Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cheeky Shepherd's pie

Beef cheek shepherd's pie. Photos by Steve Shanahan

 First published Canberra Times 18 July 2012.
As a kid, back in the 1960s, family midweek meals were always a bit of a drag.  They really did interrupt the time we were meant to be doing other things, like watching the Flintstones, Bandstand or playing or listening to our Bakelite record collection of old songs. These records, were old forty-fives, that my sisters and I would make up dances to, while Mum and Dad sat patiently cheering and clapping at our un-balletic and awkward attempts at dance.

We thought we were pretty special because we had a portable record player. It was contained in a small white-flecked suitcase, that resembled a beauty case from a sixties American sitcom.

Meal-time in our house was catch up time, and Mum and Dad would ask how school was and what did we do. Really the answer was always the same, not much and boring. I can recall fidgeting on my chair just wanting the whole meal-time thing to finish, so I could get back to the important things, like drawing, television or reading.

We had a pretty unique Mum compared to our friends in those days. She cooked different foods that originated from her heritage. But now and then she cooked something Aussie that would cause Dad to go into raptures and reminisce about his own mothers cooking. I think Mum did that to please Dad, and I can remember thinking how dead-boring the traditional Irish Aussie food was.

One of those meals was Shepherds Pie or Cottage Pie. Dad would eat his dinner enthusiastically, and the only bit to me that was exciting was the crunchy golden potato top, sprinkled with buttery breadcrumbs. Why did I always get so little of the crunchy top and so much of the meat and vegetables?

Mum had her own version of this dish, and my recall is of her chopping up the left over leg of lamb into cubes and cooking it up with a tomato based sauce. To that she would add vegetables, whatever was in season, then top the casserole pot with a thick layer of mashed potato. The potato layer was then made crunchy by creating a wavy pattern with a fork, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and then dotted with butter before cooking in the oven on a high heat.

Jumping from the 1960s to now, my take on this classic replaces the lamb with flavoursome beef cheeks, slow-cooked in red wine for a few hours with a selection of winter vegetables. When the meat is melting, it is then topped with a layer of rich, creamy mash potato and baked in the oven. The slow cooking of the beef cheeks breaks down the sinewy meat, providing a rich, sticky melt in the mouth texture, and in my view, wins hands down for the ultimate winter comfort food. 

When cooking this dish, one of my greatest pleasures is peeling the dirty potatoes. There is something satisfying about washing the dirty potatoes, the very dirt they were grown in from the skins. I believe that dirty potatoes always taste better, at least better than the insipid pre-washed ones.

To serve, pair the pie with winter beans tossed in freshly grated nutmeg and shaken with a knob of butter.

3 tbsp olive oil
100g good quality chorizo, sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 onions, sliced
4 carrots, cut into 2.5cm chunks
1 kg beef cheeks, cut into 2.5cm pieces
3tbsp plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
600ml red wine, shiraz
400mls beef stock
2 bay leaves
sprig of thyme
300g mushrooms, sliced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Creamy mash
5 large dirty potatoes, washed, peeled and quartered
sea salt
½ cup cream
75g unsalted butter
1 cup milk
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp parmesan cheese, finely grated
extra butter for topping
2 tbsp breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 150C or get your slow cooker ready.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the chorizo, celery, onions, garlic and carrots. Fry for 10 minutes until the vegetables are softened but not brown. Remove the chorizo and vegetables from the pan and place into a large casserole pot.

Heat the same frying pan over a high heat, adding more olive oil if necessary. Toss the chunks of beef in the seasoned flour then brown all over, in batches. Add to the chorizo, celery, onions, garlic and carrots in your casserole pot.

Pour the red wine into the frying pan, scraping off the sediment cooked onto the base from the floured meat and bring to the boil. Pour into the casserole, with the bay leaves, thyme and enough stock to cover the meat. Season well, bring to the boil then cover and place in the preheated oven. Cook for 3 to 3 and ½ hours until the meat is tender. Test by pulling apart a piece of meat, it should be soft and stringy.  Remove the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.  Add the sliced mushrooms to the beef and stir through.

Alternatively, you could transfer the meat into your slow cooker, cover and cook on low heat for 6 to 8 hours until the meat is tender.

To make the mash. Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water until tender then drain very well.

Bring the milk to the boil in a separate saucepan and add little by little while mashing the potatoes, using the original saucepan to mash them in.

When smooth, add the cream, parmesan cheese, butter, salt, pepper and garlic to the potatoes and whip till smooth with a wooden spoon.

Spoon the mashed potatoes onto the prepared meat and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and dobs of butter.

To finish the pie, preheat the oven to 180C. Cook for approximately 20 minutes until the filling is bubbling and the potato top is crunchy and golden.

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