Seasonal Pantry: Warm dishes for the heart of winter

During the year's darkest days, when it feels like the sun will disappear entirely, we want comfort food. It is a time to enjoy rich stews and braises, hearty soups, polenta, risotto and hot beverages like chai, mulled wine, buttered tequila and lamb's wool, a British drink traditionally served on Twelfth Night.

Although the winter solstice occurred several hours ago, we won't immediately notice that the days are lengthening. By the beginning of January, we see the difference.

Celebrations like Twelfth Night that occur in the first week of January have their roots in the return of light, which pagan cultures celebrated long ago.

Hearty comfort foods will be welcome for months, but I always enjoy them the most now, when their bone-warming comfort is a good hedge against the darkness. Bring me barley soup, slow-cooked lamb shanks and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

This year I've been thinking about shepherd's pie and all its variations. Simply put, it is a way to use leftover meats, with versions found around the world.

Most consist of chopped or ground meat mixed with vegetables and topped with potatoes, usually but not always mashed.

Today's recipes feature my take on the tradition. If you have friends or family members who are sick, grieving or simply down on their luck, any of these would be a welcome gift.

Cottage pie and shepherd's pie are nearly interchangeable names. The former is best applied to a dish topped with sliced potatoes, which are said to resemble the tiled roof of a cottage. The latter is best applied when the dish is made with lamb instead of beef.

Cottage Pie, with Variation for Shepherd's Pie

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 pounds medium potatoes, such as Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold or new red, peeled

- Kosher salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion, cut into small dice

2 parsnips, peeled and cut into small dice

2 carrots, peeled and cut into small dice

4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced

6 cups diced leftover beef (see Note below)

2 cups dry white wine

2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

- Black pepper in a mill

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Cut the potatoes into thin (about 1/8-inch) rounds, put them into a medium saucepan, add enough water to cover them by two inches, season with salt and bring to a boil over medium high heat. As soon as the water boils, reduce the heat, skim off the foam that forms on top and cook until nearly tender but not falling apart, about 10 to 12 minutes. Carefully drain the water off the potatoes and spread them on a baking sheet to cool.

Meanwhile, pour the olive oil into a large saute pan set over medium low heat, add the onion and saute until soft and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Add the parsnips and carrots and continue to saute until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes; stir frequently and do not let the vegetables brown. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more. Season with salt.

Stir in the meat, add the wine, increase the heat and cook until the wine is reduced to little more than ? cup. Stir in the parsley, season generously with black pepper, taste and correct for salt.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Spread the meat mixture in a 9-inch-by-13-inch glass baking dish or similar ovenproof container. Pour half the butter over the potatoes, season with salt and pepper and toss gently to coat all the potatoes.

Top the meat with the potatoes, overlapping the slices to create a tiled effect. Use a pastry brush to coat the potatoes with the remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper, set on the middle rack of the oven and cook until the potatoes are golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Variation: To make Shepherd's Pie, replace the sliced potatoes with 4 to 6 cups mashed potatoes and replace the beef with diced leftover leg of lamb or 2 pounds of ground lamb.

Add 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary along with the parsley. After spreading the meat mixture in the baking dish, cover the meat with mashed potatoes, using a rubber spatula to spread it evenly.

Drizzle 3 tablespoons of melted over the potatoes and sprinkle salt and pepper on top. Bake and serve as directed in the main recipe.

This recipe, adapted from one in my book "Polenta" (Broadway Books, 1997), replaces potatoes with creamy polenta and adds several ingredients to the meat to evoke Italian flavors. If you love polenta, you should love this version.

Italian Shepherd's Pie

Makes 6 to 8 servings

- Olive oil

- Sage & Shallot Polenta (see Note below)

? ounce Italian dried wild mushrooms

1 cup lukewarm water

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound yellow onions, peeled and chopped

- Kosher salt

3 ounces pancetta, diced

2 pounds lean ground beef

? cup dry white wine

6 garlic cloves, minced

? teaspoon fresh red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon fresh oregano

? cup minced fresh Italian parsley

128-ounce can diced, sliced, or crushed tomatoes

- Black pepper

Brush a three-quart baking dish lightly with olive oil.

Prepare the herbed polenta and, while it cooks, prepare the beef mixture. First, soak the mushrooms in the lukewarm water for at least 20 minutes.

Pour the olive oil into a large heavy frying pan set over medium low heat, add the onions and saute until soft and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Season with salt, add the pancetta and cook 5 minutes more.

Add the beef, crumble with a fork and cook until it just loses its raw color, about 7 to 8 minutes.

Season with salt.

Remove the mushrooms from their soaking liquid, chop them and add them to the beef mixture. Strain the soaking liquid into the pan and add the wine, minced garlic and red pepper flakes.

Increase the heat to high and cook until the liquid is almost completely evaporated.

Stir in the oregano, parsley and tomatoes, lower the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Season generously with several turns of black pepper, taste and correct for salt. Let cool for a few minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Spoon the beef mixture into the baking dish and agitate the pan to distribute it evenly. Pour the herbed polenta over it and spread it evenly.

Set on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake until the top of the polenta has picked up some color and the mixture beneath is bubbling.

Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before serving.

To make in advance, let cool for 30 minutes, cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Remove from the refrigerator 45 minutes before reheating in a 350 degree oven until hot and bubbly.

Note: To make Sage and Shallot Polenta, pour 3 cups of water into a medium or large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.

Fill a second pot with 3 cups of water and keep it simmering nearby.

Add 2 teaspoons of kosher salt and, when the water boils, slowly pour in 1 cup coarse-ground polenta, whisking in a clockwise direction all the while.

Continue to whisk after all the polenta has been added; when the polenta begins to thicken, switch to a wooden spoon, add 1 cup of the simmering water and continue to stir.

Once the polenta is quite thick, you can stir less frequently as it continues to cook until the grains are tender. It will take from 15 to 50 minutes, depending on the size and age of the grain.

Meanwhile, mince 2 peeled shallots with about a dozen sage leaves, saute in a tablespoon of butter until fragrant, season with salt and remove from the heat.

When the polenta is almost completely tender, add the shallot mixture, 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 ounces (? cup) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The inspiration for this rice-topped meat pie is arancine, delicious balls of rice stuffed with meat and vegetables that are a popular snack in Sicily.


Shepherd's Pie

Makes 12 servings

1? pounds Italian rice, preferably Vialone Nano or Carnaroli

2 cups grated caciocavallo or other medium-soft cheese

- Kosher salt

- Black pepper in a mill

- Olive oil

1 small onion, minced

1 celery rib, cut into ?-inch dice

1 carrot, peeled and cut into ?-inch dice

3 large garlic cloves, minced

2 ounces pancetta, diced

1 pound ground veal or beef

? pound ground pork

1 tablespoon tomato paste

? cup red wine

3 minced sage leaves

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 cup tomato sauce, preferably homemade

3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

Cook the rice in abundant boiling water, lightly salted, as you would cook pasta. When it is tender (about 20 minutes), drain it well and turn it out on a marble surface or a wide platter. Add the cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix well.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

While the rice cooks, prepare the meat. Pour a splash of olive oil into a medium saute pan, add the onion, celery and carrot and saute over medium heat until they just begin to soften and take on a little color. Add the garlic and pancetta and cook 2 minutes more.

Season with salt.

Add the ground meats and, using a fork to crumble it, cook until the meat loses its raw look, about 7 to 8 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and the wine and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the minced sage, nutmeg and tomato sauce and simmer for 25 minutes.

Season with several turns of black pepper; taste and correct for salt.

When the meat is cooked, spread it over the surface of an ovenproof baking dish and top with the rice. Bake until the the rice is heated through and just beginning to color, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle with parsley and let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.

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