Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cottage Pie with Creamy Polenta

Someone To Watch Over Me by Sting
Another great collaboration by George and Ira Gershwin, and recorded by a very long list of artists.  I have two artists' renditions in my library - Chris Botti and Sting.  They are equally compeling and hauntingly beautiful.  Both make me sigh and fill me with a longing to be cared for.  But, you see, in my world of preferences, there are maybe one or two artists that can beat out Sting in a coin toss when it comes to whose music will be chosen.  Those would be Pink Floyd and, depending on the day, James Taylor.  As far as I know, neither James Taylor nor Pink Floyd have recorded the song. . . . But I had to just stop typing for a moment and let my brain wrap around how lovely it would be to hear David Gilmour sing this song to me . . .  Ahem - ANYWAY!!!  Sting wins the feature with this recipe.  A recipe also known as "Shepherds Pie" but which I've chosen to call by its original name - for reasons I will explain further.  Comforting and delicious - and labeled "really good" by my husband.  High praise, indeed!

After my eldest daughter married she was frequently telling me about this dish that both she and her husband liked quite a bit.  And then I started hearing about this dish from her younger brother who would enjoy it while being a dinner guest at their home.  The dish was called Shepherd's Pie.  I'd heard of it before.  But to my recollection I had never made it - mostly probably because it sounded like something that my children wouldn't have liked!  Also, probably because somewhere in my mind I had categorized it into something that required too much monkeying around.

Considering the fact that this particular daughter was my "most selective" eater out of the brood, I guess I would have to scratch the excuse of "nobody will eat it" as reason not to try making it.  And considering the fact that a newly established cook in the kitchen was making this dish with excellent results nixed the notion that it was time-consuming and/or difficult.  The time had come to try my hand at this humble dish called Shepherd's Pie.

But that name got me to wondering.  Why was it called that?  Is it something that shepherds used to cart with them off to the hills as they cared for their flocks?  The nature of the dish told me probably not.  Thankfully, anyone can have an answer to a question within seconds by using the internet.  I Googled it.  I found that it was originally called Cottage Pie due to its humble constitution - using leftover meat, usually lamb, and vegetables and topped with a fairly new crop at the time called "potatoes."  The  next thing I read was this horrific turn of events - due to the use of lamb in the ingredients someone in the next century decided to start calling it Shepherd's Pie!!  Now I want to know just who thought that calling it that was an improvement?  Shepherd's Pie - using lamb as an ingredient?  Eating that which you have been given charge to watch over?  Nope.  I just can't can't wrap my head around that one.

Suddenly my images of shepherds heading to the hills with their knapsacks full of delicious goodies from home turned from the benevolent Christmas-time kind of shepherds into empty-handed hungry meanies who resembled Snidely Whiplash instead.
While watching over their flocks they were actually assessing which ones were going to make the most delicious dinner!  Every parable I had ever heard - about the value of the lone sheep - about how each sheep knows his master's call - about leading by example not pulling or pushing by coercion - all these valuable life lessons came crashing down in my head as they were replaced by this - if you give too much trouble, you're gonna be a pie!

Whew!  Soooo - I've decided to use the original title of Cottage Pie.  It calms me right down.  It's so much more descriptive of the dish anyway.  

Cottage pie is usually made with ground beef nowadays - at least in this country.  I would like to make it with lamb sometime, though.  I would season the meat with a touch of cinnamon, though, to counteract the lanolin flavor.  Cinnamon and ground lamb make beautiful music together.

As I mentioned, it is traditionally made with a mashed potatoes topper.
I made up both to illustrate the difference.  Creamy polenta topper in the upper left and the mashed potato topper bottom right.  I piped my potatoes on with a bag fitted with a large star tip but you can just smooth it on.  The ridges do give it interest and texture when you toast the top, though.

I started using polenta as a topper a few years ago.  I have another daughter who isn't a picky eater at all but has a huge aversion to potatoes.  We thought we'd give it a try and, let me tell you, it is a wonderful substitute!  I actually prefer it!  And polenta is very easy to make!  So I'm sharing that version with you today!  This recipe has all the makings to become one of your family's favorite comfort foods.  The polenta is creamy, the meat layer is flavorful and satisfying.

Cottage Pie with Creamy Polenta
serves 6
1 c. polenta
4 c. water
1 t. kosher salt
1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. grated parmesan
1/4 c. cream
salt to taste

1 lb. ground beef
1 T. olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 T. dried oregano
2 T. tomato paste
2 T. flour
1 c. beef stock
1 T. worcestershire sauce
1/2 c. frozen peas
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Start by getting the polenta going.  Bring the 4 cups of water to a boil.  Add the kosher salt and gradually stir in the polenta to avoid creating clumps.  Stir well.  Reduce heat to a simmer and continue to cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.  It will gurgle and glop as it thickens so if you have a splatter screen, I'd advise using it.  It will let the steam escape while keeping your cook top clean.

In a large saute pan or sauce pan, brown the ground beef over medium high heat until it loses it's pink color.  Remove from pan and set aside.  Add the olive oil to the pan and heat over medium high heat.  Add the onions, celery, and carrot and cook until the onions are slightly translucent - about 5 minutes.  Add the oregano and cook for another minute to bloom the flavor.  Add the tomato paste and stir to evenly coat the vegetables.  Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring often.  Add the flour and stir to coat.  The mixture will be fairly dry but cook for 2 minutes to cook out the raw flour taste.  Stir in the beef stock and reduce heat to medium and cook until the mixture thickens.  Return the ground beef to the pan.  Add the worcestershire sauce and then toss in the frozen peas.  You don't want to add them too soon as peas tend to become too squishy if they sit in heat too long.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

In a sprayed casserole dish, or individual ramekins, place the ground beef mixture and spread evenly across the bottom.  Set aside.

To finish the polenta, add the butter, parmesan, and cream and stir well to combine.  Season to taste with kosher salt.

Pour the creamy polenta over the top of the ground beef mixture and spread out evenly over the top.  Place in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.  Turn the oven to broil and watch closely as you get some golden brown toastiness on the top.  Remove from oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.


  1. What a great idea! I'm definitely trying the polenta next time. Also, funny you post this today, as this week I was tinkering with the recipe, trying to figure out how to make a good vegetarian version. I subbed lentils for the beff, and it was great! Also, I used an herbs de Provence flavor profile. It still needs a bit of tweaking, but it was good!

    1. You'll love the polenta. It's so creamy and delicious! The lentils is an interesting substitution. Let me know what you come up with!

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed your visit to my blog! Keep coming back every Thursday! See you later!