Friday, December 14, 2012

Daring Cooks' Pate Chinois

Shepherd's Pie or Cottage Pie: meat pie with a crust of mashed potato

Our Daring Cooks’ December 2012 Hostess is Andy of Today’s the Day and Today’s the Day I Cook! Andy is sharing with us a traditional French Canadian classic the Paté Chinois, also known as Shepherd’s pie for many of us, and if one dish says comfort food.. this one is it!

I must admit I approached this challenge with caution, reluctant to prepare a dish I have successfully avoided my entire life. It has always reminded me of some oddball Hamburger Helper concoction, and not in a good way. But that's just me. The concept of a meat pie with a potato crust is hardly new, it's been around for centuries. Wikipedia notes:

The term cottage pie is known to have been in use in 1791 when the potato was being introduced as an edible crop affordable for the poor (cf. "cottage" meaning a modest dwelling for rural workers). In early cookery books, the dish was a means of using leftover roasted meat of any kind, and the pie dish was lined with mashed potato as well as having a mashed potato crust on top. The term "shepherd's pie" did not appear until 1877, and since then it has been used synonymously with "cottage pie", regardless of whether the principal ingredient was beef or mutton. More recently, the term "shepherd's pie" has been used when the meat is lamb, the theory being that shepherds are concerned with sheep and not cattle.
These were interesting factoids, and I was especially cheered at the mention of leftover roasted meats. That made it easy to ignore the recommended ground meat preparation and work instead with a favorite recipe for Boozy Beef Stew in Wine Sauce, aka Boeuf Bourguignon. I've already raved about that recipe in a previous DC challenge (link). This choice was an invitation to prepare an extra-large batch of stew and a largish pile of gremolata. We served the stew to friends P and R for dinner earlier this week and still had quarts left to play with. Some mashed potatoes from the same dinner were re-seasoned, piped into mounds similar to Duchess Potatoes (link), and voila! I had a great start on a personalized version of cottage pie.

The short version: 
Using your favorite stew recipe, ladle a generous serving of warm stew meat, vegies and gravy to fill small ramekins. 

Sprinkle a teaspoon of minced flatleaf parsley and lemon zest gremolata over each bowl. 

Whip some sour cream, additional butter and shredded parmesan cheese into warmed "regular" mashed potatoes; fill a bag fitted with a large star-point tip, and pipe the potatoes into circular mounds on a silpat or parchment-covered baking sheet. 

Broil or heat in a 500 F oven until the potatoes brown slightly.  

Cool and place atop each ramekin.
OR you could pipe the potatoes directly onto each stew-filled ramekin, but my potato-piping skills needed developing.
Bake in a hot oven until warmed through (or use a microwave).

The Results: Version One 
The ramekins resembled cute savory cupcakes; an interesting if slightly strange presentation. As usual, the gravy was my favorite part of the dish. It tasted divine and bathed the meat in a silky sauce, keeping it moist and tender through the reheating. Carrots and onions retained their texture, though the mushrooms melted away a bit more than I would have liked. Mixed reviews on the potato topping though: the browned outer edges contrasted nicely with the soft, flavorful interior but the potatoes cried out for more gravy. A side pitcher of gravy will take care of that in the future.

A Second Try:

Fill a small 8"x8" baking dish about two thirds full with the same BoozyBeef Stew with Vegetables and Wine Sauce. Loosely scatter parsley/lemon zest gremolata over the top like edible confetti. Frost the cottage pie in irregular peaks and valleys with cheesy, sour cream mashed potatoes. Heat in a 500 F oven until the potatoes brown slightly. 

The Results: Second Try

The dish looked like lumpy potatoes, nothing more. It was still tasty, but not as attractive or appealing as serving the elements separately in a wide soup bowl. Picture the vivid colors of carrots, parsley and lemon zest plus a snowy mound of potatoes nestled in a pool of mahogany gravy with golden slices of mushroom and richly browned cubes of beef.  I missed that colorful visual when I gazed at my tater-topped cottage pie. 

Conclusions: Pate Chinois/Cottage pie/Shepherd's pie is much tastier than I had imagined. All those years of wrinkled-nose avoidance and rejection were a silly, uninformed response to an unfamiliar dish. Playing with your food is always fun, and I might pipe potato mounds again. Sigh! embracing the dish is another matter; it's still all about the abundance of a great gravy and it's hard to beat the original presentation. 


  1. You know I love your version of Cottage Pie with the beef stew and Duchess Potatoes! I think you did a GREAT job with the potatoes. What a gorgeous presentation! With the beef stew, I can definitely see how this becomes about the gravy. I mean - isn't the gravy the best part of a beef stew anyway? :) Thanks for your critique of both versions. If I can remember that far back, I think my mother use to make version two. Great job!

  2. Delicious job! I have usually avoided Shepherd's pie as well, marking only as something to do with leftovers, but this challenge proved me wrong, I really liked how mine turned out! I love your broiled potatoes, too, they are beautiful!

  3. I really do like your version in the ramekins. It looks very inviting and yummy. Great job on both!

  4. Oh my gosh, I love your individual version, and the piped mashed potatoes look great! Wonderful job.

  5. Your versions look as good as they must have tasted. I need to give piping a try one of these days. It's altogether too easy to just slop on the topping and smooth it around.


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