I have always prided myself on the ability to cook with my nose. People often look at me puzzled when I say that. Smell is how I usually figure out what works with what and, how much of what is right for a dish. I am not discounting taste but my nose knows. I have been able to tackle many regional cuisines this way. From Caribbean to Indian, I have sniffed myself far out of my comfort zone and mastered those foreign cuisines. Visiting these countries helps a lot too. My nose is good but its proximity to the home of a particular cuisine helps out a lot.
I’ve been to England many times and my nose and adventures have proved to be ineffective in mastering their cuisine. Although Britain is notorious for “bad” food, it wasn’t until that Canadian I mention all the time started talking about her childhood comfort food that my interest piqued. See, that Canadian, as it turns out, spent the first seven years of her life living outside of London. And now…well…she lives with me. So, I decided that I would attempt to replicate one of her childhood favorites with my defunct olfactory system and her sharp memory as obstacles. The catalyst for this was a few weeks after my closet was taken over by dresses and high heels. She decided to cook me one of her favorites, Shepard’s pie. I’ve had this in London many times but nothing compared to what she made inside my Brooklyn oven that night. This intrigued me immensely and I decided it was time I gave British cuisine a go.
To start my dish I needed to figure out how “My” pie would be done. The basics of the classic dish is ground beef, peas, mashed potatoes and cheese. Of course, their are some secrets to the casserole. A pint of Guinness being its “secret weapon”. The basic build is as follows. Cook the ground beef, add in the beer and peas. That gets layered into a casserole dish and topped with mashed potatoes. On top of that, the cheese. BOOM, into the over for 25 minutes and then “ta-da there it is, love” (In your best Cockney accent). The first thing I did was pull all the ingredients apart and look at them individually. I played a little food association game pinning the original ingredients against me. Here are the results.
Ground Beef=Short Rib
Not perfectly successful, it did raise a few alternatives that made me a bit more comfortable with what I was attempting. It also excited me. In particular, I was curious to see how my substitutions might alter the flavors while simultaneously staying true to the dish’s big and bold traditions. I decided to keep the peas and the mashed potatoes but sub in the short rib and red wine. Here is the result.
10 bone in short ribs
1 bottle of red zinfindel
4 cups of beef broth
frozen of fresh peas
10 yukon gold potatoes
2 sticks of butter
1 cup of cream
1 cup of milk
1 brick gruyere cheese-shredded
salt and pepper
1. Add 3 tbs of oil to a large cast iron pot
2. Salt and pepper ribs and in batches to caramelize on all sided
3. Remove ribs and deglaze with 1/2 cup of wine
4. Pour reduced wine and all the bits over ribs
5. Add another tbs of oil to the pot and toss in the onions
6. When they are caramelized add back in all the ribs
7. Add the rest of the wine and as much beef stock as needed to just cover the ribs
8. Cover and place into a 350 degree oven for 3 hours
9. Remove from oven. remove ribs. Place sauce and ribs in the refrigerator overnight
10. In the morning, remove the layer of fat from the top of the sauce and simmer on high to reduce by 2/3
11. Add ribs back to the sauce and place in 350 degree oven for 1 hour
12. Remove from oven and strip meat from bones in a separate pan. Discard the fatty layer that attaches meat to bone.
13. Shred rib meat
14. Add peas to the meat
15. Add flour to water and make a slurry
16. With sauce still simmering, add slurry to sauce and whisk to thicken
17. Once thick pour sauce over rib meat
18. Peel and boil potatoes
19. Drain potatoes. add 1 stick of butter and cup of milk
20. Mash vigorously. add cream and more butter until smooth
21. Add fresh chopped thyme and a few pinches of pepper
22. Take an oven safe casserole dish and start to build your pie
23. Layer half to 2/3 of the pan with rib-pea mixture
24. On top of that layer mashed potatoes
25. Smooth with a spatula and be sure to use potatoes to seal the edges of the casserole dish
26. Sprinkle with cheese over top
27. Bake in 350 degree oven for 25 minutes until hot
Apparently my little game worked and I was able to conquer a dish far out of my comfort zone. But, don’t just take my word. The true test was when I gave it to the Canadian for a taste. Here huge, beautiful eyes opened up even larger and she got a shaky glow letting me know the bite had a time machine inducing taste. Flashing back to her childhood with every third frame popping up an Italian monument sent her deep into her comfort zone while she discovered something fresh and new. I’d say that makes it a true success. Now, if I could only master that accent.