Learning about food, photography, and writing. Sharing what I find.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shepherd's Pie Warms My Heart

There are few American comfort foods that I actually crave. I'm not much of a Tuna-Noodle Casserole girl and my mom never made American Chop Suey. Rather, I lean toward other cultures' comfort foods: (Real Italian) Spaghetti, Meatballs, and Sausage; piping hot Miso Soup; and good old Irish Shepherd's Pie.

I especially like to think about how a dish like Shepherd's Pie came into being. It is so obviously a dish of necessity rather than snobbery. So, if you prepare it with this in mind, the flavors will be rich and your mind will flash with images of rolling Irish pastures (Okay, maybe not really, but you'll have a full, warm belly at least—something invaluable in the perpetual rain and gloom on those rolling hills).

When a friend requested a good Shepherd's Pie recipe, it was a chance for me to simulate some of the many delicious versions I've had on both sides of the Atlantic. We start with the basics:

A cheaply and easily acquired fresh herb—Parsley.

Then we fill in the nutritional and flavor blanks with the most basic of roots and veggies (Celery, Carrots, Onion, Garlic, and Potatoes).

These are things in virtually every refrigerator and sitting in crockery on every counter around the world. Here's how to put it together into Shepherd's Pie, a great Irish tradition.

Full Ingredient List:

1 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1/4 cup red wine (not cooking wine, instead use that last little bit from dinner the night before. I used Pinot Noir)
2 lbs. lean ground lamb (I am so glad I found lamb to use. Yum, yum, yum. You can always use ground beef, but it just isn't the same)
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 packet of brown gravy mix (this is really for thickening purposes, so you can just used flour or corn starch instead. Be sure to compensate for flavor-loss with a little extra salt, stock, or Worcestershire sauce)
1/3 cup beef stock
4 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped

5-6 red potatoes, quartered
1 Tbs. kosher salt
1/3 cup heavy cream
3 Tbs. butter

Preheat the oven to 400º.
Start with the dicing. Keep the pieces small and uniform. These guys are the supporting cast, not the lead.

Warm the Butter and Olive Oil over medium heat.
Add in the Carrots, Celery, Onion, and Garlic.

Sautee until soft and slightly browned (season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste).

Mix in Tomato Paste and Wine evenly, stirring until alcohol smell dissipates and mixture thickens slightly.
Add Lamb to pan and cook until no longer pink (During this process, start water and Kosher Salt boiling for Potatoes.  Add them into the water when it starts to boil).
Once the lamb is browned, stir in Worcestershire Sauce, Gravy Mix, and Beef Stock.
Simmer the lamb filling on low heat while you drain the cooked potatoes.
Allow potatoes to steam in the colander for a few minutes, until the edges whiten slightly (thanks to my Daddy for this great mashed-potato trick!). Back in the pot, mash the potatoes with the Heavy Cream and Butter.

Once you have mashed them roughly, use a standing blender or an immersion blender to whip them to a very smooth consistency (this makes piping easier and gives a nice contrast to the heavier filling).
Drain off all fat from lamb filling (if any).
Stir in chopped Parsley, reserving a pinch for garnishing the finished product.
Transfer filling to baking dish.

Place potato topping in a pastry bag with a "star" frosting tip at the point. Pipe the potatoes to cover and seal the entire dish.

Place entire dish, uncovered, into oven and bake for 25 minutes or until bubbling around all edges. Place under broiler to brown the potatoes for about 3 minutes.

Sprinkle the top with the remaining chopped parsley.

Serve piping hot with sweet baby peas as accompaniment (I was going to put the peas in the pie, but then I forgot them on the counter. Putting them on the side is quite nice, though. They add a little sweet, clean flavor to the richness of the pie and they won't be over-cooked this way, either!).

So yummy. I hope you enjoy it, Kathy (and everyone else)!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Meat and Beer - International Favorites

With the combination of a new job, a long-weekend road trip, and an all-in-the-family stomach bug, I haven't been cooking much lately. I think that means it's time for another International Favorite.

You know by now that, last year, Penn and I lived in Italy for about four months. Penn studied art and writing . . . and I ate. Okay, I did a little drinking of cappucino and Prosecco, too. And, fine, I did join the Travel Writing course towards the end of the trip when I was so full of pasta and the joys of Italian living that I just had to learn how to write it down—and well. But, sorry to disappoint, this entry won't be about Italy. I don't have enough strength back after a bout with that nasty virus to even venture to describe all that is heavenly about Italian eating. That'll be another day's work.

Today, we'll go to Prague.

We planned our post-Italy trips perfectly, if I may say so myself. We weren't ready to come back the The States, but we desperately craved food that didn't end in a vowel and that we didn't have to twirl around a fork. The culture shifts and culinary contrasts during our three weeks of Italy detox kept us invigorated and excited. Prague was so different from our little cliff-top hometown in Orvieto, Italy. Right when we needed a change, Prague was there to provide it.

The most important variation was dietary. Knowing that I was SO done with risotto, God put a Mexican restaurant across the street from our hostel in Prague, a city that is located 6,000 miles from the origins of the chimichanga as I know it and the Latino country that makes my favorite type of cuisine. Praise Him for transporting a burrito to the Czech Republic (and for the English-speaking host who had heard of Magners on ice and made a mean spicy pork taco. Seriously, the pork filling for his various dishes was some of the best I've had. I don't know how authentically Mexican it was, but it was just what we needed).

Prague has its own food, too, don't get me wrong. We were just thrilled by the plethora of cultural influences there—they are powerful examples of the excitement the Czechs felt when, in the late 80s, they were finally allowed to open their doors to their global brothers and sisters. We felt accepted in Prague, even though we were obviously tourists—American tourists at that. Having only been able to mix with others for a couple of decades, they haven't been jaded by centuries as a tourist hot-spot. With all the hype surrounding Prague in the traveling industry, I don't think I would have appreciate it nearly as much if we hadn't gone to the dinky, silly Museum of Communism on the cusp of Wenceslas Square in the Old City. I was so moved by the fact that, while I lived a fat and happy toddler-hood in Connecticut, the young people in Prague were leading a Velvet Revolution to be able to dress, travel, and live as they pleased in their own country. What a captivating city to explore. Plus, beer flows like water in Prague, plentifully and cheaply.

We, as artsy folk, reveled in the spectacular architecture, new and really old, in Prague. It is a wandering traveler's dream. I could have walked around the streets all day long (actually, we did). In our wanderings, we tried all sorts of spaetzle and dumplings, pork knee, goulash, and their famous cinnamon and sugar trdelnik pastries.

Because we needed this flavor change so desperately, we really enjoyed it all. We're not talking gourmet stuff here, but it feels like eating something a little old lady drummed up just for you. You do have to try to seek out the restaurants with the old-world feel and ask for recommendations from the locals (or the crazy American kids who lead the free tours around the city, one of the best things we decided to do).

If I had to pick my favorite culinary specialty we came across in Prague, I would go with the slightly sloppy-looking but ever-tasty assortment of meats and sauces that we washed down blissfully with more than our fair share of Pilsner Urquell after a sweaty and exhausting walk up to the Prague Castle.

This little pub was dark and narrow and went deep into the side of an old set of buildings. We found it on our way back down the steep street that had guided us to the ancient castle. After scarfing most of the contents of this platter, I came home determined to put marinated onions on everything. They are amazing. They lose all that can be offensive about onions and gain all that is wonderful about vinegar and spices. I think I even ate the pickles in the middle, though I am usually a devoted sour dill girl (sometimes a sour, dull girl, too. Just ask Penn).

Are we noticing a theme here? Just when our bodies and bellies are at their breaking points, whether from long walks up hills to important historical landmarks or long stints jammed in a flavor rut, the part of God that cares about my victual vitality directs my path to a special treat. Or maybe food just tastes better when you're desperate.

P.S. If you ever go to Prague, stay here, Miss Sophie's Hotel:

It was the cheapest, cleanest, most WiFi-filled hostel we came across during all our travels! Make sure you stay in the main building, pictured above. The prices may have gone up since we stayed there, but it was a GREAT find for us. And just look at that building!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Meyer Lemon Curd Bars

The first thing we wanted to do when we got married was get a dog. When real life got underway (jobs, budgets, a move across an ocean), we realized that committing to a puppy wasn't realistic. So, we settled for the next best thing. No, not a cat (I love all domesticated animals equally). Obviously, I'm talking about a lemon tree. DUH.

Penn is great with the two-and-a-half foot tall tree. He initiated the research to figure out how to help it survive outside the tropics. He keeps it watered and well-lit. I love watching each year as the buds emerge.

The first year, we felt pretty successful when the flowers bloomed instead of dying.

From there, the lemons came out the size of Tic-Tacs and grew to full size over the course of a few months. Our first season taking care of the tree yielded six full, juicy, gorgeous Meyer Lemons.

The flavor is distinct and bright. The juice in each lemon is astounding! Each year, we have wedges for many months' worth of cocktails and recipes. The best part is, as long as it's still hanging on the tree, it won't spoil.

That brings me to my most recent adventure with my babies, our Meyer Lemons. We have two left on the tree this season and my mother-in-law recommended featuring them on the blog! I looked around for recipes and such, but finally settled on a combination of two items suggested/provided by my co-foodie sister-in-law, Laura. I believe I have created a staple dessert for my household.

So, here's how I concocted Grace's Meyer Lemon Curd Bars (the following is a combination and modification of the Key Lime Bars from Betty Crocker's Diabetes Cookbook and this fantastic Lemon Curd recipe on Epicurious):


  • 15-20 Goya Maria cookies (discovered by UncleCharlieDad at the local 7-Eleven. They come in a sleeve and are a basic, hard butter cookie)
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 3 Tbs. sugar
Preheat the oven to 350º.
Grease sides and bottom of a square pan (The smaller the pan, the thicker the crust. It's really your preference).
Using a heavy-duty pestle and a strong, medium-sized bowl, break the Cookies up into fine crumbs. Reserve a spoonful of crumbs to sprinkle over the final product.

 Melt the Butter and stir it into the crumbs, along with the Sugar.

Press the mixture into the bottom of the greased pan.

Bake the crust in the oven, uncovered, for about 15 minutes (I determined it was ready when it got really fragrant and slightly golden).
Remove the crust from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before chilling completely in the fridge while you prepare the other elements.

Meyer Lemon Curd Filling:
  • The juice from 1 full-size Meyer Lemon (roughly 1/2 cup)
  • 2 tsp. finely grated, fresh lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 6 Tbs. butter, cut into bits
Zest the Lemon into a small bowl first (it's easier when it's still full of juice).

 Juice the lemon into a small bowl.

Whisk together the juice, zest, Sugar, and Eggs in a 2-quart heavy saucepan.

Stir in the chunks of Butter and cook over moderately low heat, whisking frequently, until curd is thick enough to hold marks of the whisk and the first bubble appears on the surface, about 6 minutes (This happens suddenly, so be aware! Don't let it turn into scrambled eggs!).
Transfer the lemon curd to a bowl, covering its surface with plastic wrap.

Chill in the fridge until cold, at least one hour.

Creamy Topping:
  •  1 1/2 cup crème fraiche (I sorta made up a recipe for this, but I recommend finding some at your grocery store so that you can count on it working texturally)
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
Whisk the Creme Fraiche and Powdered Sugar together thoroughly.

Remove the crust and curd from the fridge.
Spread the curd evenly atop the crust to form a second layer.

Do the same with the creamy topping and sprinkle surface with reserved cookie crumbs.

Cut into squares and serve!

Though I'm usually a chocolate person, I loved this lemon dessert. The cookies are a good balance for the sour lemon and creamy cream. Just look at my babies now!

I think I'm going to go have a piece of toast with a little of the extra Meyer Lemon Curd I reserved.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tangy Shredded Pork

So I guess we should add Pork to the list of things I over-eat. Cookies, Pizza, and Pork. I think the Pizza and Pork parts are really a reflection of how my marriage has directed my eating patterns. I have always had a love-affair with pizza, but, in Penn, I met my pizza-loving match. Obsessed + Obsessed = Frequent Binges. Also, Penn is far less enthused by chicken than he is pork. I love both, so I haven't minded upping the pork production. In fact, I am happy with how it has expanded my cooking mind.

For example, one night I wanted to try my hand at pulled pork, something my raised-below-the-Mason-Dixon-line husband truly treasures. I knew I could never do Southern Pulled Pork justice, but I wanted something to offer him. So, I called my mother and she had found a recipe on good-old Epicurious.com. It's nothing like Southern BBQ. In fact, I think it's more of an Asian-inspired recipe. Whatever it is, its tang hits all the right taste-buds for me . . . and it's very simple.

It's filled with flavor and makes a heck of a sandwich (I'd love to hear people's favorite coleslaw recipes to go along with this stuff! I think our sandwiches could have been even better with a little slaw on top!).

I'm going to call this Tangy Shredded Pork so that you remember not to inhale too deeply when taking a bite (Have you ever choked on vinegar? IT HURTS). I had previously copied the recipe into my recipe book, but I did find the original recipe back on Epicurious. Looks like a Lemon Slaw might be a good complement for the final pork product. I honestly didn't modify the recipe too much, just changed up some of the amounts to go with the exorbitant amount of pork I had to work with.

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3 Tbs. cider vinegar (we ended up adding even more)
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 2 Tbs. chili sauce (I found this in the Asian Foods section of my grocery store. Spicy and delicious!)
  • 1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce (I used a heavy hand when measuring this one :)
  • 1-2 tsp. tabasco sauce (to taste)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pork tenderloin, halved
Assemble the ingredients at the start, because they are all added simultaneously.
Chop Onion and mince Garlic.

Heat a heavy, deep pan over medium heat.
Coat bottom of pan with Olive Oil.
Add the onion and garlic to the pan, stirring over medium heat for about 7 minutes.

Onions should just begin to brown around the edges when done.

(Recipes that begin with sauteing onion and garlic always seem to please the audience. You just can't beat that smell.)

Stir in the remaining ingredients, except the Pork, of course. Bring to a low boil and then simmer covered over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes.

 While the sauce is simmering, remove all silver skin and excess fat from the pork.

(I am finally perfecting my silver skin removal skills! A pork loin is so much prettier without it.)

Add the now-trimmed pork to the sauce.

I was doubling the recipe. Do as I say, not as I do or you will be panicking about overflow like I did.

Simmer covered, turning occasionally, until pork is tender (About 45 minutes).

Remove the Pork to a heavy cutting board to cool (I took a picture of this, but 4 slabs of cooked, undressed pork sitting on a cutting board is not all that pretty to look at).
If necessary, cook the sauce down a little further (until slightly thickened) while the pork cools.
Purée the sauce in a blender until it is smooth.
Return smooth sauce to pot.
Place over low heat to warm.
Shred cooled pork with fingers or forks (I started with fingers and moved to forks per the suggestion of my brother-in-law. Both are good, but my impatience had led to scalded fingers when using the first method).

Add shredded pork to the pot.

Stir to coat pork with sauce and to heat pork through.

Do a taste-test to see if you need to add to the sauce (We added a bunch more vinegar and tabasco sauce at the end to bring up the punch. Some of the guys even added tabasco on top of their sandwiches).

(Penn caught me sneaking several "taste tests" before dinner)

Serve on fluffy rolls with your favorite cheese or coleslaw as topping.

 The next day I even made a hot dip out of the leftover pork. I chopped it up and stirred in some cream cheese, mozzarella, even more tabasco, baked it, and served it with tortilla chips and crackers! Oh, pork, you are so versatile.

Photo credit to Penn for the above post . . . wherever you see my hands, he is behind the camera (and some of the other ones, too).