Sunday, August 20, 2006

Peas Glorious Peas: Layered in Shepherd's Pie, Blitzed in the Blender and Spread on Crostini

Today's entry was going to be about shepherd's pie, but then I got to thinking about peas and how I love to incorporate them into my basic pie recipe for a little extra flavor and texture. This of course led to thoughts of all my other favorite pea preparations, so a surprise theme materialized.

So before we move on to the main event, a few simple ideas for using peas in inventive ways. Twice recently, I've come across blended peas being used as the base for a crostini spread instead of the standard bruschetta set up. My friend Jen simply blended frozen peas with chopped up mint and spread it on toasty baguette rounds at a bridal shower. Then, I found a similar treatment at Sparrow, the new French Asian restaurant on Nob Hill. There, the chef had blended the peas with a little truffle oil, giving the otherwise delicate flavor depth and earthiness. It seemed to me the mint option is perfect for summer, while the truffle preparation would help peas stand up as part of a heartier fall meal.

Finally, we've often turned to Nigella's version of peas blitzed with creme fraiche and white pepper as a nice alternative to the whole variety. I'm not sure if Michael likes them so much because they're tasty or because he has a not-so-secret crush on Nigella. Either way, I can vouch for their deliciousness.

So pack those ideas away in your mental pantry, and let's get down to business.

Shepherd's Pie

4 pounds Yukon Gold spuds
5 pounds full fat ground beef
3 medium red onions
5 large carrots
2 cans petit pois peas (optional, but recommended)
1.5 cups red wine
worcesterchire sauce
1 cup cream
olive oil
kosher salt and coarse ground pepper
potato ricer tool (strongly recommended)
2 9" pie pans

This recipe makes two shepherd's pies, which is perfect because the first one will be gone within the hour. At least that's what happens around these parts. It's also nice to have a second on hand cause it keeps well and tastes just as good the next day. We're sending our extra pie over to an elderly client of Michael's who complains he can't find a good option around here and has to resort to Safeway's frozen version. And that, my friends, is a travesty. When it comes to shepherd's pie, no one should have to settle. I'll happily share a pie to spare him that particular indignity.

So before you begin, I recommend setting the mood. For me, this means pouring a glass of red (which is handy since you'll be opening a bottle anyway) or a Lillet Blanc on the rocks with an orange twist. Of course, a good old Guinness would do rightly, too. Sometimes I like to light my favorite candle, Tocca's Agadir, which is scented like sweet tobacco. I guess it's meant to conjure hookahs and opium dens (which seems like fun) but for me, it just smells like my grandfather'spipe. And what's a better cooking inspiration that remembering your granddad making a martini and then cooking sherried crab or making beer bread. Note to self: recreate Grandad's recipes for these two favorites.

Next, I like to put on some lazy singalong songs like Neil Young or Willie Nelson. Today though, it's Grant Lee Phillips' album Nineteeneighties, which I highly recommend. It's all accoustic, moody versions of my favorite acts from the '80s like The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs and Echo & the Bunnymen. The result is sort of dreamier and moodier than the originals, which are generally kind of dark. However, he stays true to arrangements and phrasing for the most part so you won't be annoyed by overzealous interpretations. Now if anything I just said appeals to you in the least, I recommend you download it. Go ahead, I'll wait. I know I digress here, but this is my process so you'll have to bear with my tangents in order to get to the tastes. I suspect if you were looking for succinct recipes, you'd go somewhere else so I'm not too worried about it. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not one for brevity.

OK, so are we all settled in? Let's do this thing.

Pop your spuds into a large soup pot with salted water and set them to boil. If you've taken my advice and procured a potato ricer, you can throw them in, skins and all. If you're a luddite and you resist newfangled gadgets that make life easier, go ahead and skin those suckers. While the water's coming to a boil, roughly chop your onions and cut your carrots (which you will have to peel) into 1/4" rounds. Pour 1/4 c. olive oil into a large skillet and add both the onions and carrots. Sauté them until the onions are translucent and the carrots are soft, but not wilted. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Once the veggies are adequately soft, bring out your secret weapon: the wine. Pour it in and let it cook down, stirring occasionally, till there's no liquid left, only a magenta syrup coating the veggies. Lovely.

By now you've heard the GLP cover of New Order's "Age of Consent". Might want to hit repeat on that one.

Moving on. Divide your coated veggies between the two pie pans and cover the bottom of each with the combo. Put your ground beef in the same skillet and set it to medium to start browning the meat. Now, if you're working at the same pace as I am, your potatoes will likely be ready to rice. Check their tenderness by inserting a knife. If it moves through without resistance, you're there. Scoop the spuds into the ricer and push them through the grater.
Incidentally, this will give you a nice little bicep workout, as well. Add your cream to the taters and fold it in. Slowly add salt, tasting after each sprinkle ('cause you know, once you oversalt, there's no going back).

Now return to your meat and give it a good stir to ensure it's cooking through. If you purchased the full fat variety, per my instrux, your meat will now be swimming in rendered fat. This is fine though, cause you're about to strain it. Once the meat is done, strain it out and then sprinkle it with a few healthy shakes worcestershire. You want enough to taste, but not to overwhelm the meaty goodness. Your call. Lightly salt it too, if you like.

Now the meat goes into the pie pans as the next layer, on top of the veggies. Next, open your cans of petit pois and spread one each over the meat layers. Finally it's time to spread the spuds on top and seal the deal. Using a flat spreading spatula, plop a pile of potatoes in the center of the layered pies. Then, starting in the center, gently spread the potatoes outward, working your way around the pie until it's all covered.

Now turn your oven to broil and pop those suckers in. Just long enough for them to brown on top a bit. They're already cooked, so this is just a finishing touch. Serve warm, ideally with an authentic Anglo brown sauce, like HP. You can order it online from British importers. Michael loves the fruity variety, while I'm partial to the curry flavor.

Go on, guvnah, take a bite. It goes down a treat!


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