Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cottage Pie with Hockley's Dark Ale

This is about as British a dish as you can make. A cottage pie is sometimes known in Canada as 'Shepherd's pie'; there is some proper confusion in this country when it comes to this fine recipe. I have blogged about this in the past and to quote myself:

"In this country we throw around the term Shepherd's Pie quite loosely. It brings to mind an insipid stratification of grey mince beef, frozen peas and carrots, a bit of soy sauce, and then topped with doughy mashed potatoes. Don't even get me started about the Quebecois version, patées chinois. Shepherd's Pie should not be made with beef at all. Shepherds do not herd cattle, they herd sheep, thus the appropriate filling for said pie is lamb, or more traditionally (and in my view more tasty), mutton. A variation can be done, of course, with minced beef, but this is traditionally called Cottage Pie - a reference to the peasant cottages from which this thrifty victual was born."

In any event, the weather is getting brisk, and this kind of a dinner is a real favourite of the family - comforting, and dare I say, a little bland tasting. Sometimes that's just the ticket for a chilly fall night. I've always found ground beef to be low in the flavour quotient, especially if it is very lean and cut from the chuck. The meat I used here was ground at the butcher shop that day and came from a blade roast. This upped the flavour somewhat, but there are many tricks to improve it further. This certainly is not the grey and wet Shepherd's pie from the school cafeteria. The secret is making sure the meat is properly browned and all the water has been cooked out of it. It will become somewhat crispy and brown and start to smell like grilling burgers. The other important step in making a good cottage pie is the cooking time. A lot of people will throw the minced meat into a pan and cook it just until it's grey, then pile the mash on top for baking. What you need to do is brown the meat until it is almost completely dried out and crispy and then re-introduce a liquid, be it stock, wine, beer or whatever, and then cook on a low heat (preferably in the oven) for at least one and half hours. Only then can you start considering the mashed topping etc. If you've ever bitten into Shepherd's/cottage pie and encountered tough little nuggets of meat, this is because it wasn't cooked long enough. The same principle applies to bolognese sauce. You have to cook out the liquid, and then reintroduce it. This takes time. Despite what Hamburger Helper commercials tell you, good tasting ground meat just can't be whipped up quickly. It literally needs to be braised.

For this recipe I used Hockley's Dark Ale. A wonderful, English-style ale that is brewed just north of Toronto in the fabled Hockley Valley.

Cottage Pie

2 pounds ground beef, avoid extra lean, there needs to be some fat in there, and if possible, grind it yourself
6 largish russet potatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 500 ml tin of dark ale or stout
1 cup of beef stock (or water)
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbs of tomato paste
1 cup of milk
3 ounces of butter
1 egg yolk
Several healthy tbs of Worcestershire sauce
Plenty of salt and pepper.

First brown your ground beef. See my notes above regarding this. Browning does not mean boiling the meat in it's own insipid waters. You will know when the meat is ready when the only liquid remaining in the pan is beef fat and the meat is actually brown. It may seem alarmingly dry and overcooked, but there's no need to be anxious, this is correct. Also, don't crowd your skillet with the meat, so you may have to do this in batches. Once all the meat is browned, remove from the pan and set aside. Pour off most of the fat, but leave a little behind. Then sweat off the onion, celery and carrot in the remaining fat. Once the vegetables are soft (but without colour) remove them as well. Deglaze the pan with a tablespoon or two of your beer. Then get the meat and veg into an oven safe vessel, along with the rest of the beer, the stock/water, the herbs, tomato paste, Worcestershire and salt and pepper. One could conceivable use flour as a thickener by adding it during the frying of the beef. I find that it's not really necessary, it also might make the meat a bit claggy. The meat will re-absorb a lot of the liquid and the tomato paste should be enough to give you the texture you're looking for. In any event, cook the meat, covered, in a slow oven of say 325F for a solid hour and a half, even better, two hours. While the meat is cooking you can prep your spuds. Peel and boil the potatoes until fork tender. Drain, mash and stir in the milk, the butter and the egg yolk (you all know how to make mash) Season generously and set aside. Now assemble. Get the meat into an appropriately sized oven-proof vessel and smooth it out nice and flat. Picture a mason troweling mortar. The brick laying metaphor continues, as we now have to add the mash. Drop large dollops, one at a time atop the meat. If you drop it all on at once, it might sink into the meat. Once all the mash is on there, start smoothing it out with a fork and then start swirling crop circles into it. The pattern can be of your choosing. Be creative. The more texture there is in the mash, the more lovely crispy bits you get. Drizzle the top with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt, then get under a broiler for five to seven minutes or until the top is lovely and golden. Some recipes call for baking the works, but I find that since I'm working from ingredients that are already hot, a bit of broiling is all that is necessary for optimum results. Once done, let it rest for about five minutes. Serve with green peas, buttered bread and feel free to drown it all in HP sauce.

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