Friday, January 9, 2015

Shepherd's Pie

From torrential downpours and flooding to biting cold, Sonoma County's taken its fair share of inclement weather in the last month or so. I'm told we need the water, and I like the rain. Winter chill, however, can settle deep.

Many people in many cultures with many different cuisines have proven the value of a hearty dish on an otherwise un-cozy night. Some say it should "stick to your ribs." Dunno about you, but I don't particularly enjoy the incapacitating fullness that comes with consuming such a quantity of heavy food. I'd prefer to feel fulfilled, not filled full of regret.

Enough cheesy wordplay. More cheesy shepherd's pie.

"Wait, what? Cheesy? Thought dairy wasn't paleo?? Isn't this be...what??"

-the one or two readers of this blog

I'll do my best to explain why I continue to eat grass-fed dairy. Or at least direct you to someone who can at PaleoLeap. This article goes through the debate on dairy, the clear and less clear pros and cons. 

I reintroduced dairy after completing a Whole30 in November. I already knew I liked butter and cheese (5-year gouda, gimme a BREAK that's too damn good to give up,) but needed to find out how well my body deals with it. I've found that I still do like it, but that I cannot tolerate it in the quantities I used to, so I moderate my intake. And choose the best butter and cheeses I can find (and afford.) How many times did I use "I" in this paragraph? Enough times to demonstrate the individual nature of anyone's decision to exclude or include something from his or her diet. The principles at the foundation of a paleo or paleo-ish lifestyle are yours to interpret because your body is unique; such is the nature of biodiversity. Can't put the same food in every body and expect exactly the same results. And that's a damn good thing, otherwise the bacteria would've won by now.

But humanity survives because of its diversity on every level. Without getting partisan, I need to at least mention the all-too-serious situation in France, where fundamentalists have been murdering and terrorizing the civilian population in defense of the pride of a long-deceased figurehead in their religion. Civilians lost their lives simply for having exercised free speech and offending all-too-sensitive zealots. The human lives lost in Paris and all over the world every day for similar reasons deserve to be remembered, and to mean something. 

All I can hope is that anyone familiar with the facts and logic of history would at least understand that the tectonics of the current geopolitical landscape are dictated by forces other than the ones gestured to by talking heads on TV. People who believe their own way is the only way will usually be proven wrong, and will generally learn the hard way. Often with tragic consequences for humanity, regardless of allegiances. So there is an austere background for this blog post, to allow for focus on the important things.

Quite simply, my decision to eat grass-fed dairy should not affect your decision. I'm just here to tell you how tasty it can be if you're into it. If you're not, that's cool; this shepherd's pie will still be scrumptious. This food is an opportunity to bring your family or friends together over something warm and nourishing. the sort of opportunity that should be taken whenever presented.

If you're in: from start to finish, the whole thing will take you 2-3 hours. But it's a fairly simple dish that will feed a small army and/or supply you with abundant leftovers with two main ingredients: ground beef and sweet potatoes. The rest is (quite literally) gravy, and will only enhance the savory and subtle sweetness of this dish. So here's how I make my Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie:

(Proportion for an 9x13 casserole dish) 
The basics:
  • ~4 medium sweet potatoes
  • 2-3 lbs of ground beef, depending on your desired meat:potato ratio
  • 1 large red onion
  • 1/2 cup almond/peanut/other nut butter, depending on your persuasions
  • 1/2 cup shredded grass-fed cheese like Kerrygold
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp grass-fed butter/coconut oil/olive oil

Optional seasonings, mix and match to your taste. I'll highlight the ones that I used most recently:
  • 1.5-2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp paprika/chili powder
  • 1 tbsp basil
  • 1 tbsp fennel seed/powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp +1 tsp tarragon 
  • 1 tbsp honey/coconut sugar
  • Sea Salt (to taste, don't be shy)
  • Black Pepper (to taste)
  • 2-3 sprigs green onion
  • 3-4 cups broccoli florets, brussels sprouts, or other dense green vegetable
  • BACON?!?!? (Always)
    • For a South-of-the-border sorta flavor, try cumin, oregano, and a little extra chili powder
    • If you've got a flair for the aromatic warmth of Indian or Middle Eastern spices, try bay leaf, sumac, turmeric, or even your favorite curry powders in the meat and potatoes.
    • If you're not feeling beef, try lamb and add some Moroccan or Greek/Mediterranean spices! The possibilities...
How to make the pie:
  1. Poke a few holes in your sweet potatoes, then place them directly on the middle rack of your oven with something beneath to catch their drippings. Bake the suckers at 400ºF for 45 minutes or so, long enough that the skin begins to separate from the flesh. Ew? No. Caramelized potato starches? Yes.
  2. While your potatoes are in the oven, grab a skillet large enough to handle all your beef. If you're using bacon, now's a great opportunity to cook it and use the leftover grease to cook your onions and/or beef. I like to cook my bacon slower, over medium heat, so that more grease ends up in the pan and so I can more easily keep the bacon from getting tooo crisp. Remove bacon to a plate for later.

    Once your pan is greased, throw down your diced/sliced red onion and let it sizzle til browning and slightly translucent. Then add your tbsp of honey/coconut sugar to caramelize the onions for another couple minutes.
  3. Remove the onions from your pan once they're cooked and keep them safe from passing foragers. They should remain under the same careful surveillance as the bacon you recently set aside. When bacon becomes worldwide currency, you'll thank me. If the pan is running low on cooking oil, add a little before cooking your beef.
  4. COOK YOUR BEEF. Well, brown it. In the leftover bacon grease and caramelized onion bits. Sound tasty yet?
  5. Once cooked, transfer the beef to a large mixing bowl. Add the almond butter, one eggs, and whatever spices you're using, and mix it up. By now your potatoes should be ready to mash in your other large mixing bowl, so remove them from the oven and set it to cool a bit to 375ºF.
  6. You guessed it...mash your baked sweet potatoes in the bowl, add your butter or other oil, an egg, and whatever elbow grease necessary to whip them into a creamy, spreadable consistency. If it pleases you, add your cooked and diced bacon, cheese, some diced green onions, or simply some salt and pepper to the sweet potatoes. Whatever floats your boat and makes your tastebuds happy.

    By now, you should have a bowl of meat and a bowl of sweet potato, and some caramelized onions.
  7. Grease your casserole dish, then get layering. Here's the order I chose (arranged bottom to top,) though I'm certain others would work just fine:
    1. Sweet Potato
    2. Beef
    3. Caramelized Onion (and/or green veggies, if you're not serving them separately.)
    4. Sweet Potato
  8. Bake the pie in your 375ºF oven for about 30 minutes. Broil it for another 3-4 minutes to get a nicely browned crust on top, then garnish with tarragon if it's in your arsenal. Let it cool for a bit so everything sets a bit, then slice and serve. A nice helping of steamed veggies accompanied my shepherd's pie, though it can easily stand alone. Trust me =)

Sorry about the low resolution; the photo comes from my aging phone with its blurry, non-focusing lens. Hope you dig the shepherd's pie.