October 21, 2008
Shepherd's Pie: converting the conservative heathen one dish at a time

shepherdspie.jpgMoving from a central Paris apartment to a bungalow in a village of 1600 inhabitants (one shop, four pubs) has meant a lot of lifestyle changes, obviously. It has been much easier to eat locally and eat well than it would be in a city: our organic vegetables arrive each Friday from a local farm and the milk has to be tasted to be believed. We now drink Sussex beer instead of Chablis wine (mostly). We eat sausages and go to the fish and chips van on Tuesdays. And one other Great British Tradition that I've adopted is the Sunday Roast. I started out slowly, with a chicken. The Critic adores roasted chicken and roasted potatoes, so he hardly noticed that it was a Sunday and - for once - the entire family was sitting down to a meal together. Well, no, that's actually a lie: it's hard not to notice when you are being forced to eat with a picky three year old and his messy toddler brother. But he didn't know it was part of a greater plan. Next up, was a leg of lamb, because our friend Mac offered to get us a half a lamb from a friend of his. And then last Sunday I made my first attempt to roast a real British pork with crackling. (I've been reading about this for years, unable to try my hand in France because the roasts are larded instead.)

This drive for a Sunday roast has several points. Firstly, as mentioned, I want our family to sit down to dinner together at least once a week. During the week, the Critic works late hours and so it's not feasible. But once a week, darn it, the TV is off and the children and I will face each other and their father over a dinner table. Secondly, I love making roasts. In the world of cooking, roasting a bit of meat is the simplest way to make the most flavorful food. No fancy techniques, just good quality ingredients a few spices and time are needed. And lastly, a Sunday roast nearly always fosters a few more meals later in the week. The leftover chicken meat was made into chicken pies and the carcass was boiled to make broth. I used the broth in a risotto for myself and the children while the Critic was away in St. Lucia. (Don't ask, I'm not sure I've forgiven him yet.) The lamb yielded about a gallon of broth, which is in the freezer, to be used later this week with barley, I think, in a soup. Or maybe white beans and kale. And the leftover lamb meat furnished us with the best shepherd's pie I have ever made. Seriously. Not only did the Critic and I love it, but our conservative food-challenged three year old ate a huge helping. His brother, a.k.a. the Hoover, of course loved it too. So I am now adding this recipe to the small, but important list of "child-friendly" recipes on this site. One dish at a time, we shall overcome...

Shepherd's pie for the heathens

I didn't measure the amounts in this pie very precisely, I'm afraid. But the beauty of the recipe is that you can tweak it to your own idea of perfection. My idea of perfection includes a generous amount of rich gravy, so if you have more than a cup, by all means throw it all in and reduce the lamb stock accordingly. We had one cup left, so that was what I used.

600 g roasted lamb meat, finely chopped
600 g potatoes
2-3 onions
1 cup gravy
1 cup lamb stock
2 Tbs flour
salt and pepper to taste
one sprig of rosemary, chopped finely
a lot of butter and a splash of milk*

Pre-heat the oven to 200c. Peel and cube the potatoes and put them in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Peel and chop the onion. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a large, deep frying pan and soften the onions in the butter. You might want to add a little salt to speed up the process. Add the minced lamb and stir. Add the flour and cook for a few minutes. When the mixture is truly dry and starting to stick to the pan, add the stock and use a spoon to deglaze, scraping up any bits of flour or onion or meat that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan. When it's all bubbling and starting to thicken, add the gravy. Stir again and add the rosemary. Allow to simmer for a few minutes and then taste the gravy to determine whether you need more salt or pepper or both. Or maybe rosemary: it's a strong flavored herb and so I paradoxically tend not to use enough of it initially out of caution.

Turn off the heat on the meat mixture and turn your attention to the potatoes. As soon as they are tender, drain them, add lots of butter* and salt and a splash of milk and mash away. If you have a potato ricer, now might be the time to use it. It will make your mash smoother than silk and you don't need to worry about how the potatoes are cooling down because they'll be going into the oven soon anyway. Once you have smooth, buttery mashed potatoes, set them aside.

Butter the inside of a baking dish. I used a deep soufflé dish, but actually a lasagna pan or oval baking dish is more traditional. Pour in the meat mixture. Top with the creamy potatoes. Use a fork or the back of your spoon to make a pretty pattern. Slide it in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the top has started to brown and show off your pattern and the inside is bubbling. It's always a good idea to put a sheet of aluminum foil on the floor of the oven to catch any drips, in fact.

Allow it to cool for 10-15 minutes before serving. The tender lamb meat is by this time falling apart so easily that a 17 month old can gum it quite happily. And the three year old will be enticed in by the aroma of lamb and onion and the promise of creamy mashed potatoes. A meal to make the entire family happy.

* I am sorry, but I cannot be bothered to weigh the butter as I beat it into the mashed potatoes. Just add to your heart's content, secure in the knowledge that however generous you are, I probably used more.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:30 AM | Comments (9)
October 16, 2008
A Simple Chinese Curry

chinesecurry.jpgChinese. Curry. These are two words that do not sit well together in my mind. It has taken me a long time to reconcile them. Yes, Chinese food has a few ingredients in common with most Asian curries: ginger and garlic to name just two. But somehow for me the two categories - Chinese and Curry - have always remained separate and distinct in my mind's recipe index. When I sat down to write up this recipe, I tried to do a little research (I do try to save you some trouble when I can) but I found very little information on Chinese curries. My Breath of a Wok has a recipe for a Chinese curry, but no explanation on its origins. Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible is strangely silent on the subject, though she does include curries from countries as diverse as Guyana and Japan. In the end - as always - Wikipedia came through with a marginal reference in the curry entry and confirmed my suspicions that the Chinese curry you commonly find in restaurants around the world probably descended from a Singaporean/Malaysian variety. So now you know.

All I know is that I am glad I overcame my prejudices and came up with this dish. I've had Chinese curries in restaurants a few times but this was my first attempt at home - and since I was able to tailor it to my and the Critic's tastes it tasted much better to me. In fact, aside from adapting the vegetables a bit to what is in season, I don't see any reason to change the recipe a whit. And I'll be making it again, don't worry. Spice and coconut and soy sauce: who knew they could make such a first class meal in one? And best of all for a busy parent, it was done in the time it takes to cook a pot of rice.

I was actually looking for a new stir fry recipe when I came up with this recipe. I can't remember what combination of ingredients I googled initially but one of the results was this one for Curry Coconut Chicken, which I adapted to fit the ingredients I had on hand and our tastes. It doesn't specifically say it is a Chinese curry, that's the general idea I was aiming for in my adaptation.

A Simple Chinese Curry

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, free range and organic for preference and cut in bite-sized pieces
8-10 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
12 broad beans, cut on the diagonal in 1 inch pieces
1 small head of broccoli, cut in small florets
2 small carrots, cut on the diagonal in slices about the width of a pound coin
2 young leeks, cleaned and sliced in thin rings
1 1/2 Tbs Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Powder (or the curry powder of your choice)
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced finely
1" of fresh ginger, peeled and minced finely
2-3 Tbs vegetable oil
400 ml coconut milk
2 Tbs soy sauce

Heat the vegetable oil in a deep frying pan and add the garlic and ginger. When they begin to smell fragrant, add the leeks. Stir until they have gone soft, then remove to a platter. Turn up the heat on the pan and - if necessary - add a little more oil. Add the chicken and leave on the heat without stirring for as long as you can bear. (I'm a terrible fidgeter and have a hard time leaving things well enough alone.) When the chicken smells delicious and is starting to achieve a nice brown crust, you can stir briefly to brown the other side. The more patient you are, the more flavor the chicken will have. Once the chicken is browned to your satisfaction, put the garlic, onion and leek mixture back in the pan. Stir in the curry powder and let the mix cook for a few minutes to bring out the flavor of the curry. Stir in the coconut milk and the soy sauce. Add the carrots and allow to simmer for five minutes. Then add the beans. (An intelligent reader will notice that if you have not prepared your vegetables in advance - now who would be that haphazard? - you can easily do so as you go along in this recipe.) Simmer for five minutes and then add the broccoli and tomatoes. Bring the mixture back to heat and simmer for another 8-10 minutes, until the broccoli goes bright green and the rest of the vegetables are tender. Serve over steamed rice immediately.

As written above, the recipe isn't too spicy for the whole family. My nearly 18 month old son was happy tasting from our dishes. However, if you like your food really feisty, you could add a few bird's eye chili peppers or a good grinding of white pepper.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:12 AM | Comments (1)
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