There's a wonderful comfort in cooking. I find that when I'm feeling upbeat and happy, I like to experiment with new recipes--things I've read, clipped or copied and put away but never made. And when I'm down and feeling bluish, I tend to default to old favorites that help me exorcize my moodiness. Being a Gemini, I do both a lot. The great thing about doing something tried and true is that somewhere along the way, you get reinvigorated again. The mood passes, and the result is, usually, something excellent to eat and share.
Which brings me to two of my favorite things to make and eat: pot roast and mashed potatoes with hot vegetable gravy, and, Shepherd's Pie. I honestly don't know when I started making pot roasts, just that the mood strikes three or four times a year. It's also a good way to use leftover home-delivered pizza fixings. Trust me.
Back to the pot roast. My version is simplicity itself:
Take a three-to-five-pound boneless roast; pat it dry, and toss it in a plastic bag with flour, salt, pepper, oregano and red chile powder. Coat the roast thoroughly. While you are doing this, have some peanut oil getting VERY hot in a heavy iron pot. Remove the roast from the bag, and put it in the pot, searing all sides of the roast in the oil. Remove the roast and add three cut carrots, three chopped stalks of celery, three shallots, three cloves of garlic, three cups of beef consomme and stir. The browned flour left from searing the roast helps thicken the mixture. Put the roast back in the pot; add a large can of diced tomatoes in their juice and a couple of packets of the red-pepper flakes that come with pizzas; cover the pot, and let bubble and simmer for three hours, or until the roast is falling-apart tender.
In the last half-hour or so, scrub the potatoes and quarter them, put them in a pot of cold water, add some salt and bring to a boil. Leave the skins on the potatoes. When you can pierce them with a fork, remove from heat and drain. Add one stick of butter, salt and pepper, as much cream as needed to bind them, two of those little tubs of Parmesan cheese that come with the pizza, and mash and stir. Set aside.
Remove the beef from the pot and put on a large plate. I find a couple of spatulas work best when it is so tender. Use your handy-dandy, absolutely indispensable immersible blender to turn the cooked vegetables and broth into unbelievably thick and delicious gravy. Spoon the mashed potatoes on the plate with the roast; ladle some of the gravy (and there will be lots) into a smaller bowl, and serve. Steamed broccoli is a nice accompaniment and useful later.
Now, to the Shepherd's Pie, a day or so after the sumptuous feast you have just made.
Into a casserole or baking dish, mix together leftover shredded pot roast, leftover broccoli and about a cup of the leftover gravy. Add peas, corn, green beans--whatever moves you--and mix. Ice the top with leftover mashed potatoes, sealing the mixture in. Pop into the oven to bake at 350 degrees until the top browns evenly.
While this is cooking, make Crispy Spinach. This is a great accompaniment to the Shepherd's Pie, and the recipe is courtesy of the fine folks at The Bamboo Club. If you want to replicate what you get there--and it's pretty damn good--you're going to need a deep fryer. When Andrew and I tried it at home, we used a wok. It produced a really tasty spinach, but it was more fried than crispy. Still and all, super.
Fast-fry a bag of baby spinach leaves in smoking oil--I tried light olive and peanut, and the peanut is preferable for its flavor and the fact that the oil gets very, very hot. Cook for seconds only; strain and pat dry. Sprinkle with a little Chinese Five-Spice season. Voila! At home, we browned some sliced almonds and tossed them with the spinach. It was a fine addition.
Basic ingredients, easy processes, leading to nourishing and different meals for several days.
And this is what I mean about comforting: My mood is better now just for having written about the pot roast and Shepherd's Pie.
To Mike D.: The Johnny Burgers with the Thousand Island sauce were a big part of my childhood, too. Whatever happened to that giant Johnny holding a burger? Did you take it with you to Chicago?
To Deb R.: Thanks for the Peruvian suggestion! We'll be trying it out. Congrats on the new home--it is so rich with memories.
To Ginny B.: Yet ANOTHER non-Vegan column for you and your carnivore husband. Thanks for making me smile.