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Shepherd’s Pie

When I was a kid, as we drove up through Brewster, we would get to a certain point and my father would point to the top of the hill and say, “I have a friend who lives up there. Blankety Blank lives up there.” (Names omitted to protect the innocent). It came to the point that as those words came out of his mouth, my sister and I sighed, rolled our eyes in that way only little girls can, and finished the statement. And this went on for years, decades even.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. One of the people nearest and dearest to me in this life has my father’s habit of repeating the same story when certain touchstones are passed or smelled or said. Such is the case with this little hole in the wall restaurant that I keep being told makes the BEST Shepherd’s Pie any place. HA! My answer to this ridiculous statement – and you would agree if you ever saw this place! – always is the same “I make the best Shepherd’s Pie any place.”

Truth be told, I had NEVER made Shepherd’s Pie. I have always wanted to, have been in search for a great recipe for ages, but just never quite gotten there. The last pass by this “restaurant” and that silly statement being uttered, yet again, was juts the push I needed to get moving on this challenge!

And then I watched Lucinda Scala Quinn make Shepherd’s Pie on Mad Hungry, I knew this was the had-to-make recipe. This wasn’t just any old Shepherd’s Pie, but Keith Richards’ Shepherd Pie. I printed it and forgot it.

Desperately looking for something to read, I picked a book from Tom’s unending ‘to be read’ pile. Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, caught my eye. If nothing else, it should be wildly entertaining. And while reading, I came across the fact that Shepherd’s Pie is Keith’s favorite thing to eat. And then the light bulb went off and I remembered that Lucinda Scala Quinn had adapted this recipe from his autobiography.

It was a sign from above – no, not God, Julia Child.

  • 8 T butter (1 stick), divided
  • 5 potatoes, peeled and halved
  • 3 T milk, plus more if needed
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped, divided in half
  • 2 pounds ground lamb
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1/4 C Worcestershire
  • 1/2 C chicken or beef stock
  • 2 t cornstarch dissolved in 4 t water
  • coarse salt
  • 1/4 t white pepper
  • 1 C frozen peas, thawed and drained

Preheat oven to 400.

In a large saute pan on medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter and saute 1/2 of chopped onion, carrots and celery until softened. Add the meat and salt and cook on high, stirring occasionally until the moisture is evaporated and the meat is browning in fat, about 15 minutes.

When meat is browned, stir in Worcestershire and cook 1 minute. Stir in chicken stock and cornstarch-water mixture and simmer for additional minute to thicken.

Peel and halve potatoes. Place in pot and cover with cold water to 2 inches above potatoes. Add generous amount of salt. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain potatoes and return to pot (or transfer to bowl). Mash the potatoes with 4 tablespoons butter, white pepper and a few tablespoons of milk until smooth. Add more milk if needed to make potatoes creamy.

In a 2-quart casserole dish, evenly distribute the cooked meat, top with peas and remaining chopped onion and dollop mashed potatoes on top.

Dot top of potatoes with remaining 2 tablespoons butter.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, until warmed through and potatoes are golden on top, and pie is bubbling.

This was so good! The entire thing was gone. Take that little hole in the wall restaurant! I shake my fist in your general direction. No way YOUR Shepherd’s Pie is better than mine! And dear friend, come over any time and I’ll school ya on great Shepherd’s Pie! Thanks Keith and Lucinda!

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Uncle Nicky’s Gnocchi

While flipping through Lucinda’s Rustic Italian Kitchen, I found her recipe for gnocchi.   I have been wanting to try my hand at making gnocchi for a very long time. Lucinda’s Gnocchi had a pesto sauce with it – and I only eat my great grandmother’s pesto.  Yes, I have some strange food issues, but if you ever try my great grandmother’s pesto, you wouldn’t eat any other pesto either!

While trying to decide what to do with the gnocchi once made, I thought of my Uncle Nicky and his special gnocchi dish.

My family owned a restaurant in New York City called Papoo’s for over 50 years. Some of my favorite memories of my grandparents and uncle – well, my whole family – swirl around in there. My husband and I had our wedding reception there. My sister’s bridal shower and rehearsal dinner. Countless birthdays, special occasions and parties. The very first time I had too much to drink was there – ah, the dastardly Solly Sombre. I still occasionally walk past the original location (lost to us after 9/11) and I swear I can see my Grandmother peeking through the window looking for customers, or my grandfather walking down the street, or my son standing outside selling Italian ices when he was 11. I remember Papoo’s before it was Papoo’s and was The Town Restaurant. Isn’t it funny how most of my fondest memories revolve around food. The loss can be bittersweet at times so I try not to walk past there very often.

Just as an aside, after 9/11 the restaurant moved, but it was never the same. Maybe Papoo’s was really my grandparents and that little tiny restaurant where there was a memory every place you looked. Then the economy slammed everyone – well, you know how that story goes.

Now that I am completely sad and blue, let’s get back to the reason for this post!

When my Uncle Nicky took over as the chef, he would, on occasion – rare occasions that involved a lot of begging and pouting – make this dish for me. I was convinced there had to be some horrible, long involved, painful process, otherwise why wouldn’t he make this wonderful dish for his darling niece whenever she wanted.

He would never tell me how to make it. Uncle Nicky always played it quite close to the vest about recipes and when he did give you a recipe you had to really think through what he said  – who here remembers my debacle with his lamb and ORZO?! Let’s just say it was just shy of Strega Nonna’s Pot!

Anywho – after deciding to make the gnocchi, Uncle Nicky’s Gnocchi (say that a few times fast) was the only thing I could think of – how hard could it really be?

  • 3 best-quality Idaho potatoes, washed and dried
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Spear the potatoes lightly with a fork in a few places. Place directly on the oven rack and cook until completely tender, about 1 hour.

NOTE: Really? Three potatoes? Three baking potatoes? I must admit I was really leery.

When cool enough to handle, cut the potatoes open, scoop out the flesh, and pass it through a potato ricer to achieve a very fine and light texture.

Spread the riced potatoes out on a rimmed baking sheet and allow to cool completely (very important).

In a mixing bowl, whisk together 1 3/4 cups of the flour and the salt. Slowly blend the flour mixture into the potatoes, using your hands to combine completely, until the dough pulls away from your hands and feels like pizza dough. Add flour if necessary to achieve desired consistency.

NOTE: I did this right on the baking sheet. I saw no point in dirtying another bowl or trying to transfer the little, light and fluffy wiggles into a bowl!

Once in a ball, sprinkle some flour on a clean work surface. Separate the dough into several pieces and roll out each into the size of a cigar. Cut each “cigar” into 1-inch pieces.

NOTE: I moved to a big wooden board now.

To form the gnocchi, dip a fork in flour, then place the tines on top of a piece of dough. Applying medium pressure, gently roll the gnocchi toward you with the fork, releasing pressure gradually as you roll, until it is completely rolled off the tines. Repeat with each piece of dough, placing the gnocchi on a floured baking sheet as completed. The pieces should resemble tiny footballs with a cup in the center.

NOTE: FORK MY ASS EYE! I have already ordered a gnocchi board for the next go around! Perhaps I am too clumsy for the fork method. Perhaps I just want a new toy. Perhaps my forks are not wide or long enough for it to work properly.

Place a large pot of water on the stove to boil. When boiling, add a generous amount of salt. Drop about 8 gnocchi into the water at a time and cook until they return to float on the surface of the boiling water, 2 to 3 minutes.

Now, this is where Lucinda ends and Uncle Nicky steps in. (little secret, he used frozen gnocchi – you can too – just bring a pot of water to boil, add the gnocchi, once it floats take it out and let it cool)

In order to make my favorite dish you’ll need –

  • 2 shallots, chopped finely
  • 5 T butter
  • 1 t dried thyme
  • s&p to taste

After you have boiled the gnocchi, let them cool for a bit.

NOTE: When I made tis dish, I let the gnocchi cool completely and put them in the fridge until the next day. I brought them to room temperature before I began. 

Add 3 tablespoons of the butter to a saute pan large enough to hold the gnocchi you are making in pretty much a single layer. Let the butter brown.

NOTE: It seems like a lot of butter, but this was for ALL the gnocchi I had made and no I didn’t count them. Change the amount of butter according to the amount of gnocchi. It goes from brown to black fairly quickly. Also, it browns much faster in an open skillet than in a pot when you’re baking.

Once browned, add the shallots and let cook until almost transparent. Once transparent add the other 2 tablespoons of butter.

Once melted, toss the gnocchi in the butter. And leave, stirring occasionally until the gnocchi is brown in places and become a little crisp. Add in the thyme and pepper to taste – salt if necessary.

Serve!

Now that this mystery has been solved I feel a little like Nate the Great unraveling one of life’s mysteries. I can have this wonderful gnocchi now whenever I want.

I think next time I am going to try sage instead of the thyme.

The gnocchi are soft and pillowy with just enough crunch to make them interesting. The browned butter is wonderful, nutty, adding a nice hint of flavor to the gnocchi. The thyme adds a wonderful layer of rustic something to the dish.

Enjoy!

Beef Braciola

I am truly enamored with Lucinda Scala Quinn. Have been from the first time I saw her on television. Her cooking style and mine are similar.  Her recipes and ingredients are accessible and easy and wonderful for family and friends, for all sorts of occasions. Many of the recipes from Mad Hungry come from one of Lucinda’s first books, Lucinda’s Rustic Italian Kitchen. Wonderful book with some truly wonderful recipes inside – including this one for Beef Braciola.

It never occurred to me to make braciola. To me it was always something people put in sauce, something the butcher made, and not something I cared for very much. There was something about this recipe and photo that drew me to it – making braciola the star of the dish! How ingenious!

  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced (about 3 teaspoons)
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
  • 10 slices top-round sirloin, very thinly sliced, pounded to 4-6 inches
  • 10 pieces string, 14 inches long
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 2 tablespoons red wine (optional) or water
  • 1 28-ounce can best-quality tomatoes, coarsely blended

NOTE: I had the butcher cut this for me. I had 6 slices. I didn’t adjust the amount of stuffing any. I would prefer to have a little left over than not having enough!

You will of course only see 5 throughout this recipe as the Pup helped herself to a slice as I turned my back for a SPLIT second to put down the camera!

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 2 teaspoons of the garlic in a small skillet over medium heat until it sizzles but does not brown, about 30 seconds. Stir in the breadcrumbs, remove from the heat, and set aside to cool. Stir in the Parmesan, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, 1/8 teaspoon of the black pepper, the red pepper flakes, and thyme.

Lay the meat slices out side by side on a clean workspace. Sprinkle each slice with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper. Place a scant 1/4 cup filling over each meat slice, leaving a 1/4-inch border.

NOTE: I pounded the beef a bit to make it thinner and easier to roll. Also, I am so lousy at tying up meat (no comments from the peanut gallery) that I made it as simple as I could and just tied it in one spot. Really it was just to hold it together while searing it,. The Braciola Police were not going to give me a hard time for my ugly tying skills!

Drizzle on olive oil and roll each piece up from the widest to narrowest end. Tie each piece with the string.

Place the remaining 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat. Just before the oil smokes, add the meat bundles. (Do not crowd the pan or the meat won’t brown.) Working in batches if necessary, cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove the braciola from the pan and keep warm in the oven.

Reduce the heat to medium, stir in the onion and the remaining teaspoon of garlic, and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Pour in the wine or water, stirring to deglaze the pan, loosening all the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.

Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Return the beef to the pan, reduce the heat, and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour. Remove the bundles from the pan, one at a time, snip off the string, and return to the pan. The dish may be made a couple of days ahead to this point, and the taste will improve. Serve as desired.

NOTE: I made a little pasta for the side and topped it with the tomato sauce.  And that thieving pup I mentioned earlier? Seems too much of a good thing IS bad for you! That is how she spent the rest of the night! Not sure if she was hanging her head in shame or suffering from being stuffed and eating raw beef!

Oven Crisp Flautas

I don’t mind cooking on a Saturday night. I just don’t want to think about it and I really don’t want to put a lot of effort into cooking.  I mean, really, shouldn’t the chief cook and bottle washer get a day off?

Used to be, at least in my house, Saturday night was take-out night – usually Chinese or Mexican food. But since the ‘day’ and our new very careful eating regime, Chinese food is a BIG nono, and Mexican take-out is just too full of things a certain someone shouldn’t eat.

Lucinda to the rescue! On her show, Mad Hungry, Lucinda made the most enticing Oven Crisp Flautas. No frying! No BAD ingredients! Simple! And Mexican! This would be the solution for my Saturday night dilemma – easy for the cook and pleasing to those yearning for take-out.

  • 1 package corn tortillas, 12
  • 6 ounces Monterey jack cheese, grated
  • 2 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • 1 tablespoon safflower oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lay tortillas out on two baking sheets. Spread cheese on each one. Place in oven to melt, 1-2 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss the tomatoes, black beans, salt, and lime juice together.

NOTE: I wanted these to be a little more substantial, so I poached 2 chicken breasts, shredded them, and added them to the tomatoes and bean mixture. I also added a bit of cumin and cayenne to give it an extra layer of goodness.

Distribute mixture over cheese-melted tortillas and roll up.

Place side by side on baking sheet. Brush oil over top of each roll. Bake for 8 minutes, until golden and crispy.

NOTE: And because I can’t help myself, I sprinkled more shredded cheese over the top.

To serve along with the flautas, I made arroz con frijoles negros – and it couldn’t have been simpler. I opened, drained and rinsed a can of black beans. I cooked brown rice in the microwave (yes, I hear the collective gasp, but it was truly a last minute idea!). In a saute pan I added a T of oil and a chopped small onion, cooked until translucent. I added in the beans and a can of diced tomatoes. Bubble for a few minutes. Add to the rice and voila!

Bolognese Sauce

May I just say that I absolutely love Lucinda Scala Quinn. Always have. Always will. Her cookbooks are wonderful. Easy going recipes with easy going results. Recipes made with love for those you love. Mad Hungry – the latest book – is a great book for everyone. It’s a great book to give to someone starting out on their own in the kitchen. No nonsense, straight forward and -most importantly – delicious.

The Mad Hungry series on the Hallmark Channel is so well done – and Lucinda has a spurdle. A little, simple wooden utensil that has the entire country running around screaming SPURDLE or Spurtle depending on who is typing!

As I was reading through a recipe for Stuffed Shells Bolognese I was about to make, I happened to be watching Mad Hungry. What was Lucinda making? Bolognese Sauce. What a wonderful recipe and the Bolognese Sauce recipe that went with the stuffed shells was WAY too fussy for me!  I love the addition of cream. And, truthfully, anything with pancetta is a recipe for me!

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, finely diced (1/2 cup)
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 2 celery stalks, finely diced
  • 4 ounces pancetta, finely diced (optional)
  • 1 pound ground beef, or a combination of beef and pork
  • Coarse salt
  • 1/2 C red or white wine
  • 1 28-ounce can best-quality tomatoes, pulsed in a blender
  • 1/2 C cream or milk
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 T butter

NOTE: The trifecta of Italian cooking – battuto – onions carrots and celery (also usually garlic and parsley). Personally, I HATE cutting carrots and celery. When I do it, I cut all the carrots and all the celery and put what I am not using into a freezer bag for the next recipe. Onions I don’t mind chopping as much, but if I have left over from an onion I throw the rest into a freezer bag in the freezer that grows and shrinks with the amount I cook in any given week!

NOTE: LOOK AT MY BEAUTIFUL SPURTLE!

Heat a saucepan over low heat. Add the olive oil, onion, carrot, and celery and saute over low heat until lightly caramelized, about 12 minutes.

Add the pancetta and beef and cook, separating the meat into small pieces, until browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain off most of the fat. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt.

Pour the wine into the beef mixture to deglaze the pan; stir to loosen the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the wine is almost evaporated. Add the tomatoes and stir in the cream, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Gently simmer for about 40 minutes, until the sauce has reduced and thickened. Stir in butter and adjust seasoning.

NOTES: I thought the addition of cream to the sauce was interesting, but I drew the line at butter. I didn’t think it really would lend anything to the sauce.

I used white wine because that’s what I had open on the counter. The red wine just adds a deeper flavor.

Just so you know, I was contacted by Harry at Kitchen Carvers. He makes Spurtles. They’re beautiful. He hand makes each one. They’re beautiful. Everything on his site is lovely. Go buy a spurtle. Tell Harry the folks at From the Bookshelf sent you!