I’m the first to admit I’m not a cook. I quickly turn away from any recipe that has too many ingredients or one of the many cooking words I don’t understand. And from the time I baked cookies so hard they cracked a floor tile at age eight, family lore is replete with tales of my kitchen disasters. Yet despite my inclination to hide behind my husband and his amazing culinary skills, I am drawn to the kitchen on a regular basis. This is especially true in the winter, when I hear the siren song of comfort foods (perhaps a relic of the long winters that I spent in frigid Europe, where the only thing that got us through was good food, wine and the company of friends.)
Jordan, the main character in Almost Home, is also not a cook. Yet like me, she loves food and it is closely related to her emotional state. For example, she returns to Britain for the first time in a decade and revisits some of the dishes, like pesto pasta and English breakfast, that are so evocative of the time she spent there years ago. I feel this way myself about cuisine from so many places: the pierogies my housekeeper used to make for me when I lived in Poland, the delicious green Thai curry improbably served by a pub on the outskirts of Cambridge.
Food and beverages also signal many other things in the book. Jordan bonds with an attractive stranger at a cocktail party over pigs-in-blankets, and notices that her mentor and boss from years ago still remembers how she takes her tea. And a number of times in the book, when confronted with difficult information or people from her past, she finds herself unable to eat at all.
Here is a recipe for one of my favorite English comfort foods, Shepherd’s Pie. I hope you and your book club enjoy it as you discuss the complex relationship between food and emotion, both in Almost Home and in your own lives.
Prep time: 2 hours
For the potato topping
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
For the filling
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 3/4 pounds ground beef or lamb
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white wine
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 cup beef stock
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1. To make the potato topping: Place diced potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water (water should cover potatoes by at least 1 inch). Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove cover, simmer and cook until tender, approximately 15 minutes.
2. Place the half-and-half, milk, and butter in a small saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat. When butter has melted, remove from heat and add salt, and pepper to taste.
3. To make the filling: Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over moderate heat and add ground beef or lamb. Brown meat for approximately 5 minutes. Add chopped carrot and onion and sauté with meat for another 5 minutes, until meat is brown and vegetables have softened. Add garlic, stirring for 30 seconds. Remove pan from heat, add peas, season with salt and pepper and stir in flour. Transfer filling to a bowl.
4. Add wine to pan, and stir over high heat, deglazing the pan and scraping up any bits for 1 minute. Stir in tomato paste, broth, Worcestershire sauce and thyme, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, and simmer until liquid is reduced, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, return beef and vegetable mixture to pan and stir to combine. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
5. Spread filling in an 11″ x 7″ x 2″ rectangular or 10″ oval ovenproof casserole dish. Spoon potatoes over meat and vegetables and spread evenly with a knife. Place in oven, with a baking sheet underneath to catch any drippings. Bake for 25 minutes, or until bubbling and golden brown. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: 1 casserole; approximately 6 servings