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!

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