Thursday, February 18, 2010

Comfort Food: Shepherd's Pie

In the thick of comfort food season, I made my first ever shepherd's pie. It might be the first shepherd's pie I've ever tasted, in fact. They used to serve it sometimes at the dining hall in college and often when I  was in Scotland, but I didn't trust it. Something about the meat and vegetables hiding under a layer of mashed potatoes, which I assumed were there to mask the look and perhaps taste of the unpleasant brown mush below. But, nevertheless, I got it in my head to make this on my own. (The main reason being that I need more recipes with ground beef, the least expensive type of grass-fed meat--unless you want to delve into offal. Though I should also mention, this recipe is supposed to be made with a meat mixture of at least half ground lamb.)

I didn't have high hopes as I heated my pan and began sauteing onions and carrots and broke apart the meat with a spoon.At least the recipe would yield leftovers and the ingredients were simple enough that it seemed pretty safe. As I added the beef broth, stirred in a generous teaspoon of rosemary, and tossed a heap of Italian parsley over the top, I was won over by a heavenly smell. I dipped a spoon in, tasted, and it was surprisingly full of flavor.

As the pie baked in the oven, I went outside to run an errand. In the cold and the dark, I walked along an icy path. It was tedious going, trying to find my grip. Before long, I'd pulled what I needed from the car and, hugging my arms at the elbows, hurried back to the front door. The heavenly smell greeted me again when I came in--the smell of warmth, of onions and potatoes and savories cooking somewhere close by.

This pie is a keeper. I would suggest the fresh rosemary if you can get it. I'm sure this would be at least twice as delicious with lamb. Lastly, I'd suggest adding a little more broth than called for to prevent the bottom layer from getting dry. I admit also that I should have let it brown a little longer . . .

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Dad's Meatballs (Nanny's Meatballs)

Last weekend, Brandon, Rosie and I were home in Staunton to celebrate Rosie's first birthday. We had to get there on Friday for the Sunday party because of the impending Saturday snowstorm. So, there we were with 1.5 days to hang out before the action. What else can we think of to do than  . . . eat! My dad, who you already know to be man who does not eat butter substitutes and has a passion for homemade Italian food, planned to make meatballs for Saturday night dinner. There was some deliberation over whether we had enough parsley in the house and whether we had enough Italian bread and whether we should double the recipe. As it turned out, we had it all. Late on Friday night, I sliced a large loaf of Filone from the bakery in town and set it on cooling racks to stale for him to use the next day.

Much like the marinara sauce, making The Meatballs is rather a ceremonious act. A recipe with such history deserves some special treatment, a formality in the cracking of the eggs over the meat, some care in chopping the parsley, a ginger touch when running the stale bread under water and crumbling it over the mix. It's obvious that Dad relishes each step in making these meatballs: he rolls each one into a perfect ball and hunches over the frying pan, turning them often as they sputter in the grease. Mine always burn at this stage, but his are a rich brown color. Mine always flatten out on one side, but his keep their round shape. I must be missing something in the turning...

I remember Dad making these in the evening when I was a little girl. He used to taste the meat mixture to be sure he'd seasoned it just right. He sometimes handed me a tiny spoonful of the raw meat and herbs. I would never eat it now, but I'm glad I did then. I still remember the taste and the way it melted on my tongue. I still remember the look of my Dad's rough fingers at work.

You might have guessed that this is Nanny's recipe. She's got it all worked out from the bread to the salt. She used to serve these at Christmas alongside the gnocchi and bracciola. My cousin David says the best thing about eating Nanny's meatballs was that she always served them piping hot. You could see the steam rising when you opened one. He also says that the texture is their prize trait. These meatballs are almost fluffy, never dense or tough.

On Saturday night before the big birthday party, it was nice to just sit around, eat well and throw our hands up at this or that.

Nanny's Italian Meatballs

2 lbs ground round steak
8 slices stale Italian bread
2 eggs, beaten
garlic powder
1/2 - 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups chopped parsley
1 medium onion
3 tsp salt
3 tsp pepper
1 tsp olive oil
2 Tbs tomato sauce (preferably homemade sauce; you can substitute canned Hunt's tomato sauce)
1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil
pot full of tomato sauce to cook meatballs after frying


Italian bread should be left in the open for four or five days to be very stale.
Place ground beef in a large bowl.
Soften stale Italian bread in cold water. Squeeze the bread tightly to get the water out. Remove any lumps from the bread and then crumble it with our fingers over the meat.
Add all the ingredients above the meat and bread and mix well with hands, squeezing all through your fingers until all of the ingredients are spread throughout.
Form meatballs into golf ball size.
Heat 1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil in a 10 in. frying pan until medium hot.
Place meatballs in hot oil and fry crisp-brown. Turn over and crisp both sides (this will take about 15 - 20 min.)
Remove from hot oil with a slotted spoon to allow the oil to drip off.
Place meatballs in Italian tomato sauce and simmer for 45 min.