Week 8: Shepherd’s Pie the real way. Or cooking from the gut.

A tough cut of beef braised to perfection.

Shepherd’s Pie is a wonderful dish that we have been eating for hundreds of years but it has evolved a strange dichotomy. A simple dish but we try to make it fancy, then we put in lousy meat. Many cooks over-think the veggies and sauce creating something with fantastic potential but then fill it with bland ground beef. Worse yet, low fat ground beef. If you are going to use ground beef in a dish like a Shepherd’s Pie, use an 80% lean ground beef not a 94%. The flavor is in the fat and there are enough vegetables in the pie to absorb the fat. There is no need to short-cut simple fare.

Shepherd’s Pie is simply meat and vegetables. Let’s not short-change the meat. Did Shepherds of old pop down to the market for hamburger? No. They just used a piece of beef or mutton they had available. After it was roasted along with some veggies they minced them together in a pot, topped with smashed potatoes and set it on the coals to bake, spiced with local herbs. Simple.

First get an inexpensive roast. Slice in half across the grain of the meat. You should have pieces of roast about two to two and a half inches thick. Place in a Braiser, Dutch Oven or Roasting Pan on the stove and sear both sides in a little oil or fat. Then add a little water and roast at 400f to 450f for about two hours. If you roast it uncovered you will need to check the water more often, just add as needed. And turn the roast if you think it is getting overdone or dried out on top. This is a good time to add herbs but hold off on the salt for now.

Be active in your cooking. Don’t just follow some recipe verbatim. Your are cooking so be a cook! Get involved. Be active. Experiment. People argue you must roast or braise covered, others say uncovered. Be involved in your cooking. Both work if done right but they are different. Play with it. Cook from your gut, not as written.

When the meat looks done with a deep caramelized surface, pull the meat from the pan and let it rest. Next deglaze the pan with water, wine or something else. A shepherd would have used what he had. Leave the sauce in the pan.

After the meat has cooled a little, tear it apart with your hands. Pull out the excess fat and any tough fibers. Just get your hands in there and free the meat from the rest. Your bare hands are the greatest Food Processor you have but sometime ago the western world decided that touching food was dirty or primitive. It’s not.

Sadly in the bigoted household I was raised in, touching food as it was being prepared was considered a filthy practice that “Those” people did (and was a sure way to get a wooden spoon across the knuckles). Meaning anyone who was not of English descent or did not speak English. Many people of my parents generation were that way, just not to the extent my mother was. The idea that a cook should never touch the food they are preparing has been passed onto some of their descendants. Cleanliness is very important but let’s get real. Just wash your hands, put the meat on a clean cutting board and get at it.

Throw some rough diced vegetables including halved potatoes on top in the pan with the juice and roast until they are cooked. What vegetables you ask? Some. What do you have? Carrots, onion, and peas are a good start with some tomato at the end but anything that goes with beef will work. remember to check the water in the bottom of the pan.

When the veggies are roasted pull out the potatoes and put the shredded meat back in. Mix well and taste. This is the time add salt if needed. The beef may have been salty enough after the juices condensed. Just adjust the taste and water as needed. Next smash the potatoes. Not mash. We are not going for light, perfectly fluffy mashed or whipped potatoes. Just finally smash them. This is a good time to add a little salt, pepper and butter to the potatoes if desired.

Flatten the meat and veggies in the pan, cover with the smashed potatoes, garnish with a little paprika or other colorful aromatic spice if desired and return to the oven until the mix is bubbly and the potatoes are starting to form a brown crust. Simple.

Shepherd’s pie is simple fare from the working classes of Europe. There are thousands of variations in the world. Don’t over-think it, but there is no need to short-change it either. Add your heritage and experiences to the flavor profile. Why not Mexican or Moroccan. This goes for many other dishes as well. Get past the recipes and cook from the gut. Instinct and basic techniques go a long way. How do you think got the recipes we have today anyway? Someone tried it again and again until they liked it, wrote it down, called themself an expert and published it. Thats all.

And did you notice we only used one pan?

If you haven’t Braised meat, try it. It is simply roasting meat in a little water. It is a great way to tenderize a tough (inexpensive) cut of meat and bring out wonderful flavors. Read up on the variations of the technique like covered or not and temperatures. Add it to your repertoire and enjoy.

This weeks menu included the Shepherd’s Pie with enough for leftovers, hot dogs, rustic (skin on) potato soup, a night of just cheese and crackers, sandwiches and after a long day on the road my son and I even succumbed to frozen pizzas, Not the gourmet ones but the little square Tony’s pizzas. Eating in has really become the norm again. The most noticeable impact has been on our budget.

Thanks and see you next week. John

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