classic cottage pie
now that i'm officially trying to learn how to cook, it seems that formerly simple dishes have taken on cosmic complexities that i had not anticipated. today we made a classic cottage pie. i call this classic in an effort to emphasis to you that there was nothing special about this - it was supposed to be very simple ... i suppose it's my fault for not calling it simple cottage pie ...
ingredients: carrots, celery, onion, oil, salt, pepper, water, oregano, parsley, minced beef steak, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoe puree, worcester sauce and parmesan.
the cooking was really characterised by a number of mistakes and faux pas ... in order to save you the embarrassment of an anecdote, i will simply state the 5 core rules of classic cottage pie (ccp) ...
ccp rule 1: in order to sweat the (XXX) you must cut all in similar sizes to ensure that they cook at the same speed and evenly. i am now beginning to use the half onion cut / fingers and chop as i'm going to patent it ... although, i'm not sure i like the sound of fingers and chop in the same name. delia has described this technique far better than i could, albeit without the intimidating name: http://www.deliaonline.com/cookeryschool/howto/how_0000000065.asp.
ccp rule 1.1: cooking is all about the flavour of your sweating. ok, this is a little crude, but the theory as it is explained to me goes that the most important ingredient is a simple sweating of onions, carrots and celery (a combination that is often called mirepoix from the c18 chef of the duc de levis-mirepoix in france). it can be used to flavour soups, stews, stocks, risottos and the odd devious pie etc. the process gets its name from the fact that the vegetables "give off" their water, it is designed to cook and concentrate the juices of vegetables. the sweating can be accelerated at the beginning with the addition of water (this will produce a purer taste than oil) and the lid placed on the pan. subsequently wine can be added for flavouring. i'm going to start counting how many meals in the future have this component and award honourable service prizes to vegetables and water as appropriate. please don't confuse this technique with the other technique that i adopt with alarming frequency when in the kitchen in which i also "give off" water.
ccp rule 2: add salt to the vegetables to draw the water out of the cooking. i'm obviously still learning about the role of salt in flavouring, it appears there is another purpose that the mineral serves during cooking vegetables. salt will draw the water from the vegetables while they are cooking. this will give a richer flavour to the food. interesting facts and reading about my problematic friend: http://www.foodsubs.com/Salt.html.
ccp rule 3: cook root vegetables in boiling water from cold. now, this one is a little controversial. i had blindly accepted this as i related to it from childhood, but it appears there is some debate on the correct way to boil a root vegetable. the debate focuses on how the starch (carb) reacts to the boiling water. the process of boiling means the water is absorbed into the starch and it gelatinises (softens and hence feels cooked). in this matter, i am going to let jeffrey steingarten (the man who ate everything) have the final say; he feels that peeled and washed (to remove free starch) potatoes should be placed into 175-degree water and maintained at approx 160 through the gradual addition of cold water. this produces better cooked potatoes and in fact has been shown to retain a higher amount of vitamin C (i'm sure in equal and opposite portions to free time) ..
ccp rule 4: don't add salt to your potatoes while in water - wait until after. jeffrey agrees with this approach, he rather vaguely mentions that an odd flavour can develop if cooked with salt (?!).
ccp rule 5: don't bang the wooden spoon off the side of the pot - it scratches the bottom. yeah, yeah ... but someone is getting too sensitive about pots and pans.
the rest of the ccp is pretty simple - cook for about 30 minutes until the top is nicely golden.
i never thought i'd say this, but i found a great page on onions: http://specialflavors.com/collection/vegetables/onions.htm
mr steingarten is part of my course mandatory reading and can be found at: http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/catalog/results2.pperl?authorid=29672