Inverted Shepherd’s Pie

Or something. Sorry, that’s the closest thing I could come to for a “title” of this dinner. It’s delicious, though? I mean, in a sense, it’s very similar to shepherd’s pie… minus the potatoes, plus some polenta, minus a few veggies, plus a few veggies, served from the stove-top, not baked… it works, I think. In any case, it tastes delicious. It actually reminds me nearly as much of my grandma’s classic creation: hamburger gravy. It sounds kind of gross, to strangers anyways, and actually is ground beef over potatoes (pretty similar to shepherd’s pie as well!), but it was a midwestern classic in a too-many-children household. Ground beef, sautéed with onions, tossed with flour and milk, served over creamy mashed potatoes and corn- it’s definitely comfort food. And no one makes it as well as my grandma, because that’s the kind of food that has to be served by an older relative. Kind of like Bisquick pancakes, some things are just better coming out of grandma’s kitchen. Not to be limited by flour and water, my grandma actually has a great variety of things she loves to cook, and we eat all of it heartily and happily. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her make polenta, though, so from here we diverge.

I think it’s probably obvious now that I am loving polenta. It’s creamy, it’s warm, it’s got just enough flavor to really amplify its corresponding ingredients (rather than just sitting there mashed on the plate), and it’s easy to prepare. I bought probably 2 cups a month or two ago, and it’s gone now, which is saying something for me. Usually I buy bulk grains and use them slowly, in a random pattern, until they’re finally exhausted months later. I suppose I just tire of the same thing too many times in a row. Polenta, though; it’s working for me right now. I guess I need to buy more.

But beyond the polenta, the ground beef in this recipe is really a great accompaniment. With some diced spring vegetables, it’s hearty yet flavorful and fresh. It feels awkward preparing dishes with ground beef, I realized as I thought of what I wanted to do with it besides make a hamburger. It always looks a bit unappetizing in its plain form, and it’s hard not to smother it in sauce and call it a day. Ground beef always seems to be a component of a dish, rather than a main ingredient (excusing said burger). It really doesn’t need too much though, I believe. A few veggies serve the purpose of diversity on the palate, and a hearty starch creates immediate comfort food, regardless of the recipe. Don’t let the pictures deceive you; this tastes more than what it looks.

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Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Inverted Shepherd’s Pie (I guess)

Serves 4

1 cup polenta

3 cups chicken stock

1 cup milk

2 tbsp. butter

1 lb. grass-fed ground beef

4 spring carrots, diced

4 radishes, sliced into slivers

1/2 yellow onion, diced

1 tbsp. olive oil

2 tsp. thyme

1/4 tsp. dried red chili flake

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tbsp. corn starch

1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock

2 tbsp. soy sauce

First, prepare the polenta. Bring 3 cups of stock and 1 cup milk, whisked, to a boil. Once boiling, add the polenta to the pot while whisking constantly. Continue to whisk until the polenta is suspended in the liquid, ever so slightly thickened. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 30-45 minutes, until the liquid is fully absorbed. Whisk every few minutes initially, then stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan. As noted before, the polenta may be “done” a bit earlier, but cooking longer yields deeper flavor. Once cooked, add 2 tbsp. of butter, and salt and pepper to taste, and stir into the polenta. Keep covered and set aside.

Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the carrots and onions until they’re just softened and the onions are translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add the radishes and stir. Add the ground beef to the pan and cook until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme, chili flake, and salt and pepper to taste and stir. In a mason jar, add the corn starch, 1/2 cup of stock, and soy sauce. Shake to combine. (Alternatively, whisk in a bowl). Pour the thickened stock over the meat and vegetables and bring to a boil. Let the stock reduce until thick and adherent to the meat and veggies. Remove from the heat.

Plate a serving of polenta and top with the meat and vegetable mixture. Something about carrots and radishes makes it feel French to me somehow, with an obvious Italian (polenta) influence. Maybe it’s just European. Maybe it’s a mish-mash. Either way: it’s good.


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(Not Absurdly Complicated) Bolognese Sauce

I’m training (so much of me wants to write “training,” because I feel pretentious acting like I’m Rocky or something really getting ready for the fight) for a 10-miler in May- the Soldier Field 10-miler, in fact- and for some reason, I’m craving red meat like crazy. This could make sense physiologically, like further oxygen demands requiring more iron stores for increased hemoglobin production and so on (or maybe I just “want” the protein), but sometimes cravings are just cravings. I typically go through a serious hamburger phase in the Summer, because the idea of a hamburger on the grill next to some grilled corn on the cob just screams joy and block parties and satiety. Maybe because I want Summer with the entirety of my being, or maybe because of all the running I’ve been making myself do, or maybe because grass-fed beef really is just delicious, I had a sudden idea to buy a pound of meat and make bolognese sauce last weekend. It’s something I’ve wanted to make for awhile, but, to be honest, had always prepared in a semi-homemade fashion. Some part of me, though- probably the part also craving a hamburger- intended to really prepare bolognese. A genuine, from-scratch, heart-felt bolognese, simmered and gently stirred. I read recipe upon recipe, gathering my influences… chopped vegetables here, tomato paste there, milk heated, milk added at the end, simmered for hours, simmered in parts for days… there was a lot to take in. I wanted to make bolognese, and I wanted deep flavors, but I also had a work-night to make it. So I compromised the recipes, leveraged some ingredients and added some others, and ended up with a truly delicious and really not overly complicated recipe. It finishes in about 4 hours, and could be done in two (although losing some of that slow-simmered flavor). It’s full of vegetables and easy on the meat, but profoundly flavored by both. And there are hearty tomato chunks, because don’t we want to know what we’re eating? I also left out the wine, simply for not having any, but I love balsamic so much, and probably prefer the substitution. You can use either.

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(Not Absurdly Complicated) Bolognese Sauce

Serves 6-8

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 large yellow onion, minced very finely

2 large carrots, minced finely

8 cloves garlic, minced

4 oz. mushrooms, chopped finely

1 lb. grass-fed ground beef

2 tbsp. Italian seasoning (or a mixture of dried parsley, oregano, and thyme)

1/4 tsp. dried crushed red chili flake

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 6 oz. can of tomato paste (I used Muir Glen organic)

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (or 1/2 cup red wine)

1 28 oz. can San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes

3 cups chicken stock

1 parmesan rind

Begin by preparing the vegetables. I actually used a food processor to really break down the carrots and onions. The juices are released more fragrantly, which I think advances the flavor.

In a large dutch oven or stock pot, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the minced onion and carrots and cook until lightly browning, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. The heat should be low enough that the onions don’t burn, but does allow for light caramelization. Push the caramelized onions and carrots to the edges of the pan and add minced garlic. Cook until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Mix the vegetables together and add the mushrooms. Cook an additional 5-10 minutes, until mushrooms are just releasing their juices. Add the ground meat to the pan and cook until browned, about 10-15 minutes. Once the meat is browned, add the spices and seasonings.

To the meat and vegetables, add a whole can of tomato paste. Stir to incorporate fully, and cook for about 5 minutes, to really “cook off” the canned flavor. Increase the heat to medium and add the balsamic vinegar or wine. Cook for about 5-10 minutes, until the liquid has bubbled away almost entirely, and there is just a bit of liquid apparent at the bottom of the pan. To the pot, add the whole peeled tomatoes, using the back of the spoon to crush and break up a bit. Stir to incorporate. Add the chicken stock and parmesan rind and stir. Bring the mixture to a low simmer, then reduce heat to very low, about the lowest it can be. The sauce should maintain a weak simmer, with just a few bubbles breaking the surface every few seconds.

Allow the sauce to simmer uncovered over low heat for anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. The flavors will really intensify and develop as it simmers (I thought there wouldn’t be much difference, but had time to kill, so I let it simmer. I was pretty impressed by how much “deeper” and more complex the flavors were after 3 hours of simmering as compared to one hour).

Remove from the heat and serve, likely over pasta of choice. I love to use pasta and sauce as a topping for a massive pile of greens, so that’s how I served it here. I find spinach or arugula to work best, as the pasta just barely wilts the greens to a perfect texture.

This may be one of very fews forays into Italian for me, but I have my eye on a pasta maker and anticipate much more old-fashioned kitchen fun to come.