Keeping it simple

As predicted, the wedding last weekend was fun and deeply moving, and if I hadn’t gone I’d have regretted missing it for a long, long time.

New England(ish) was still in this thing they call winter, a season my rhubarb reminds me never really existed here. The rehearsal dinner was a potluck, and each time the door opened and new guests arrived with snow on their coats, I dug mentally deeper and deeper into the big lodge where the wedding was held, enjoying the way the three families – the bride’s family, and the families of both sets of the groom’s parents – held all the guests in close, like we were all in a big cocoon together, waiting for a metamorphosis.

And a metomorphosis it was. One moment everyone was milling about sort of aimlessly, picking at what I think was a maple syrup-spiked Fluff dip for apples, and the next a big oak table groaned with the groom’s mother’s paella, risotto, curries, macaroni and cheese, and a plethora of colorful layered salads whose recipes could only have come from a salad dressing bottle. There was plenty to eat, but it was all so much simpler than the usual wedding hoopla, which brought the focus squarely on the reason we were there. It was wonderful.

One of the dishes on the buffet table at the rehearsal dinner was some sort of chicken tetrazzini, a staple from the family of American dinner foods I’ve only had a handful of times and have never tried to make. I’m so unused to this type of dish; I didn’t grow up eating it. It’s as foreign to me (and as intriguing, if you must know) as, say, Korean food, which I know next to nothing about but will have no choice but to delve into soon, as my husband just signed on to do a project near Seoul over the next few years. (Don’t worry, we’re not moving.)

Anyway, the tetrazzini – it was a creamy chicken dish, topped with something I forgot to identify and completely devoid of any vegetable-like object that might offer the slightest bit of color. It was fabulous. My husband and I ate it cold for lunch the next day, standing at the sink after cross-country skiing. It gave me what my friend Megan calls a BFO, a blinding flash of the obvious: I don’t know how to cook what most of America eats. It’s probably better for my health, but it’s also making me curious. How the hell DO you make tuna casserole?

I still haven’t been to the grocery store, which explains the allure of quick-fix dishes right now. Here’s what my kitchen provided. I loved it. I ate it for lunch, then sat at the computer for the rest of the afternoon craving salad. Then we almost finished it for dinner, using our fingers to wipe down the inside of the casserole dish before we put the rest away for tomorrow.

Shepherd's Pie

Recipe for Simple Shepherd’s Pie
Recipe 100 of 365

Creamy homemade mashed potatoes top a simple mixture of ground beef and onions for this homey, hearty shout-out to the last days of winter in places like New York state’s Adirondack mountains, where last weekend brought still more snow. This is also a relatively inexpensive meal.

TIME: About 1 hour (not all active time)
MAKES: 4 to 6 servings

2 medium russet potatoes
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 onion (red or white), diced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 stick unsalted butter (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk, plus more, if needed
Paprika, for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place potatoes in a saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until the potatoes are completely tender all the way through (just about when the skins begin to split), 30 to 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, start the meat: heat a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the oil, then the onion, and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring. Add the garlic, and cook for a minute or so, then add the beef and cook, stirring frequently and using a wooden spoon to break the pieces up, until the meat is completely cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain off any excess fat. Add the tomato paste, stir to combine, and season to taste again with salt and pepper.

When they’re cooked through, drain the potatoes. Add the butter, cream, and milk to the empty potato pan, and cook over low heat until the butter has just melted. Peel the potatoes while they’re still hot (use a dishcloth or an oven mitt to protect your hands, if necessary), add them to the pot with the milk, and mash thoroughly, adding a little more milk, if necessary, to achieve a mashed potato consistency that’s a little softer than what you’d put on a plate. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pile the meat into an 11” x 7” baking dish, and smooth it into an even layer. Add the potatoes, and spread them out so they reach all the way to the edge of the dish on all sides. Sprinkle with paprika and bake on the top rack for 20 minutes, or until just beginning to brown. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Shepherd's Pie top

1 Comment

Filed under Beef, recipe

One response to “Keeping it simple

  1. Being an Adirondacker, I can fully recommend this recipe as a yummy, belly-filling treat. It’s April 12th, 2007 and snowing right now so we need these types of recipes to keep us going. Hearty, hearty, hearty. I’m the author of a kids book, Adirondack Nightmare: A Spooky Tale in the North Country which has 3 delicious Adirondack recipes in it. It’s available on my website. Thanks so much for this!

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