When talking/writing about food, I often talk about my comfort foods, family traditions, and recipes that are reliable to me and when creating them, evoke a feeling of happiness and security. For Labor Day, I went another route -- the route of experimentation and the attempt to successfully compose a dish that is largely a mystery to me: shepherd's pie.
Shepherd's pie is actually a strange kind of comfort food for me -- it calls back to very strong memories of a time in my life that, when I think back upon it, still seems quite surreal. Between the ages of 15 and 16, I lived in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, France with my dad. My dad had been relocated there for work and his company had offered to pay for my education at a premiere American/International school. We jumped at the opportunity. Fifteen was a fascinating time for me; growing up, I was a weird kid (who's to say that I'm not anymore?) and had a hard time socializing. Moving to a new city to a new school where the kids were used to students coming and going, I had a second chance to learn and utilize social skills. Up until then, all the people I knew were from the same town and anybody who did move into our insignificant zip code were from places similar. In Paris, I met kids who came from all corners of the world, united by one quality -- we were all nomads traversing the awkward land of being an expat AND a teenager. To this day, my time in France signifies a time in my life when I learned how to open up to others and actually enjoy what happened as a result.
I had an Irish-American friend who had a lovely apartment, family, and a dog named Lucy. Going to her house always provided what I, for that year, had exchanged for my newfound surreal independence. At my modernly furnished apartment near the Roland Garros stadium, my dad and I ate our meals at a granite bar and for days at a time, he would be out of town for work. I would have the freedom to wander Paris as if it was not the City of Lights, but just some regular old humdrum city. I had my first cellphone, my first laptop, and my first allowance. I was allowed full access to the subway and free range of the city. My mother was an ocean away and I only felt her warmth over the phone. My sister was in college and my friends on the other side of my IBM Thinkpad. It was a strange, but exciting, life so when I was over my friend's house, after riding a rickety elevator to her apartment, I was thrown back into the atmosphere of family and siblings and furniture that belonged to the family.
One day her mother offered us shepherd's pie. I had never heard of such thing and expected something sweet. Instead I was amazed at the concoction I was presented. Despite always loving Chinese and other Asian cuisines by default, this so called pie brought together everything I loved about non-Asian food. Ground beef, peas, corn, buttery mashed potatoes. I was impressed.
Since that day I have probably only had shepherd's pie once or twice but it's never stuck to me the way that shepherd's pie in France did. It reminds me of so much goodness -- the home of my friend, the experience of that year, the exploration into new relationships, foods, tastes, and cultures. I think because that experience was so unique to itself, I never attempted to make shepherd's pie although I have certainly thought about it.
However, when my husband (b/c I have one now) suggested it for a dinner, I decided I would go for it. Fundamentally shepherd's pie is basic and easy; there can't be too much of a challenge to it. Some of the recipes I researched called for canned vegetables and canned mushroom soup while others called for elk or crushed fennel. I read through a bunch of recipes before heading out the grocery store. The results of my grocery/ingredient list were:
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 large and 1 small white onion
- 2 large carrots
- frozen peas
- frozen corn
- frozen french cut green beans
- 4 cloves garlic
- tomato paste
- 6 russet potatoes
- dried oregano
- regulars: salt, pepper, olive oil
- Worcestershire sauce
- soy sauce
This was something that definitely requires prep work. Can't cut and cook at the same time. It takes a while, but it ultimately makes the experience more cohesive.
1. Chop onions and carrots.
2. Mince garlic.
3. Peel potatoes. Cube.
4. Mince rosemary and parsley.
5. Microwave frozen peas, carrots, and green beans. Drain.
1. Heat up olive oil in a large and deep sauté pan. Add onions, garlic, and carrots (in succession with a little bit of time between each addition). Salt and pepper.
2. Add ground beef and brown (10 minutes).
3. Meanwhile, boil potatoes in salted water until soft (10-20 minutes, depending).
4. When ground beef is browned, drain (but retain) the juice.
5. Return beef to heat, add tomato paste and spices. Add Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, dried oregano, salt, and pepper to taste. Simmer.
6. When the potatoes are soft, drain water (a little left over is okay). Add about 3 tablespoons butter (or more, depending on preference and quantity of potatoes), salt, and pepper to potatoes and mash. After mashed, add milk and whip. I learned from my dad to always soften and thin your potatoes with milk. No water!
7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
8. The ground beef should have little juice -- if there is any, drain it. Spread the ground beef as the first layer.
9. Add the second layer: the mix of peas, corn, and green beans.
10. Using a spatula, dollop the mashed potatoes as the third layer. Be sure to dollop and then smooth out the potatoes, otherwise, the veggies will mix into the mashed potatoes and ruin the layered effect. Use a fork to make a nice cross hatch design. (I'm not sure what purpose this serves other than aesthetic, but it's definitely worth it!)
11. Pop into the oven for 30-35 minutes.
12. Meanwhile, return the juice from the ground beef to heat. Add a little more Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Mix some cornstarch with water and whisk into the juice (for gravy, duh). Whisk.
The result was quite beautiful and delicious. I was very happy with the results and found a great satisfaction in taking a memory and expanding on it.