(By all means skip the waffle and scroll down for the recipe)
It’s my fervent wish that when my offspring finally leave the nest and head out into the wide world, they will be able to feed themselves. I’m not talking pot noodles here either – I’m just talking about good, basic food. Recently, we were watching the Comic Relief version of the Great British Bakeoff and one of the challenges was lemon meringue pie. ’Pfft’, muttered my youngest from behind the screen of his laptop, ‘easy’. Because the thing is, he’s done it before – yes, with me helping, (and I’m not for one second bigging them up, here – they’re the laziest sods ever, and I tend to be quite stabby in the kitchen, I like my space) but they’ve done enough cooking (even if a large percentage of that is getting the munchies and making themselves chocolate brownies) to know their way round the kitchen and – more importantly – be able to follow a recipe.
So, if you’re kitchen-phobic, new to this cooking lark, or just plain curious to see how someone else makes it, here’s a step by step guide to one of the best basics you’ll learn. From here, the world is your oyster.
Moving on from cottage pie
Stir in a tin of tomatoes and a tablespoon of tomato purée and you’re well on the way to spaghetti bolognese (and not far at all from lasagne). With the tomatoey version, add a tablespoon of chilli powder while you’re cooking the onions, maybe a finely chopped red pepper, and a tin of kidney beans five minutes before the end of cooking, et voila, chilli con carne. Oh, and if you use lamb mince, then you’ve made shepherd’s pie – so there’s another one to add to your repertoire right there.
Personalising your pie
Loads of recipes start by frying the onions, a couple of chopped carrots and maybe a stick or two of celery, also chopped. But I think the carrots are too ‘mushy’ after the 45 minutes cooking time, so I just serve carrots with it. Personal preference is king – if you want to chuck them in with the onions, feel free. You can also add a tablespoon of tomato purée… tomato ketchup… Worcester sauce… have a fiddle until you find the flavours you like.
Buying your mince
As usual, buy the best mince that you can afford, but don’t buy stuff that’s too lean – you need a bit of fat in there for flavour AND texture.
Easy Cottage Pie
1-2 tablespoons oil (I use rapeseed)
1 large onion, finely chopped
500g minced beef
1 tablespoon plain flour
About 300g beef stock (cube is fine)
For the mash:
About 1kg floury potatoes
Butter and milk
First, preheat the oven to 180/gas 4 and sort out an ovenproof dish to hold your pie.
It’s actually easiest to start with the potatoes, so get them peeled, chopped and cut into even chunks and put them in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water, add a teaspoon or two of salt, and get them on the heat. Bring them to the boil while you’re cooking the mince, then turn down to a simmer.
For the mince, start with a heavy based frying pan. Add the oil, then pop in the chopped onion (plus carrot and celery if you’re using them). When the onions start to soften (they don’t need to brown) add in the mince, breaking it up and stirring it around. Colour equals flavour here so try and get it nice and brown.
Give the mince a season with some salt and pepper, then sprinkle over the flour – this will thicken the finished gravy. Stir this round to cook out the ‘raw’ taste of the flour. Add in a few dashes of Worcester sauce here if you fancy it. Stir in the stock, then transfer the meat to the dish.
Now, drain the potatoes and mash them well, adding a couple of knobs of butter and a good slosh of milk. Pile the mash on top of the mince and level the top. Bake for about 45 minutes until the top is lovely a crisp and brown.
Mince really does need this cooking time as otherwise it can be a bit chewy, which is often where people go wrong with a shepherd’s pie – bunging the mash on and serving it straight away. In fact, English Dad’s famous ‘dad mince’ (the only thing he ever cooks, and only when I’m away) gets a good couple of hours in the oven, and is deliciously tender and savoury as a result.