Winter cooking lends itself to more roast meat, hearty stews and casseroles. Between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays we all tend to do more entertaining, too. This also creates leftovers and the need to ring the changes.
One part of British/Irish cookery that I have added to my standard winter repertoire is the savory pie.Â There is only a ‘lid’ to the pie, a topper that adds those carbohydrates that we crave during the cold months.Â Insulation for the digestion.
Suet pastry has pretty much gone out of vogue in British cookery over the past three decades.Â But shortcrust and puff pastry are found in every freezer cabinet.Â However, you pay a premium for shop bought. But if you are, like me, not a very gifted pastry chef, there are alternatives.
Enter the scone (similar to our biscuits) topping as well as the mashed potato topping that famously cloaks Shepherd’s Pie.
But first, the savory bit! You can make pies in deep dishes or casserole pots or even in large rectangular pans if you have a crowd to fill up.
Leftover cooked meat makes a goodÂ base for the pie, with an addition of cooked vegetables like peas with bite size potatoes and carrots.
Or, team tiny broccoli florets with mushrooms.Â Have some zucchini in your freezer? You could make a lovely tomato sauce base with zucchini, onion, garlic and celery.
Or you can really go to town with the winter root vegetables – celeriac, rutabaga (good with bacon or ham), white turnip, parsnip and carrot.Â You can add some curly kale for a bit of greenery.
Basically, look in your larder and see what’s there. As long as the vegetables are cut into dainty mouthfuls you really cannot go wrong.
For the sauce I play it by ear.Â I start with some butter in a skillet. I saute some onion and garlic. Then I put in the meat (or quorn, which is the vegetarian meat substitute of choice in our household).Â I’ll have cooked the peas and carrots in a small amount of water, and I add the lot to the pan.Â Then I get out the cornstarch and add two to three teaspoons to a few tablespoons of water.Â I stir vigorously and check that the sauce is the thickness I like. Too soupy? Another teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in the tablespoon of water.
The the savory part of pie goes into whatever dish I’m using.Â All it needs now is the topping.
Mashed potato is the classic topping for Shepherd’s Pie – the much-loved minced lamb (or beef) combination with carrots and peas in a gravy.
The vegetarian version, sometimes called Shepherdess Pie (made with soya or quorn or even lentils as a substitute for the meat) will be topped with mashed potato with grated cheese to finish. That’s so you get the combination of dairy/pulse/bean for complimentary protein that vegetarians need.
And if you want pastry but your own homemade versions turn out a bit tough and disappointing? Ah, then the scone topping comes into play.
Scone Topping – enough for a Rectangular Dish
500g/1 lb self-rising flour
1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper or cayenne pepper
2 TBSP dried mixed herbs
100g/4 oz butter or margarine
Optional: 175 g/6 oz grated sharp cheese – good for vegetarian savory pie toppings
Approx.Â 1 1/2 cups buttermilk or 1 1/2 cups milk soured with 1/2 tsp lemon juice
Sieve the dry ingredients together. Rub in the butter and add the cheese if you are using it. Make a well and pour in half the buttermilk. Stir. Add the rest of the milk to make a dry, firm, very definitely not sticky dough.Â Roll it out on a floured surface to the shape of your pie dish, about 1/2 inch thick. Place on top of your meat/vegetable mixture.
You should have your oven fired up to 220 C degrees/425F/Gas Mark 7. Pop the pie in. It should be ready in about fifteen minutes.
Have a knife and spoon ready to serve. Cut out some topping to make sure that everyone gets their fair share!