingers, mash butter into mixture until it’s in lumps.

Sprinkle over apples, and bake 30 minutes.  Let sit 15 minutes, then slice and plate.

Heat caramel sauce until bubbling.  Put scoop of vanilla ice cream on crisp, then sauce top.  Serves 6-8.

When everything is said and done, I’m pretty lucky.  My husband may not recite sonnets below my balcony, but I’m no Juliet.

Yeah, this ain’t us.

And besides, we don’t have a balcony.

Thanks for your time.