I got involved in a debate on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog earlier this week with my former editor Matthew Fort (now the unlikely star of TV programmes like Great British Menu and Market Kitchen. I say unlikely not because I don't rate him but because I'd never have imagined him abandoning the written word for the box.)
He was arguing that people shouldn’t bother with recipes. I was saying - from personal experience - that they needed them when they were starting out. No-one cooked - as in cooked well - in my family so I had to teach myself from books, a habit I only broke when I became a more confident cook and learnt what ingredient went with what.
Last night’s meal was a case in point. I had bought a pack of frozen lamb mince (for £2.99 a kilo) a few weeks ago and thought I should start to use it up. I fancied making a shepherds pie but suspected (wrongly, actually) the lamb wouldn’t have much flavour so thought I’d give it the treatment I usually reserve for moussaka (red wine and cinnamon). I also thought I’d play around with the topping to make it lighter and dairy free (my husband is dairy intolerant) so beat in some soy yoghurt and olive oil. (Nice)
There were many ingredients I used which I would have left out or substituted if they hadn’t been available. I had a fresh carrot, for example to use up so that went in. And some fresh parsley which gave it a bit of a hachis parmentier (the French version of shepherds’ pie) touch. I could obviously have substituted beef mince for lamb and passata for tinned tomatoes. But the red wine and cinnamon gave it its distinctive character. Here’s the recipe which I rather like. And so did my other half.
Greek(ish) shepherds’ pie
3 tbsp olive or other oil
450g-500g minced lamb
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and very finely chopped (optional)
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp oregano or marjoram (optional)
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp tomato puree or sundried tomato puree
1/2 a 400g tin of tomatoes (save the rest for a pasta sauce) or 200ml passata
A small glass (about 125ml) red wine
About 3 tbsp chicken or vegetable stock (if you have some handy)
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the topping
700-750g boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into even sized pieces
A heaped tbsp of soy or Greek yoghurt
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Heat a frying pan, add 1 tbsp of the oil and fry half the lamb until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain off the excess fat/liquid. Without adding more oil repeat with the remaining meat. Put some fresh oil in the pan and fry the chopped onion and carrot over a low heat until soft. Add the crushed garlic, cook for a minute then stir in the oregano and cinnamon, then the tomato puree, tomatoes or passata and red wine. Season lightly with salt and pepper, bring up to boiling point then reduce the heat to low and leave to simmer while you boil the potatoes.
Once the potatoes are cooked, drain them, cut them up roughly and mash them with a potato masher or fork. Add the yoghurt and olive oil, beat well then season to taste. Add a little extra stock, water or wine to the lamb filling if it has got a bit dry, stir in the parsley and check the seasoning.
Preheat the grill* Transfer the meat to a shallow dish and top with the mash, spreading it evenly over the meat. Place under the grill until the top is nicely browned.
* If you’re making this ahead you’ll need to reheat the pie in a moderately hot oven (190°C/375°F/Gas 5) for about 30-40 minutes depending whether or not you’ve taken it out of the fridge
Do you cook from recipes or do you tend to improvise? Or a bit of both? Do tell me how you learned to cook!