Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Culinary History: Cottage Pie

You might know this dish better by it’s other name Shepherd’s pie, but basically what we’re talking about here is a dish made with ground beef or lamb with some cooked vegetables in a thick gravy topped with browned mashed potatoes.  I grew up with it and it was always one of my favorites.  So where does it come from? Why does it have two different names? Who else makes it? And what can we do with it that I’ve never seen before?

Cottage pie is a British dish dating back to the late 1700’s.  It is a poor-man’s dish, named after the modest dwelling of the rural working class.  The potato was becoming a staple for the lower class and the cottage pie was a way to stretch out leftover meat.  It originally had mashed potato “crust” on not just the top, but the bottom as well.  By the late 1800’s the name shepherd’s pie was used synomously, regardless of ingredients, but now it is generally accepted that shepherd’s pie uses lamb and cottage pie does not.  There are a number of specific variations in the UK including St. Stephen’s Day pie, Cumberland pie, and Fish pie.  

Even though nearly all Cottage or Shepherd’s pies have a mashed potato crust, this is too constricting.  For our purposes a cottage pie will include a mixture of meat and vegetables in a thick gravy and be topped with a smooth starchy food.  Since cottage pie is meant to be made from leftovers, it is silly to suggest there is a definitive version of it.  But the version I enjoy the best is this:

Beef and Mushroom Cottage Pie
- 2 ½ lbs. russet potatoes peeled and cut into 1” pieces
- ½ stick butter, melted
- ½ cup milk
- 1 egg yolk
- 8 scallions, just the green parts, sliced thin
- 1 onion, diced
- 8 oz. mushrooms, chopped
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp. port
- 2 Tbsp. flour
- 1 ¼ cups beef broth
- 1 Tbsp. worcestershire sauce
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 ½ lbs. of 93/7 ground beef
- 1 Tbsp. cornstarch

1. Boil potatoes until cooked through.  Drain thoroughly and then mix with melted butter, milk, yolk, scallion, and salt and pepper to taste.
2. Saute onion, mushrooms, and salt and pepper to taste in a 12” skillet over medium high heat until starting to brown.  Add tomato paste and garlic and cook until fragrant.  Add port and cook until evaporated.  Add flour and cook for 1 minute.  Add broth, worcestershire, thyme, bay leaf, and carrots and bring to a simmer.  Reduce heat to medium-low and add the beef in small chunks.  Cover and cook for 6 minutes.  Break up the meat chunks.  Cover and cook for another 6 minutes or until the meat is cooked through.  
3. Stir cornstarch and 2 tsp. of water together.  Stir cornstarch mixture into meat sauce and cook for 1 minute.  Remove thyme and bay leaves and season with salt and pepper.  Add the mashed potatoes to a pastry bag or ziploc bag with the corner cut off.  Pipe the potatoes over the meat mixture.  Run a fork through the potatoes to make ridges.  Place skillet on a baking sheet and broil until potatoes are golden brown.  Cool 10 minutes before serving.

It’s like the pot roast’s easier to chew cousin.  All of the ingredients work great together and working through the slightly crispy mashed potato top down through the filling offers a textural treat.

Variations on cottage pie can also be found all over Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central and South America, and even Canada. I was fascinated by the Chilean variant because it showed me that potatoes do not need to be the topping.  That, and the fact that in includes a fascinating combination of ingredients that makes for a unique sweet and savory dish.

Chilean Pastel de Choclo
- 8 ears of fresh corn, husks and silk removed
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- ¼ cup minced basil
- 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 4 medium onions, minced
- 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
- ½ tsp. paprika
- 1 lb ground beef
- 4 hard boiled eggs, minced
- ¾ cup kalamata olives, pureed
- ½ cup raisins, pureed with a little oil

1. Cut the kernels off 4 of the cobs.  Use a knife and scrape the cobs to get all the remaining pulp out of them.  Using a box grater, grate the remaining four ears of corn.  Add the corn, pulp, cream, and salt and pepper to taste to a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Cook until the mixture is thickened, about 15 minutes, then add the basil.
2. Salt the chicken thighs in a little oil and then saute them over medium high heat in a large skillet until golden brown on one side.  Then add ½ cup water, cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove the chicken and cut into bite sized pieces.  
3. Add a little more oil to the empty skillet and then add the onions, cumin, paprika, and salt to taste over medium heat until the onions are softened, about 10 minutes.  Add the beef and cook until cooked through.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Spread the beef in a 9x13 dish.  Add the eggs, olive and raisin puree and then the chicken.  Top with the corn mixture and bake at 450 degrees until golden brown, about 30 minutes.  Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Much like the previously featured Puerto Rican lasagna, this dish is a great combination of salty and sweet.  Also, the inclusion of both chicken and beef in the same dish is an interesting combination not often seen.  

So what other meats and what other starches could I use to make a cottage pie? My thoughts quickly turned to polenta, but I realized this dish would be too similar to the polenta arepas I made a few weeks ago.  So instead, I thought of shrimp and grits and also jambalaya and decided to make a shepherd’s pie that combined the two.

Gulf Coast Cottage Pie
1 medium onion, chopped coarse
2 ribs of celery, chopped coarse
1 red bell pepper, chopped coarse
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 can of diced tomatoes, drained
1 bottle of clam juice
2 bay leaves
1 ½ lbs of raw shrimp, peeled
salt and pepper to taste
thyme to taste
2 cups of quick cooking grits
2 oz. shredded light cheddar cheese

1. Chop the onion, celery, and bell pepper in a food processor until uniformly finely chopped. Saute the vegetables and garlic over medium heat in a little oil until softened.  Add the diced tomatoes, bay leaves, and clam juice and bring to a simmer.  Add the shrimp, cover and cook until shrimp is cooked through, about 2-3 minutes depending on size.  Mix some cornstarch with some water in a small bowl and add a little bit at a time, stirring until the mixture has a gravy-like consistency.  
2. Cook the grits according to the directions on the package, substituting milk for water, until the consistency of mashed potatoes.  Add the cheese and season with butter, salt, and pepper to taste.  Top the shrimp mixture with the grits, smooth out the top, and serve.

Just as I was hoping, this dish combined what I loved about shrimp and grits and jambalaya and made them work well together.  

My final experiment took me to Ghana where I was inspired by Nketia Fla, an amazing chicken and peanut stew, and Umo Tuo, a mashed rice dish.

Ghanaian Cottage Pie
- 8 boneless skinless chicken thighs
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
- 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
- 1 cup chicken stock, plus a little extra
- pinch cayenne
- 1 cup peanut butter
- cornstarch
- 1 ½ cups rice
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups half-and-half

1. Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a stockpot.  Add the rice and salt to taste, cover, reduce heat to low, and cook until the water is absorbed.  Add the milk and half-and-half, increase the medium high and bring to a simmer.  Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook uncovered stirring occasionally until the mixture has the consistency of mashed potatoes.
2. While the rice cooks, saute the chicken thighs in a little oil over medium high heat in a deep sided saute pan until golden brown on both sides and then set aside.  In the same pan, saute the onion until softened, add the ginger and cook until fragrant.  Add the tomatoes, stock, cayenne, and par-cooked chicken thighs, cover and simmer over low heat until cooked through, about 30 minutes.
3. Whisk the peanut butter with a little stock until it is smooth.  Whisk some cornstarch with a little bit of stock as well.  Remove the chicken thighs and after they have cooled, shred them and add them back to the pot. Add the peanut butter to the chicken,onion,tomato mixture and stir until well-combined.  Add a little of the cornstarch mixture and simmer until the liquid is thickened how you like it.  Top with the savory rice pudding and serve. This dish is best eaten the day it is made.

So, what do you think? Are you inspired to make a similar dish? Let me know!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Culinary History: Lasagne

I know everyone has their own favorite comfort foods, but lasagne is one of those for me.  There is just something about the gooey cheese, savory meat sauce, and wet noodles with crispy edges that is sublime when done well.  Though there are many existing variations on lasagne that usually involve changing the type of meat or sauce, they are all basically the same and all feel Italian or Italian-American.  So what really defines lasagne? Were there any other cultures that did lasagne? And how far could we stray from the original and still feel like we have a lasagne at it’s gooey core?

I mentioned in a previous post that gnocchi is probably a progenitor of pasta.  Well, Lasagna noodles are probably the first type of rolled pasta as it does not require any cutting.  The origin of the name is unclear.  What is generally agreed upon is that in originates from the Greeks, though the name might come from the name of the cooking dish used or the pasta itself.  It is unclear what originally would have been in it, but the concept of it being a layers of filling separated by pasta date back to at least 1300’s, though almost certainly much earlier.  In its original form, it would not have included tomatoes as they were not used in European cooking until the 1600’s.  

The most important characteristic is it’s distinctive layering.  If you took all the same ingredients, used penne, and tossed it all together it would taste the same, but it just wouldn’t be lasagne.  This stratification is best achieved by a using a long and thin ingredient, usually lasagna noodles, but as you will see, there are alternatives.  It should have at least three ingredients before repeating and one of those ingredients should be cheese.  Beyond that, it’s pretty up in the air.  Everyone has a favorite classic lasagne recipe and this one is mine:

Classic Lasagne with Italian Sausage
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 lb of Italian sausage
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 28 oz. tomato puree
- 28 oz. diced tomatoes, drained
- 30 oz. ricotta cheese
- 5 oz. grated parmesan cheese
- ½ minced basil
- 2 eggs
- 16 cooked lasagna noodles
- 1 lb. mozzarella cheese, shredded
- salt and pepper to taste

1. Saute the onion in olive oil over medium heat until softened.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.  Increase the heat to medium high, add the sausage, and cook until browned.  Add cream and simmer until the liquid is evaporated.  Add the pureed and diced tomatoes and simmer over medium low heat for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
2. Mix ricotta, parmesan, basil, eggs, and salt and pepper to taste until thoroughly combined.
3. Put a little bit of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a 9x13 pan.  Layer noodles, ricotta mixture, meat sauce, and mozzarella cheese 4 times, making sure to leave plenty of mozzarella for the top layer.  Cover in aluminum foil.
4. Bake 15 minutes at 375 degrees.  Remove aluminum foil and bake another 25 minutes or until cheese is spotty brown and sauce is bubbling.  Cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

It doesn’t really matter if you get the exact same amount of ingredients in each layer.  Don’t stress over it, no one will notice when they eat it. If you prefer, you can substitute any combination of ground beef, ground pork, ground veal, or ground sausage.

What is interesting about lasagne is that though there are other similar dishes in other cultures like Puerto Rico, and the Balkans, it does not share the name and overall does not seem to have spread as much as one would expect for such an ancient dish.  The Puerto Rican variation, which I adapted from this recipe, shares almost all the same ingredients except for a for the fact that it uses sauteed sweet plantains instead of lasagne noodles.  This makes for a dish that is both familiar and completely unique.

Puerto Rican Pastelon
- 1 onion, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 green bell pepper, minced
- ½ cup chopped cilantro
- 2 tsp. adobo seasoning
- 2 tsp. oregano
- 2 Tbsp. white vinegar
- 1 envelope sazon
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 green stuffed olives, pureed in a food processor
- ½ cup raisins, pureed in a food processor with a little oil
- ¼ cup tomato sauce
- 5 ripe plantains (mostly black), each peeled and cut into 4 long thin strips
- 3 eggs
- 2 Tbsp. milk
- 1 lb shredded monterey jack cheese

1. Heat a little oil a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add the onion, garlic, bell pepper, cilantro, adobo, oregano, vinegar, and sazon and cook until softened.  Add the ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Add the bay leaves, olive and raisin puree, and tomato sauce and gently simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Heat a little oil a large skillet over medium high heat.  Fry plantain strips for 2-3 minutes per side until golden brown.
3. Grease a 9 x 9 pan and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Layer plantains, beef, cheese three times.  Whisk the eggs and milk together and pour over the lasagne.  Bake for 20 minutes.

This dish is one of the best examples of a sweet and salty entree I’ve encountered.  The starchy plantains are a surprisingly good substitute for pasta, though a bit less chewy.  You should be able to find both adobo seasoning and sazon in the international aisle of most grocery stores, and it’s worth it because they provide most of the authentic seasonings.  

So I thought I’d take a moment to say that my wife is pregnant and has been very sensitive to food lately.  She has been wanting mild food and particularly craves breakfast food.  But, since the blog must go on, I decided to figure out how we could both get what we want.  My recipes are sometimes a retooling of a recipe I’ve gotten out of a cookbook or they are completely original ideas.  This idea, though is a slightly modified version of this recipe from chef Eric Greenspan, and the credit goes to him.  This dish is mind-blowingly good and should be made and eaten as soon as possible.  It is, in my mind among the top three recipes I’ve put on the blog so far.

Pancake Lasagna
- 2 cups buttermilk
- ⅓ cup milk
- ½ cup melted butter
- 2 ¼  cups flour
- 3 Tbsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ¼ cup flour
- 4 ⅓ cups heavy cream
- 2 cups maple syrup
- 20 eggs, scrambled and cooked
- 1 lb bacon, cooked until crisp, bacon fat reserved
- 1 lb bulk sage breakfast sausage, cooked
- 1 lb cheddar cheese, shredded

1. Mix the buttermilk, milk, sugar, and ¼ cup butter in a bowl.  In a larger bowl, whisk the 2 cups flour, baking powder, and baking soda.  Gently mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Cook the pancakes as large as you are comfortable making them over medium heat until golden brown on each side.
2. Mix ¼ cup butter, ¼ cup of flour, and reserved bacon fat over medium heat and cook for 1 minute.  Whisk in 4 cups of heavy cream and maple syrup and cook over low heat until thickened, about 30 minutes.  
3. Puree the cooked scrambled eggs and ⅓ cup of heavy cream in a food processor. Cut the pancakes into rectangular strips, saving the scraps to fill in the gaps.
4. Layer the lasagna like this: Butter a 9 x 13 casserole dish, ½ the pancake strips and any needed scraps, ¼ of the bechamel, all the sausage, ½ of the eggs, ¼ of the bechamel, ½ of the cheese, ½ the pancake strips and any needed scraps, ¼ of the bechamel, all the bacon, ¼ of the bechamel, ½ of the eggs, ½ of the cheese.  Cook at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or until cheese is well melted.  

This dish is best eaten the day it is made.

For my last dish I decided to stay in Europe, and play off of my one of my favorite non-Italian pasta dishes, pierogi.  It’s like a ravioli filled with potatoes, cheese, caramelized onions, or sometimes mushrooms or meat, and then topped with sour cream.  It seemed like a clear winner for a lasagna, and you know what, it absolutely was.  Along with the preceding week’s pancake lasagna, this dish was amazing.

Pierogi Lasagna
- 3 lbs sweet onions, sliced thin
- 1 stick butter
- 3.5 lbs russet potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks, and boiled until cooked through
- 1 ½ cups sour cream
- milk
- 1 lb. white mushrooms, sliced
- 10 cloves of garlic, minced
- fresh or dried thyme leaves
- 12 lasagna noodles, cooked al dente, drained, and rinsed
- 15 oz. ricotta cheese
- 1 lb cheddar cheese, shredded.

1. Saute the onions in ½ stick of butter over medium heat until deep golden brown, about 30 minutes. Salt to taste
2. Mash the cooked potatoes, sour cream, ½ stick butter, salt to taste, and enough milk to make them into a loose mashed potato.
3. Saute the mushrooms in a little oil, over medium heat until all the liquid has evaporated and they turn golden brown.  Add the garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant.  Add salt to taste.
4. Grease a 9x13 casserole dish then do this sequence three times: ⅓ noodles, ⅓ mashed potatoes, ⅓ ricotta, ⅓ mushrooms, ⅓ cheddar (make sure there is plenty of cheddar for the top layer).
5. Bake at 350 degrees until the cheese is fully melted and the filling is bubbly.

What about you.  What's your favorite lasagne? Mushroom? Vegetable? Chicken?  Tell me some of your good ideas in the comments.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Culinary History: Pesto

It’s funny that I saved pesto until now, because back when I used to have my own catering business I had an occasional blog on my website and one of my earliest posts was called, “What the hell is pesto?” That post was the inspiration for this blog.  Unfortunately, when I shut down my site I didn’t keep any of my work and that post has been lost.  So even though I’ve written this before, this is fresh copy.  Anyway, we all know what pesto is: that green goodness that is amazing on pasta or bruschetta or a sandwich.  But did you know that original pesto has virtually nothing in common with the pesto that immediately comes to mind.  So what was it like originally? How has it evolved? And what new places can we take it?

What’s interesting is the name pesto has more to do with how it was originally made than what is in it.  It means, to pound and it share it’s origin with the tool that would have been used to create it, a mortar and pestle.  What is interesting is that before it was called pesto a similar latin dish, moretum, also gets its name from this tool. This progenitor of pesto was crushed hard cheese, garlic, and herbs.  Basil originates in India, and would have been brought and then cultivated in Mediterranean countries from the famous spice routes.  In both Genoa and Provence it evolved to include specifically basil and olive oil, but the Genovese use pine nuts, whereas the Provencal do not.  This combination of basil, garlic, parmesan, oil, and pine nuts, is what most people think of when they think of Pesto, but it should be called a Genovese pesto.   

I think pesto should be defined as a puree of ingredients that include oil, herbs, garlic, and cheese.  Exactly what herbs are used or what additional ingredients can be added is totally up to you.  But if you do want to make a classic Genovese pesto, you can’t go wrong with this recipe:

Genovese Pesto on Cheese Ravioli
- ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
- 3 cloves of garlic toasted until spotty brown
- 2 cups of packed basil leaves, bruised with a meat tenderizer or rolling pin
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
- salt to taste
- 1 ½ lbs frozen or fresh cheese ravioli, boiled until done.

1. Mince the nuts, garlic, and basil in a food processor.  Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl.  With the machine running slowly pour in the oil until the pesto is uniformly smooth.  Mix in the cheese and salt to taste by hand. Serve over ravioli.

My favorite thing about pesto is that it is loaded with flavor, but takes just minutes to make.  Toasting the garlic takes some of the aggressiveness out it, letting you use more, but without the raw flavor.  Toasting the pine nuts (and pretty much all nuts when cooking) gives them an even nuttier flavor.  Bruising the basil first helps it release its oils.

Because the name is vague, many variations on pesto has sprung up in Italy, especially Pesto Rosso from Sicily, which uses Tomatoes and almonds and Pesto alla Calabrese which uses grilled bell peppers.  However, outside of Italy and France, pesto has traveled to Germany, Argentina, Peru, and Singapore.  Even though it is also Italian, Sicilian Trapanese pesto is so delicious it is absolutely worth including.

Sicilian Trapanese Pesto on Spaghetti
- ¼ cup toasted slivered almonds
- 12 oz. grape tomatoes
- ½ cup basil leaves (bruised with a mallet or rolling pin)
- 2 cloves garlic, toasted
- 1 pepperoncini
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 oz. parmesan cheese, grated
- 1 lb spaghetti, cooked

1. Food Process the almonds, tomatoes, basil, garlic, and pepperoncini.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  With the machine running, slowly add the oil until thoroughly combined.  Stir in the parmesan cheese and and toss with the spaghetti.

This pesto is a little bit less assertive than a genovese pesto, but the inclusion of the fresh tomatoes and the pepperoncini gives it a great tanginess and a little heat.


Since there are so many kinds of pesto, I wanted to experiment with a variation that would be great on something other than pasta or bruschetta.  So I had an idea inspired by the great American Steakhouses and made a nice mushroom pesto.

Thick Strip Steaks with Mushroom Pesto
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves garlic
1 small shallot, sliced
½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms rehydrated in ½ cup boiling water for at least 5 minutes
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup packed parsley leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil plus a little extra
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese.
2 1 ½ - 1 ¾ inch thick strip steaks, cut in half widthwise, patted dry, and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

1. Put the steaks on a metal rack set over a baking sheet and cook at 275 degrees (20 minutes for rare, 25 minutes for medium rare, 30 minutes for medium).  Near the end of cook time put a heavy bottom skillet over high heat until very hot.
2. While the steaks cook, toss the white mushrooms, garlic, and shallot in a little oil oil and roast at 450 degrees, stirring occasionally and removing each ingredient as it gets golden brown
3. Puree the white mushrooms, garlic, shallot, porcini mushrooms and liquid, thyme, and parsley in a food processor.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  With the machine running add the olive oil until thoroughly combined.  Gently stir in the parmesan cheese.
4. Sear the steaks on each of it’s six sides until well-browned.  Let rest for 5 minutes.  Top with some of the pesto and serve.

This one is a no-brainer: Mushrooms, garlic, onions, thyme, and parsley on a perfectly cooked steak.  Don’t leave out or substitute the dried porcinis though, the pesto surprisingly lacks mushroom flavor without it. Regarding this method for cooking steaks, though it takes a bit longer, you end up with a steak that is how you like it all the way through not just in the middle.

For my final variation, I decided to stick with topping a piece of meat with a pesto, but finally decided to shift out of Italy and into Africa.  I took the recipe for chermoula, and added some sesame seeds to make a delightful pesto that went great on nice sauteed piece of fish.

Panko Breaded Whitefish Sandwiches with Sesame Chermoula Pesto
- 1 bunch of cilantro, stems cut off
- juice of ½ a lemon
- 3 cloves of garlic, toasted until golden brown
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. paprika
- ¼ cup sesame seeds
- ½ cup. extra virgin olive oil
- 2 lbs. whitefish fillets, cut into sandwich sized pieces
- flour
- 2 eggs
- panko
- sandwich rolls
- any desired condiments (lettuce, tomato, pickle, etc.)

1. Salt the fish fillets to taste.  Whisk eggs in a shallow pan. Dredge in fish in flour, then eggs, then panko.  Saute in hot oil over medium high heat until golden brown on each side
2. Puree cilantro, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, paprika, sesame seeds, and olive oil in a blender until as smooth as possible.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve on fish fillets and make sandwiches..

There are so many other great pesto recipes out there.  I’ve seen it made with orange zest, green olives, fennel, and others.  So what about you? Have you ever done any pestos that are outside of the norm?  Are you inspired to try something new? Let me know if you have any good ideas.