Cottage pie.

The makings.

A shepherd’s pie is supposed to be filled with lamb, which makes sense, but we’re working on a freezer full of meat Nick hunted and for probably legal reasons, he didn’t hunt a single sheep. So, let’s call this cottage pie, because I think that’s what you call a dish of meat topped with potatoes when the meat isn’t lamb. Here it’s filled with moose or venison, depending on what’s at the top of the pile in the deep freeze.

We are eating a lot of comfort food these days, as the weather has called for it and our lungs and noses have suggested it might be time for cold season and there are Christmas trees in store windows now. I don’t know where most of my days go, but the seasons are short and the years are passing so much more quickly than they used to. So occasionally, on evening I don’t have any plans, I’ll invite a friend or two over, and we’ll share a semi-responsible bit of wine and listen to whatever playlist I’m currently obsessing over and eat big plates of something hearty. Comfort food for comfortable evenings. The stuff elastic waistbands were invented for.

Before and after.

Pro tip: If you measure out the wine before you start cooking, you will be sure to have enough for both you and the recipe.

Also, I cannot emphasize enough how much you need a food mill. Ask for one for Christmas! It is the best tool for perfectly fluffy, lump-free mashed potatoes; I used one for the potato and rutabaga topping and there was nary a lump to be found in my mash. They also stir and spread more nicely if they’ve been milled. I am not tall enough to food-mill on my counter, so I sit on the floor to do it.

Sitting on the floor, milling some turnips and potatoes.

Cottage Pie

(Serves 8)

Topping:

  • 4 lbs. starchy potatoes such as Russets, peeled and diced
  • 2 lb. rutabaga, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Salt to taste

Filling:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 lbs. lean ground beef
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups dry red wine
  • 2 1/2 cups beef stock
  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt to taste

Preheat your oven to 375°. Lightly grease a 9″x13″ baking dish.

Put cubed potatoes and rutabaga into a large pot of salted water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Once it’s boiling, drop the heat to medium-high and continue to cook.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery and carrots, and cook for two to three minutes, until the veggies have brightened in colour. Add garlic, cook another minute, then add your meat, breaking it into pieces with your hands as you drop it into the pan. Stir, cooking until meat has browned. Add rosemary, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and pepper. Stir. Add flour, and stir again until all the white disappears into the mix. Add wine, scraping the bottom of the pan with your spoon, and cook another minute or two. Add stock, and simmer until the sauce has thickened and reduced just slightly. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Add peas and parsley. Stir. Remove from heat.

Pour your meat mixture into your prepared 9″x13″ baking dish.

Once your potatoes and turnips are cooked – they should pierce easily with a knife once they are done – then drain. Put pack into the pot and mash, or process them in your food mill. Add butter, stir to combine, then add eggs. Stir quickly. Taste, adjusting seasonings to your taste.

Dollop the potato mixture over the meat. Spread to coat the pan evenly, ensuring your potato mix reaches the edges whenever possible. Drag a fork over the topping.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until golden and the meat bubbles around the sides. Serve with salad, red wine, and country bread.

Cottage pie.

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Stewed short ribs.

I’ve been singing this song, dazedly, replacing the lusty words with worky ones, for the past couple of weeks. I’m … tired. Work is exhausting and unrelenting, the baby is crawling and into everything, and I haven’t watched a new episode of Adventure Time or read anything interesting in far too long. In the interest of adapting as best I can to a new normal, I am throwing myself into Crock Pot cookery – we WILL have a meal at the end of the day that doesn’t start off with a package of instant ramen and an egg. We WON’T just eat take-out sushi every day until our toes web and our backs sprout fins.

It is a wonderful thing to come home to a meal already made, and to an apartment that smells of herbs and garlic instead of stale cat food and yesterday’s dishes. It’s nice to hear from a friend on the weekend and invite him to dinner on Monday night because there will be short ribs, which is a pretty good excuse to blow off work for the night. And if he offers to bring a selection of interesting craft beers to try, all the better.

Did I tell you we’re going to move across town at the end of the month? Good lord, it never ends. But I’m fed, and ultimately that’s what matters the most. You may get quite a few Crock Pot recipes out of me yet – I’m doing a lot of big-batch feelings-eating.

Slow-stewed short ribs

  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 5-6 lbs. beef or veal short ribs
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 whole head of garlic, cloves smashed and peeled
  • 4 large carrots, peeled and chopped into inch-long pieces
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped into inch-long pieces
  • 2 cups dry, lightly oaked white wine, such as Chardonnay
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup low-sodium or homemade beef stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp. grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Fresh parsley, chopped

In a large pan, over medium-high heat, cook short ribs in olive oil until deeply browned. Place into Crock Pot or slow cooker. To the same pan, add onion, garlic, carrots, and celery. Stir to cover with the oil that remains in the pan.

Add  wine, tomatoes, beef stock, bay leaves, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, rosemary, red pepper flakes, black pepper, basil, oregano, and marjoram, and bring just to a boil. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. When you are satisfied that it is delicious, pour the whole mix over the short ribs in the slow cooker. Stir to ensure even distribution of liquid. Set to low, 9 to 10 hours, and go about your day.

About 30 minutes before serving (if you are so inclined – this step is not mandatory), skim as much fat off the top as you feel you need to, then carefully spoon ribs, veggies and sauce back into your large pan and simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Add lemon juice, taste again, and adjust seasonings as needed. Sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve over fresh noodles, rice, potatoes, or whatever starchy, filling thing most pleases you. Make sure you have crusty bread to sop up the juices.

If you don’t have a slow cooker but you do have 2 1/2 to 3 hours, you can make this in the oven. Braise the ribs, uncovered, at 325°F until meat is falling-off-the-bone tender. This way will produce a thicker sauce, but you will have to spend more time in the kitchen.

Mushroom and butter bean ragù

By mid-morning, there was chaos. The baby has been sick and only seems able to comfort himself by wailing, though he will pause briefly for food – but only briefly.

The cat needs her nails done but won’t sit still for it, and if she’s not hanging off the seat of my pants by her claws she’s attempting to bury her wet food under the mat in the hall or scratch holes into the garbage bag that’s waiting to go out to the bin. When I finally got the baby down for a nap I came out to find the cat licking my sandwich.

“You’re all a bunch of jerks!” I yelled at no one in particular, and foraged a lunch of stale Bugles and a glass of white wine that may have been sitting out on the coffee table since last night. I glared at the cat but she has made it clear that apologizing to me is beneath her.

Six weeks ago I joined the Learn to Run clinic at the local Running Room, partly to get back into shape. It was not a great idea because I don’t enjoy running – what’s the point unless you’re being chased? It means rushing out of the house on Monday evenings after Nick gets home from work, and we end up eating dinner late while having to juggle laundry and any mess left over from the weekend. I usually dread it but tonight I couldn’t wait to go. These past few days I have come to understand why someone might go out for a pack of cigarettes and just not come back.

So, you know. There are highs and lows. And sometimes there is enough time in the day to linger over the stove, and some days dinner comes together in a few hasty minutes after the kid goes down for the night. Tonight was one of those hasty nights, and I’m calling the result a ragù even though it contains no meat and did not simmer for very long at all – I loaded it up with the kind of things that make it feel like it simmered long (oaky wine, soy sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese), but it was only 15 minutes, while the pasta cooked. I don’t think anyone’s going to argue with me today.

If you can’t find canned butter beans, use one cup fresh or frozen lima beans or any other canned white bean.

Mushroom and butter bean ragù

(Serves 4.)

  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. mushrooms, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup oaked white wine, such as Chardonnay
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 14 oz./398 mL can diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 14 oz./398 mL butter beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 lb. fettucine

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, sauté shallot, carrot, celery, and garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat until vegetables have begun to sweat. Add rosemary, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, black pepper, and mushrooms, and cook until mushrooms have released their moisture, about two minutes.

Add wine and bay leaf, scraping the bottom of the pot to ensure no bits have stuck to the bottom. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until liquid has reduced by half, one to two minutes.

Add tomatoes, lemon zest and juice, Parmesan cheese, and soy sauce. Simmer another five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add fettucine, and cook according to package directions – five to seven minutes – until al denté (or cooked to taste).

Add butter beans to the ragù, and continue to simmer until fetuccine is cooked. Drain pasta, and add to the ragù. Stir well. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Add parsley, and serve.

Sweet potato and pear barlotto.

Around here, risotto is a favoured comfort food. I like its toothsome porridginess (can that be a thing? Or is that redundant? Can porridge be toothsome?), and the way it lends itself to infinite variations. Nick likes carbs and wine and cheese. Who doesn’t, really?

It’s been cold lately, and we’re tired. We’re in need of comfort, especially after spending so much time comforting this ten-pound pork chop at the expense of uninterrupted sleep and personal hygiene.

Too often we seek solace in take-out. So while I crave risotto, it would be wise to make a healthier choice in light of the tempura and pulled pork and fast-food cheeseburgers we’ve consumed this past week. Pearl barley stands in nicely for arborio rice, and loaded with veggies this barlotto makes a meal that’s equal parts soothing and nutrient-rich. Make it as a main course for Meatless Monday, or serve it as a hearty, autumnal side dish with roasted pork or chicken.

Sweet potato and pear barlotto

  • 1 lb. sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 lb. firm-fleshed pears, diced
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 cup pearl barley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley, plus additional for garnish

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Toss sweet potato and pears in oil, and sprinkle with half of one teaspoon each salt and pepper. Pour mixture into a 9″x13″ baking pan, and roast 35 to 40 minutes until golden, turning mixture halfway through cooking.

Heat stock in a pot over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, then reduce to low.

Heat two tablespoons butter and one tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add shallot, carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté for one minute. Add pepper, rosemary, and thyme. Add barley, stirring to coat in butter and oil, then add bay leaf and wine. Stir frequently until liquid dissipates.

Add stock one cup at a time until absorbed, about 30 minutes, stirring regularly.

Add cheese, then taste. If you use store-bought stock, you likely won’t need to add salt. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Stir in an additional tablespoon of butter, then toss with fresh parsley. Serve immediately, with additional parsley for garnish.

Rabbit cacciatore.

Yesterday Nick and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary. Kind of. I made a nice dinner, and then we zoned out in front of a bunch of cooking shows on the PVR. This year has kind of been a wash, celebration-wise; we haven’t celebrated any of our milestones properly. Nick turned 30 on Friday and we didn’t have plans, and I was all-day morning-sick on my birthday in April. We’re thinking of putting off Christmas until January. It’s been a busy year.

Fortunately I am a bit of a hoarder, and I figured we’d be all out of energy right around now. I have stocked the freezer, fridge, and pantry with everything we’ll need to eat reasonably satisfying and healthy meals until my employment insurance kicks in, so I was able to put together a luscious rabbit cacciatore while the baby dozed and the cat napped.

Rabbit is a very lean meat and a great alternative to the usual chicken or pork. It’s also a sustainable alternative, as rabbits are small, plentiful, reproduce quickly, and do not have the same impact on the environment as larger or more industrially farmed meats. If you can’t find rabbit at your local market, ask your butcher.

I adapted this recipe from Simply Recipes, adding pancetta, more veggies, a spot of wine, and some different herbs and spices, and it was just fancy enough for an anniversary dinner, but easy enough to put together between feedings and phone calls and commercial breaks.

If you don’t have bunnies in your freezer, you could substitute six to eight chicken thighs for the rabbit pieces. Serve over pasta, polenta, or rice.

Rabbit Cacciatore

(Serves six to eight; adapted from Simply Recipes)

  • 2 heads garlic plus 3 cloves
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 2- to 3-pound rabbit, cut into six or eight pieces
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 lb. pancetta, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1 tbsp. capers, chopped
  • 1 tsp. red chili flakes
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 large red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/4 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 cup red wine, such as Cabernet-Sauvignon
  • 3 cups chopped tomatoes (or 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes including juice)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Chopped parsley

Roast two cloves of garlic in an oven preheated to 350°F for 30 to 45 minutes until golden and tender.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Pour rabbit pieces, flour, and about a teaspoon each salt and pepper into a sturdy plastic bag. Hold or seal the top of the bag, and shake to coat rabbit.

Brown rabbit pieces in olive oil, then remove to a plate. Set aside.

Brown pancetta in same pan. Add onion, three chopped cloves of garlic, celery, and carrot, and cook for three minutes.

Add capers, chili flakes, rosemary, oregano, and thyme. Stir to coat pancetta and veggies, then add bell pepper and mushrooms. Cook an additional two minutes. Add wine and scrape browned bits off the bottom of the pan, then reduce heat to medium. Add tomatoes and roasted garlic and bay leaves. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed.

Add rabbit, pushing the pieces into the pot so that they are submerged. Cover, reduce to medium-low, and cook for 35 minutes, until rabbit is cooked and tender. Remove lid and simmer an additional 10 minutes to reduce sauce. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.

Rich, hearty meat sauce.

With the exception of a four-hour period last Friday during which I managed to score an excruciating, now-peeling sunburn from sitting on a patio during lunch, this part of the world has been slow to summer. Which is just as well, because I’ve recovered most of my appetite, and after Paris the taste I’m looking for is unctuous. Unctuous like long-roasted meat, and like the sauce around it, so rich with that slowly melted fat that coats your mouth and the inside of your belly, leaving you full and sleepy.

I went with Grace (and Claude, but that is a story for another time) to a restaurant in Paris called Bistroy Les Papilles where we were brought just such a dish. Three steaks of pork belly were served in a tomato sauce filled with navy beans, thyme, and fresh spring vegetables; the pork had been cooking long enough that most of the fat found itself in the sauce, so that the meal was deceptively rich. I succeeded in eating only a small plateful, though it was a satisfying plateful.

It’s not really possible during the week to cook a slab of pork belly until it melts down into and plumps several pounds of white beans, not when one has to go to a place of business and complete tasks each day – I do have a slow-cooker but it’s the kind that sets things on fire. It is possible to mimic that unctuousness on a weeknight at home; the secret is to use good-quality meat, a combination of pork fat and olive oil, and a cheaterly handful of minced mushrooms. Top with cheese.

This sauce is easy, but it’s not slimming. The point is comfort (as my point so often is), and this is one of those dishes you could serve to company some rainy night, even on the weekend. It’s layered, and tastes as though it cooked for much longer than it did. The cinnamon adds balance to the meatiness, so if you are unsure about it, just add a little bit and see what you think.

Meat sauce for pasta

(Serves eight.)

  • 6 strips bacon, chopped
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 lbs. good quality ground meat (I like a combination of beef and venison or pork, but you could use just beef if that’s what you have)
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Brown bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat. Remove from pot to a plate lined with paper towel using a slotted spoon.

Add olive oil, followed by the onion, celery, and carrots. If the veggies are cooking too quickly, reduce heat to medium, and cook until soft and lightly golden, about ten minutes. Remove from pot to a plate using a slotted spoon. If you reduce the heat, put it back before the meat goes in.

Add meat, mushrooms, and garlic, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. When meat has browned, add back vegetables and deglaze the pan with the wine. Add crushed tomatoes, oregano, pepper, basil, and cinnamon, and then beef stock. Stir to combine, and then taste. Depending on your bacon and stock, you may or may not need to add salt. Let simmer over medium-low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Before serving, add parsley. Serve over pasta with additional parsley for garnish, and a sprinkling of cheese.

For us, this is enough for dinner and leftovers, and for a bit to put in the freezer for dinner another night. It is better the next day. And if you live nearby, you will need it tomorrow because it will still be raining. If you are a cat, the birds will tease you relentlessly as they hide in the branches of the tree just outside your window. Right now we all need our share of meat sauce.

Beet risotto.

Last year we didn’t do much about Valentine’s Day because we’d just gotten Molly the Cat and felt an urgency to be home with our cute little ball of fur. I don’t think we’ve ever done much about Valentine’s Day; the sentiment is nice but I feel sort of silly about it. It’s just the two of us all the time, you know?

We’ll go out later this week, when the restaurants are quiet and we’re not surrounded by moon-eyed couples sitting on the same side of the booth, which makes me irrationally angry, which is the opposite of how you’re supposed to feel on February 14. Seriously – can’t they hear each other chew when they sit like that, and doesn’t that just shoot the romance right in the foot?

But I do like a good theme. So tonight, even if we weren’t celebrating, we did recognize the day, and Meatless Monday, with a plate of lusty, blood-red risotto. It was both virtuous and decadent, with its vegetable stock and beets and butter and Manchego cheese, and it came together in the 30 minutes Nick spent tidying the kitchen. Add a little red wine on the side, and there’s no better way I can think of to spend a Monday Valentine’s Day.

Beet risotto with Manchego

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 medium beet, peeled and finely shredded
  • 3 to 4 cups warm vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup shredded Manchego cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Handful chopped fresh parsley

Heat stock until boiling, then reduce heat and maintain a gentle simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, heat oil and melt the first tablespoon of butter with the red chili flakes. Add onions and garlic, and cook for two to three minutes, until onions are translucent. Add paprika and rice to pan, stirring for about a minute, or until rice grains turn opaque. Add the wine.

Add shredded beets, and cook until wine has been completely absorbed.

Add one cup of the warm vegetable stock, stirring frequently until liquid is mostly absorbed. Repeat with an additional cup of stock, and then repeat again with one to two more cups as needed. Test your rice for tenderness – if it is al denté, great. If it isn’t, just pour in a little bit more stock, as needed, and let it absorb into the rice. I almost always need the full four cups of stock.

When rice is ready, stir in butter and Manchego cheese. Taste, and adjust seasonings quickly, as needed. Stir in parsley, and serve hot, with additional Parmesan cheese and a light sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley.

And Happy Valentine’s Day. However you did or did not celebrate it, I hope you had a lovely evening and ate something you really liked, in the company of someone you really like, whether it was you alone or with someone else.