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16 Dec 2011

Cottage pie – Last Saturday, Kevin posted about a stew he had made, and that post inspired me to do two things: make some comfort food of my own and chronicle the adventure here. The first goal I achieved shortly after reading about Kevin’s stew; the second part I am only getting to now, because the avalanche is only now showing signs of slowing a bit.

“Cottage pie is another one of my go-to comfort foods.”

I don’t know if I fully appreciated stew when I was younger, but it is one of the ultimate comfort foods as far as I am concerned. Meat and vegetables cooked tender, all those juices and flavors playing off each other—it’s perfect on a cold, dark night. Whether it be a Korean-style short rib stew or a more Western combination of ingredients, few things hit the spot in quite the same way. Cottage pie is another one of my go-to comfort foods. I started making it when I was a poor student in London because it’s a cheap and easy way to take care of dinner. But it grew on me, and when the weather gets cold you can bet I will be pulling out that casserole dish and mashing up some potatoes.

Now, before we go any further, I have a confession to make: Korean potatoes are fine, but they can’t hold a candle to a good old Idaho potato. They just have too much moisture in them and generally aren’t as flavorful. My wife agrees, and she mentioned this to one of her students, an American. Perhaps stirred by national pride, or maybe just wanting to give his teacher a nice present, he went out (probably to the PX here) and bought two sacks of potatoes. We got them in plastic shopping bags, so I didn’t see the variety names, but judging by the shapes, colors, and sizes, I’m guessing one batch were Yukon Gold and the other batch were Russet.

We’ve had these potatoes for a little while now, and I’ve used them in various dishes, but the other day I happened to take a peek into the Yukon Gold bag and noticed that the potatoes had begun to grow. Pretty soon they would elect a leader and rise up in revolt. I couldn’t let that happen, so I took the remaining potatoes (there were about eight left, I think), twisted off the sprouts, then washed, peeled and cut them up into large chunks. It was time for some cottage pie.

Cottage pie can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. I’ve been known to go a little bit crazy in terms of complexity when cooking, but when it comes to cottage pie, I generally try to keep it simple. So let’s start with the main ingredients and I’ll take you through the latest incarnation of one of my favorite comfort foods.

In the upper left, of course, are the Yukon Gold potatoes. Look at how lovely and yellow they are! After the white flesh of most Korean potatoes, these look like big chunks of butter. Moving clockwise, we have some roughly chopped button mushrooms (agaricus bisporus—they actually printed the scientific name in English on the package). Korea has a wide variety of mushrooms to choose from, but when it comes to cottage pie I have to go with what are known as “Western mushrooms.” This ingredient is not an integral part of cottage pie, but it adds a nice flavor and cuts down on the greasiness of the meat. I first added mushrooms to cottage pie when we were short of meat once, and it led us to dub the dish “hobbit pie” (after hobbits’ love of mushrooms).

To the right of the mushrooms is some grated cheese (about 75 grams, but this is cottage pie, and most measurements go out the window—it could easily have been 100 grams). Had I had access to a wide variety of cheeses, I would have gone with cheddar, but what I happened to have at hand was some Colby from New Zealand, specifically the cheesemakers Mainland. After I was finished grating I took the last little chunk that was left over and popped it in my mouth—boy is that some good cheese. We had previously tried the Edam from Mainland and were pleased with that as well. It’s a bit on the expensive side, but... it’s really good cheese! (And no, they are not paying me to say that. I wouldn’t mind if they did, though.)

In the lower right, of course, is the meat. The English letters are a bit small to read, but if you can read Korean you’ll see that this is Australian ground beef. 384 grams of it, to be exact, but that just happened to be the size of this particular package. As it turned out, this cottage pie had a relatively high potato-to-meat (PtM) ratio, which is fine by me, but if you like a lower PtM ratio you can adjust the proportions as needed. I forgot to weigh the potatoes, so I don’t know what the exact PtM ratio was, but I would say this cottage pie probably ended up somewhere north of 2:1 PtM.

To the left of the beef is a chopped medium onion, and next to that are two cloves of garlic, minced. In the middle is a 250 ml container of heavy cream (called “whipping cream” on the box). Not pictured here are the oils and seasonings: a bit of oil for the onions and mushrooms, some butter for the garlic, salt for the potatoes, and Worcestershire sauce, freshly ground pepper (a mixture of black, red, white, and green peppercorns), sage, and thyme for the meat.

Once all the ingredient were prepped, the first thing I did was put the potatoes on to boil. Then the onions went into a wok-style frying pan with a little oil, and when they had softened a bit the mushrooms joined them. After some vigorous stir-frying, this is what I had.

I added the meat and seasonings—about a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, a healthy grinding of pepper, and several pinches of sage and thyme. Seasoning, of course, is open to interpretation, but I happen to like this particular combination. Then I let the meat cook through and stirred until the juices had all cooked back into the mixture.

With that done, I turned off the heat and turned my attention to the potatoes. They had cooked sufficiently in the time that it had taken to prepare the meat mixture, so I dumped them out into a strainer and let them drain. Then I added a little butter to the pot I had cooked them in and added the garlic. You don’t want to let the garlic fry too long or it will burn and become bitter—my garlic was minced so I only needed about ten seconds before I got that roasted garlic aroma. I immediately poured in 100 ml of the cream and let the garlic flavor diffuse through that for a little bit. Then the potatoes went back into the pot and I mashed away.

You can see above that there are still some small chunks of potato left. Well, that’s mashed potatoes for you—if you don’t like little chunks in your mashed potatoes, then what you really want is whipped potatoes. You’ll also notice that the potatoes are rather thick. Had I been serving these as a side dish I probably would have added some milk to make the potatoes smoother and not quite as thick, but this is a good consistency for cottage pie.

And that’s it, really. The meat goes on the bottom, the potatoes go on top, and the cheese gets sprinkled over that. All the ingredients are already cooked, so all you really need to do is melt the cheese and make sure everything is heated. I threw it into my trusty mini-oven for a while (I don’t remember for how long, to be honest, although I think the temperature was 220 degrees Celsius) and it was done.

I don’t know how appealing that looks—in retrospect it looks a bit on the funny side—but it tasted very good. Like I said above, this cottage pie has a high PtM ratio, although it isn’t quite as high as it might look from this photo, as the potatoes settled down to cover most of the meat.

And there you have it: some comfort food at a time when I can definitely use all the comfort I can get. Hyunjin wasn’t around when this was made, but she was there the next night for leftovers, and I was more than happy to share those leftovers with her. We grew up with different conceptions of comfort food, but just as I’ve come to appreciate some Korean comfort food, she has grown to appreciate my comfort food as well. It may seem like a silly thing, given what life can throw at us, but a hot, hearty meal can go a long way toward peace of mind. Sometimes I feel it’s the least I can do... and other times it feels like the most I can do.

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