23 January 2011

Weekend Shepherd's Pie

One of the last Saturdays in January marks a special occasion in my family's social circle - the awards night for the cycling group that my father heads. There is generally a big party with shepherd's pie and champagne, a dinner party menu borrowed from British ex-politican and scandalmonger (that's definitely a word) Jeffrey Archer. Wikipedia says "In 1979... He also began to host shepherd's pie and Krug parties for prominent people at his London apartment, which overlooks the Houses of Parliament."

This menu is ostensibly to make the night easy to cater for, although this year I was only one of two people worldwide, as far as I know, cooking for the celebration - and the other one is a professional chef. Oh well.

My boyfriend is a member of this cycling group, hence our own celebration here last night, complete with leftover Christmas crackers. The pie was delicious. It's filling and comforting and best served so hot that it burns your mouth and for hours afterwards even plain water tastes smoky. It should be dark and wintry and thick and liquidy and one of the most rustic meals you've ever tasted.

In terms of time, you could no doubt have this pie ready within forty-five minutes. Unfortunately that's not the point of this particular recipe. The point here is to spend several hours doing something relaxing and weekend-y, occasionally getting up to stir the mince and add a teaspoon of this or that. The mince could probably sit forever slow-cooking, as long as you kept adding stock and alcohol to make sure it retained that red-wine-gravy texture.

Shepherd's Pie
Serves 4

1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon flour
400g mince, preferably beef or lamb
1 cup red wine
3 cups water, separated, each with 1 tablespoon gravy or beef stock powder
1 teaspoon anchovy powder
2 teaspoons worcester sauce
2 teaspoons mixed herbs
1 head broccoli
25ml rum
Mustard, for serving

1200g potatoes
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 cup butter

Chop the onion and garlic finely and fry in an oiled pan. Once softened, sprinkle the flour over to make a very loose roux. This will help thicken the gravy later.

Add the mince and stir through to break up any clumps, allowing the mince to brown all over.

Whisk two cups of cold water with two tablespoons of stock powder, and add it to the mince pan along with the red wine. Turn to the lowest heat possible, and allow to simmer for at least fifteen minutes.

Start peeling 1200g of potatoes, or simply three of the biggest potatoes I've seen in my life.

I struggled to keep my hand around them.

Once peeled, cut the potatoes into small chunks and boil them vigorously. You'll need quite a large pan for 1200g of potatoes. The softer they are, the better (and easier) the mash will be.

Add the anchovy powder, worcester sauce and mixed herbs to the mince pan. Taste, and season accordingly.

Break the broccoli head into small florets and add it to the mince pan, along with the third cup of water whisked with stock powder. Turn the heat up to a medium-low flame, and simmer for ten minutes or so.

Gravy is built in to a shepherd's pie, so don't simmer the entire thing away. Our meat mixture looked this liquidy before it was tipped into a deep ovenable dish. Taste again at this point - I felt there wasn't enough boozy flavour so added 25ml of rum, our red wine stock having been depleted by this stage of cooking. The heat can be turned off at this stage, although be sure to keep it warm to avoid re-heating dangers.

Drain the potatoes, which should have been boiled to almost breaking point, and mash them with milk, butter and more salt and pepper. This amount of butter should create a gorgeous mash, the buttery taste of which can even withstand the beefy boozy filling later on.

Tip the beef mixture into a large, deep dish (ours is 23cm across, 77cm around, and 8cm deep). Carefully spread the mash on top, and then use a fork to create mountains and troughs by raking and lifting. A smooth topping seriously detracts from this dish.

Bake for twenty minutes to forty minutes, depending on how desperately you need the pie, at 180 degrees (360 Fahrenheit). It's a good idea to put the bowl on a large sheet of foil, because - as you will see below - the pie will try to escape a little.

Serve. Tastes brilliant with mustard, particularly (I find) wholegrain.

See how the gravy has leaked out slightly, and how the mountains of the mash are a little blackened. Perfect.

After we'd each had a large bowl of pie, there was still this much left.

Continue eating the pie until it's gone. Which takes much less time than you might think.