Welcome, everyone, to the very first episode of 2020! This week our bakers endeavored to chase away the winter chills using two classic comfort foods. Without further ado, we give you Meat & Potatoes Week!
When Mandy told us we would be doing a Meat & Potatoes bake, I immediately thought of shepherd’s pie. In fact, I thought of it so quickly that I instantly rejected the idea, because I knew that at least one of my fellow bakers would surely think of it as well. What I did not expect was for ALL of my fellow bakers to come up with variations on this British staple.
My first thought to set myself apart from the competition was to use sweet potatoes. I feel that we are at the tail end of our sweet potato renaissance here in America; there is, after all, only so much you can realistically do with a sweet potato. Once we started getting them passed to us through drive through windows, the writing was on the wall. But none of us had used them yet that I recall here at La Maison de Mizer, so I thought I’d be that guy.
The meat for my diced, roasted sweet potatoes was bacon, because… I don’t need a reason. It’s bacon. I decided to pair these with a bold Parmigiano-Reggiano I had purchased that day, and to bring them all together I purchased an OUTSTANDING spicy fig paste that I had tried before with bacon and parmesan separately. I knew they would all mingle well together, and they did. I probably should have backed off just a bit from the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Looking back, I actually could have left it off entirely. The sweet potato/bacon/fig combination is a solid flavor I will definitely revisit in the future, and it really didn’t need the cheese. This was already the most expensive dish I’d ever devised for our bakes, but I wasn’t finished yet. I was about to make what would be my coup de grâce, but not in the winning way I’d hoped.
Portobellos. I’ve cooked with lots of mushrooms, but never portobellos. Mark’s husband Jon is the best non-professional mushroom chef I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine with, and he tells me his secret is high heat and Worcestershire. It grants his fungi a meaty, almost steak-like flavor that I thought would complement everything perfectly. I removed the stems and used the portobellos as a baking dish to hold all the ingredients together. It looked so good!
But it was also my fatal mistake. I didn’t test my recipe first. My inexperience with portobellos meant I didn’t realize just how much moisture would cook out of these mushrooms. Spoiler alert: it was A LOT. I gave the caps a thin Worcestershire, salt, and olive oil coating to brown them, but the portobellos released so much water they were swimming in the pan. It was so disheartening. If I had cooked them on a baking rack to keep them out of their own juices things might have been different, but the steamy oven made the fig paste melt into the water, meaning that most of my fig, Worcestershire, and salt flavors were washed away, leaving behind a soggy, sloppy mess.
To add insult to injury, unbeknownst to me, Mandy hates parmesan. She saw me unbag it and place it on the food, yet she waited until serving time to tell me she hated it. Even as I type the words they make no sense to me. I’ve known her for so long it seems impossible to me that I didn’t know this. As soon as I cracked the oven door she complained that my food smelled like feet. Looking back, I think she was actually waiting to use that line, because the parmesan molecules in that oven air could not possibly have reached her olfactory receptors on the other side of the kitchen that quickly. She just wanted to hurt me. I knew she was not fond of mushrooms, but I’d hoped to make something so good it would change her mind. Instead what I served her was a heavily parmesan flavored, unpleasantly wet mushroom with the bacon and potato flavor completely lost in the slop. She actually spit it out. I thought back to one of our previous competitions when I forced down three of her balsamic roasted carrots, despite the fact that they stung my lips, mouth, and throat so badly it made my eyes water. But she spit my mushroom out. That was some cold shit.
Despite her needless cruelty, Mandy’s bake was actually quite lovely. I’ve asked her several times what these were called, but she only told me once and I can’t remember. It seems like it was something to do with workmen. Or hunting, maybe. Or football. And by football I mean soccer, which is called football where these pies come from, which is either Britain or Australia. Or possibly not. I’m just going to call them Football Pies.
Mandy chose to do a non-traditional football pie, and serve it with whipped potato garnish, sort of transforming it into a semi-deconstructed shepherd’s pie in a puff crust. It was all very confusing, but that didn’t really matter because it was absolutely delicious. Mandy, as I have said many times before, is a potato sorceress, and her whipped garnish was like potatoey icing on a meaty little cake. And though the crust is always my least favorite part of any pie, this was flaky and buttery and as close to perfect as crust can get.
Look at how photogenic these were! And I assure you they tasted every bit as good as they looked. You’ll note that Mandy added peas to her filling. I hate peas. Loathe them. I would be lying if I said the peas negatively impacted the flavor of the football pies, but they did add the occasional odd bit of texture. Part of what makes peas so unappealing is that they are little mush bombs covered by an unpleasantly resilient skin. They explode when bitten, releasing their inner green nastiness upon an unsuspecting mouth. The gravy Mandy had created covered the flavor of the peas nicely, but they were still there, popping as I chewed, mocking me in their vileness. I, however, love Mandy dearly and care about her feelings, and would never DREAM of spitting her food out in front of her. Hey, look over here, Mandy. You see where I’m standing? It’s called The High Road. You should take it some time.
Mark baked us his delicious Shepherd’s Pie Casserole. As you can see, what separates this from a traditional shepherd’s pie is two things: Mark incorporated cheese into his mashed potato topping, and, more significantly, he portioned the mashed potatoes into distinct scoops, leaving regular gaps on the surface of the bake, allowing more moisture to escape from the meat filling. This, in my opinion, is a very interesting innovation.
If you, like me, have ever baked a deep dish traditional shepherd’s pie, you know that the top gets sealed with a thick layer of mashed potatoes. As this bakes, it forms a nicely browned crust on top, but only allows moisture to escape by bubbling up around the sides of the baking dish. This means that there is the possibility that too much moisture will be retained in the filling. Since shepherd’s pies are crustless on the bottom and sides, this usually isn’t a problem; instead of thick gravy you end up with a thin sauce which tastes just as good and, overall, doesn’t negatively impact the dish too drastically.
In a shallow casserole dish, however, that same amount of moisture could render the decreased mass of the pie a soupy wreck. Mark wisely sidestepped that hazard by leaving vents in the crust, allowing the potatoes and filling to form a cohesive whole. This was a solid shepherd’s pie and a great casserole. Extra props to Mark on this one, because I absolutely HATE the idea of cheese in shepherd’s pie. That feels like the needless Americanization of what should be an authentic British dish. But Mark made it work. The cheese added a butteriness to the potatoes that tasted like it belonged.
If there’s anything I find more gastronomically distasteful than the idea of cheese in a shepherd’s pie, it’s the idea of Guinness anywhere near my mouth. I’ve never understood its popularity. It’s a nasty beverage made even worse by the way it coats the palate and lingers in the back of your throat. If I were a home brewer and accidentally made something like Guinness, I would assume it was a spoiled batch. So you can only imagine my disgust when Dan showed me the cheese covered shepherd’s pie creation he called Guinness Lamb Pie.
Have you ever tasted coffee from a garage? Not a clean, sterile, mass consumption garage attached to a big box store, and not a chain garage that specializes in fast tire rotation and catchy jingles. I mean a real garage, where the wood paneling and furniture haven’t been updated or cleaned since the mid 1970s, and everything, including the staff, has a permanent yet oddly pleasant aroma of used motor oil and spilled hydraulic fluid. The kind of garage where the mechanic is still complaining about the “new” set of metric tools he had to buy 30 years ago. They don’t look like the kind of places where you should eat, let alone drink a beverage brewed in an open topped carafe. But the coffee in those garages is always the BEST. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the smell of old hydrocarbons lingering in the air, or possibly the mechanics who work those garages are all members of a secret society of master coffee sommeliers. Whatever the case, the strong brew and atmosphere of thick petrochemicals combine to form an elixir that is far better than it has any right to be.
Apparently I’m not the only one to think so.
And so it is with Guinness and lamb. I should note here that I am a fan of lamb. I really enjoy it. I absolutely hate it when I hear some whiny know-nothing take their very first bite of lamb or mutton and say, “It doesn’t taste right.” Yes, it tastes exactly right. It tastes like lamb or mutton. What they invariably mean is that it doesn’t taste like beef, which it resembles. No, lamb and mutton do not taste like beef. They’re not supposed to. They taste like lamb and mutton.
That said, lamb can sometimes have mutton’s oily gaminess, especially if the lamb was allowed to age too long. It’s not unpleasant, but it is unfamiliar enough to most Americans in my part of the country for them to turn up their nose at it. Dan’s lamb had the slightest tinge of muttoniness to it, and I am SO glad it did, because it turns out the cure for that is Guinness. Like the coffee in a garage, Dan took something I love (lamb) and combined it with something that should never be associated with human digestion (Guinness) and produced a smoky, mouthwatering flavor that honestly made me think of garage coffee as soon as it hit my tongue. It was EXTRAORDINARY. It was like I was eating a lamb stewed in coffee inside an old Pontiac bell housing, and I mean that in the very best way possible. And that was just the first bite. As I chewed I was… this is hokey as hell, but there’s no other word for it. I was transported.
I am well aware that Guinness is Irish. Both Guinness and Irish Americans have spent far too much time and effort making us all aware of this for me to have missed it. And while Dan and Mandy have been fortunate enough to visit olde Erin’s Isle, my own British adventures took place in England and Scotland.
Twenty years ago I took a train from London to Edinburgh, then another train from Edinburgh to Inverness. The countrysides of England and the Scottish Lowlands are magnificent, but as we moved into the Highlands, I noted a darkening of the landscape. The soil is different. Instead of lush green fields I saw rolling hills of dark heather under increasingly overcast skies. And that different soil and lower sunlight doesn’t just affect the scenery. It makes everything taste different.
The French have a word, “terroir,” which is a sort of shorthand for the overall combination of environmental factors that make crops grown in certain regions taste the way they do. Anyone who has ever tasted a Vidalia onion already understands terroir; Vidalias are just normal onions grown in the unusually low sulphur soil of certain parts of Georgia. If you took those same onions and planted them anywhere else they would be pungent, but the soil chemistry of the farmlands around Vidalia, GA means those onions will instead grow to be unusually sweet. Wine and coffee aficionados are well aware of this phenomenon, as are people who prefer specialized varieties of tobacco, heirloom tomatoes, Dakota durum and heritage wheats, Canadian/Vermont/Maine maple syrups, and, if some of the people I went to high school with are to be believed, different types of weed. Because of the high limestone content of our water and the way our white oak tastes when charred for barrels, Kentucky bourbon is considered the yardstick by which other whiskeys are judged worldwide. That’s terroir. And when animals are raised eating those crops, their meat develops distinct flavors as well. Everything grown in a region, after a time, takes on the taste of the land. It is reasonable to assume, then, that no matter how closely you follow the recipe, a dish made from local ingredients is never going to taste exactly the same as that same dish made with ingredients from another locale. So you can imagine my surprise when Dan, who has never been to Scotland, who was cooking with Irish stout, and who braised lamb that almost certainly came from America, Canada, or New Zealand, reproduced with startling accuracy the terroir of a little Scottish village I will never forget called Drumnadrochit.
I didn’t eat lamb when I was in Drumnadrochit, at least not that I remember. I wouldn’t have refused it, but I was only in Drumnadrochit long enough for one meal. But the things I learned in Drumnadrochit will be with me for a lifetime. I learned that Stealers Wheel and The Proclaimers are Scottish bands. I learned that the Irish aren’t the only ones who make cream liquors, and, sorry Bailey’s, but Heather Cream is better. I learned that the middle of July in the Highlands can be as overcast, cold, and damp as mid-October in Kentucky. I learned that Cumbrae mead is quite possibly the finest tasting alcoholic beverage that exists on this planet. I learned that Loch Ness is so murky that you can barely see a foot or two down into the water, and even in the middle of summer it stays so frigid that in the time it took me to dip my arm in elbow deep, my hand had started to ache from the cold. Edinburgh is absolutely wonderful, but Drumnadrochit is another world. That’s where I felt like I was really in Scotland. And even though I wasn’t yet acquainted with the term, that was where I first really understood terroir.
The food I ate in Drumnadrochit is a tale for another time, but when you eat real Highland food, you start to understand how people could live through such constant cold wetness. Granted, the mead helped, but Highland fare will make you feel like the cold can’t get to you. I’m a longtime lover of jalapeños, so I am familiar with the rush of endorphins and the feeling of temporary invincibility that some spicy foods can bring. But while jalapeños make me feel immune to sickness and lethargy, Highland food made me feel like cold weather no longer applied to me. Suddenly, walking the freezing Highlands in a kilt made sense. The wintery chill of Scotland in July was someone else’s problem, and I’d happily let others warm up near the fire while I went out and gathered in the sheep. I might not even take a jacket.
When I started to really chew Dan’s Guinness Lamb Pie, I tasted Drumnadrochit. There is an underlying flavor that is subtle, but ever-present. It’s the flavor of the soil, and of the Loch, and of the air there. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but Dan captured that, and it was all due to the Guinness. As much as I hate that stuff, the coffee and yeasty chocolate notes of the Guinness mingled perfectly with the very subtle lanolin gaminess of the lamb. All of this was infused with the butteriness of the cheese which, despite my continued misgivings regarding its inclusion in any variation of shepherd’s pie, absolutely worked in this dish. By every culinary metric I can think of I should have hated this thing. Guinness and cheese in a shepherd’s pie? Revolting. Only it wasn’t. It was marvelous. When I eat a shepherd’s pie, I always hope to taste a little bit of Britain in general, but Dan took us straight to Drumnadrochit with the best shepherd’s pie I have ever eaten. Usually I include a picture of the interior of every dish we make, but as you can see, I don’t have one. I forgot all about it, and so did everyone else. We just wanted to keep eating this hearty, amazing pie. And that authentic old-country deliciousness is what earned Dan the top spot as this week’s Star Baker! Congratulations, Dan, and thank all of you for joining us again. Be sure to tune in next time when we get dainty and elegant for English Tea Week!