Beef Cheek Cottage Pie

Like virtually all British people, I should imagine, I remember eating Shepherd’s Pie quite often as a child. In our house, it was always referred to as Shepherd’s Pie regardless of what the meat was inside. Here, I’ve called it Cottage Pie to distinguish it as containing beef, though I understand it’s a hot topic of debate within certain circles.

In all honesty, I sort of forgot about it for years, until moving to Sweden, and then it crept back into the culinary arsenal, partly out of a sense of nostalgia, and partly a thrifty use for leftover roast dinners, where I braise the leftover meat in tinned tomatoes, throw in any vegetables, cover in the leftover mash and bake.

In this instance, I had a big tub of leftover mashed potatoes, and made a very simple stew specially for the purpose. I found an extremely inviting looking beef cheek at the supermarket and decided that the best course of action was to braise it in beer and add little else, all the better to taste the flavour of the beef which, in the case of the cheek cut is intense, delicious and rib-sticking – it’s the absolute perfect cut for stewing slowly.

You can use any other good stewing cut that you enjoy or happen to stumble across too. Something fatty and sinewing that suits a long, low cooking time would be ideal; chuck, brisket, or even oxtail or short rib. And of course, you can use minced meat, and have the kind of pie most of use are probably used to, though I really think a slow stewed, falling-apart texture really makes things work here.

I mean, really though, let’s be real, this is a stew with mashed potatoes on top and will be wonderful to eat as a result – use whatever you like; Lamb of course, chicken, pork, vegetables, anything. The important thing is to make a delicious dinner.

Also, if you like, use wine, or stock, or whatever really. The richness of the other flavours here is going to carry you through.

Either make this over two days, one for the stew and one for the dinner, or do it when you’re home all day. The former is probably preferable, flavour wise, but do what works.

For four people, you will need:

  • 1 beef cheek or suitable braising cut of around 600-800g
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 a leek, finely diced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 whole head of garlic, skinned and finely diced
  • 1 bushy sprig of thyme
  • A can or bottle of dark beer, like a stout or a porter or, if you like, a brown or red ale. Not a can of lager, basically (I used Guinness)
  • Leftover mashed potato of a quantity that you think will cover your chosen oven dish in a single layer. If you have too little, or indeed none, make some
  • Salt and pepper
  • MSG* (optional)
  • Some parmesan cheese, or any hard cheese, ready to grate

Put a large, heavy pan, to which you have a fitting lid, over a high heat, add a tablespoon of cooking oil, and place the beef cheek in the pan. You want to fairly aggressively brown it on all sides. No greys – you want a deep, dark colour all over, and don’t worry about anything getting burnt – unless you go off and take a phone call, it won’t.

Once browned remove the beef and set aside, and turn the heat right down. This isn’t a bad time to dice your soffritto vegetables, whilst the pan is still molten hot, but if they’re done already, congratulations on being prepared. Add some more oil to the pan, so the bottom is comfortably covered, and tip in the diced onion, leek, carrot and garlic, then strip the thyme leaves into the pan, and throw them in along with their stalks.

Stir everything and then leave well alone, giving the odd stir for a good half an hour. Forty five minutes if you can spare it and, if you’re in a hurry, certainly no less than ten (these recipes that suggest five minutes for onions are promising something they can’t deliver, believe me). What you’re aiming for is a jammy, translucent matter, with little added colour and certainly no burned patches.

Once your soffrito is cooked, put the meat back in the pan, pour over the beer and add enough water to come about two thirds of the way up the meat, bring to the boil, clap on the lid, and turn down the heat so the liquid simmers gently.

Now, you leave it there. Go and do something else. Come an check on it every 40 minutes or so and, if it’s not simmering enough, turn it up a smidgen, and if it’s bubbling too much, down. Maybe turn the meat over after 90 minutes, but the main thing, at this stage, is to pretty much forget about it.

It’s probably worth checking for done-ness after about two and a half hours, though mine was a long way off at that stage. A funny thing with braising beef is that I’m always convinced I’m going to be stuck with a car tyre of a meal and start thinking about pizza orders precisely at the point that the collagens start releasing their grip and the meat begins to soften. Have faith. You’re looking for meat that will break apart under the pressure of a wooden spoon. Not a total mush, but something that’s ready to fall apart under a little blunt pressure. Mine got there after a little over three hours.

Once your meat reaches this stage, take it out and stick it on a plate, preheat your oven to 200°C, and turn the heat right up on the pan so the liquid reaches a furious boil. The likelihood is that you still have a significant, very watery liquid left in the pan, and the aim is to reduce that to a shiny, relatively thick gravy, that’ll coat the meat nicely. It’s hard to describe exactly when it’s done, but it’ll easily coat the back of a spoon, and leave visible trails as you stir. As you stir, pick out any thyme stalks you happen upon.

Whilst you’re waiting for the liquid to reduce, pull your beef apart with a pair of forks. The fleshy, protein-y parts should break apart into stringy sinews easily, and any fatty parts that don’t, set aside on a chopping board, dice finely, and add to the rest.

Once the liquid in the pan is reduced add plenty of pepper, a little salt, and a nip of MSG if you’re using it, tasting with each addition, until everything seems balanced and delicious. Add your meat and stir to coat, tasting again and adjusting the seasoning.

Dig out your favoured oven dish – one that’ll take your stew in a layer 2-4cm deep, then top with your mashed potato, so the whole lot is pretty much covered in a relatedly even layer. I urge you not to attempt neatness at this stage. I mean, do if you like; pipe it into little swirls out of an icing bag, but you won’t win any prizes, you’ll give yourself more washing up and, as my friend Helene aptly observes, it’ll only bubble up in the oven and ruin it all anyway. My advice is to leave plenty of rifts and cracks for the stew to bubble up through. It’ll look very appealing.

Grate over a generous layer of parmesan cheese (or any hard cheese) and place into your preheated oven for around half an hour, or until bubbling and crispy and brown on top.

Whilst the pie is in the oven, lay the table and get together whatever you’d like to have on the side, if anything. We had a crunchy salad of winter vegetables, but a friend suggested to me that this was unusual, so have whatever you like. Something that’ll keep scurvy at bay, I’d say.

When it’s cooked, let the pie rest for five minutes, before carving out generous spoonfuls and digging in. After all that hard work, and at this slightly chilly and wet time of year, it’ll taste fantastic.

* MSG is a form of sodium, like salt, and is an extremely useful flavour, particularly in food like this, where salt is a great enhancer of the fatty, meaty flavours in the dish. It has an undeservedly controversial reputation as mysteriously unhealthy, but this isn’t backed up by modern scientific thinking, and generally only survives in very reductive, frankly racist assertions about southeast asian food. My view is that anyone comfortable using salt in the kitchen should have a bag handy to experiment with at all times. Generally speaking, it has about half the ‘sodium effect’ of salt, and it works really well in conjunction with it – leave out half a teaspoon of salt, use a teaspoon of MSG and see how you go. You’ll have a feel for its strengths in no time at all.

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