We’ve had a disrupted week. Matt’s been doing 14-hour days again, building massive screens for a video art projection down in Birmingham’s Southside area. What this means in effect is that, for him, breakfast is coffee, lunch is something mayonnaise-y from Tesco and dinner is pizza from Dominoes. I have nobody to cook for and therefore live off pasta.
Meanwhile an old friend has received bad family-health-related news, the kind that made me catch my breath, count my blessings and make a quiet vow to be A Good Friend when called upon.
We need to find some comfort. I need to cook.
For years I’ve followed a brilliant blog Use Real Butter, created by Jen Yu, a photographer who lives near Boulder, Colorado, deep in the Rocky Mountains. This woman goes on trail runs before breakfast, coming across moose as a matter of course. I love it. Her last post saw her rustle up a Cottage Pie: just the business.
But here’s the thing: the Americans apparently don’t DO Cottage Pie, it’s just not part of their repertoire. Because of that, all the rules are there for the breaking. She uses whole steak, not mince! She adds porcini! Best of all, there is no Worcestershire Sauce! (I may be from the Shire but I’ve never understood the appeal of our county’s namesake condiment. Fermented anchovy? Ugh). So here’s my adaptation of Jen Yu’s Cottage Pie. Couldn’t bring myself to use whole steak, so we’re sticking with mince.
Adapted from www.userealbutter.com. You will need:
1kg mince beef, full fat (we don’t do low fat in this house)
2 onions, 3 carrots, 2 sticks of celery & a handful of chestnut mushrooms
Small handful dried porcini mushrooms
Sprig of thyme
2 stock cubes, 1 tablespoon tomato puree (concentrate), 1 tsp brown sugar & 1 tablespoon plain flour
About 250ml red wine
2tsp soy sauce (I know this sounds weird but it adds depth of savouriness. You could use Worcestershire Sauce instead)
Salt and pepper
For the topping:
About 1kg potatoes, I used King Edward
Milk, butter, salt & pepper to taste
First up, get your beef sorted. Brown the mince off in batches in a heavy frying pan – it needs to be properly browned, with crispy bits, not just greyed. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a casserole, leaving the fat in the frying pan. This is all good stuff and we’re going to use it for softening the veg. It takes ages to brown meat properly and you’ll probably get splattered and burned in the process (I always do).
Meanwhile dice all the veg into equally sized chunks. Soak the porcinis in boiling water for a few minutes, then fish them out and dice (keep the broth from the porcinis). Get ready your flour, stock cube, tomato paste, wine, thyme and hot water. Ta da!
In the same frying pan that you’ve now got all your lovely molten beef fat in, soften the veg on a gentle heat for about 10 minutes. It will pick up all the sticky stuff leftover from browning the mince: excellent. Then add in the diced porcini, the tomato puree and stock cubes and cook out for a few minutes – the stock cubes will melt into the veggies. Add in the thyme – you can strip it off the stem or leave it whole. I left mine whole to make it easier to find later.
Next, add in the flour and let it cook out for a couple of minutes. Add in the red wine and porcini broth and stir to bring it all together – it will be really thick. Now add this mixture to the waiting mince and put the casserole onto the heat.
Once hot, add in enough boiling water to cover the meat, and season with salt and pepper to taste. I added a bit of brown sugar to even out the flavour. Cover and cook on a low heat for about two hours until thick and rich. You can discard the thyme stalks at this point.
Next up, make your mash. I don’t think you need me to tell you how to make mash. I use a lot of butter and a lot of milk.
Transfer the beef to your pie dish and smooth the top. Pipe or spoon your potatoes on top, using a fork to make a nice pattern if spooning.
This mixture feeds about 8 so you could make two pies and freeze one for another day. Bake at 180 celsius for about 40 minutes until nicely browned on top.
Back in the old days (the 1980s), both our mothers made this kind of thing using leftover beef and Bisto gravy mix. The modern version really isn’t a million miles away and still hits the spot: Matt had thirds, so I think that’s job done.