Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sweet potato shepherd's pie

All right, I guess I'm just going to break a bunch of the "rules" of blogging and just sally forth in any way I can. I won't be predictable. I won't always include a nice photo of the dish (as will be the case with this shepherd's pie because we simply ate it too fast). And I won't do any of these things out of some sort of rebellion against the establishment or whatever, but simply because I'm at times unmotivated, tired, too busy, and just plain lazy.

That said, I've improvised several meals lately that I'm so happy with I simply must write down the recipes so that I remember how. This sweet potato shepherd's pie is one of those. In fact, I just ate the tiny bit of leftover pie for lunch, and I wish I had some more, but it will simply have to wait (because right now I am braising some pork with apples and we will see how that turns out). 

One of the nice things about this and another recent delightful meal (that I hope to post about soon) is that it's all made in my beloved cast-iron skillet. I make the meat filling in the skillet first, then spread the mashed sweet potatoes over the top, and pop it all in the oven. You could make it in a separate baking dish, but why? Why would you do that when it comes out of the oven all nice and rustic and in a heavy pan and great? 


  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced (see photos for how to dice onions)
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped finely 
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 16 oz. can diced tomatoes (I like Muir Glen organic)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp beef bullion
  • thyme
  • Generous splash of red wine (optional, but delicious)
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 4-5 medium sweet potatoes, cut into pieces (whatever will get you to about 4 heaping cups of sweet potato cubes) 
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup half and half (or cream)
  • salt and pepper
  • Panko bread crumbs (optional)
  • Grated Parmegiano Reggiano (optional)
Tora's real food
 Tora's real food
 Tora's real food
 Tora's real food
 Tora's real food


  1. Start by peeling the sweet potatoes and cutting them into roughly 2-in. cubes (the size isn't all that important; it will just speed cooking). Add them to salted water and bring to a boil. When they are soft (depending on the size of your pieces, between 15-20 minutes), take them off the heat and set them aside for the time being. 
  2. In the meantime, turn the oven on 425 degrees (F). In your skillet, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add your chopped onions and carrots. Let them cook at low heat for about 5-10 minutes. 
  3. Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the ground beef, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or some such utensil. Cook it until it is no longer pink anywhere.
  4. Add the tomatoes, a cup of water, big splash of red wine, bullion, brown sugar, and thyme to the pan. Stir everything together and turn up the heat. Keep cooking and stirring the meat mixture at high heat until about half the liquid evaporates. Taste the mixture, add a small amount of salt and some pepper, and then let it keep cooking (careful not to add a lot of salt at this point because more of the liquid will evaporate). Let the liquid in the pan continue to evaporate. The meat mixture is done when it is loose but not watery. Taste the mixture and add as much salt and pepper as you want/need. (And of course, feel free to add herbs or hot sauce if you like that kind of thing.)
  5. Flatten the meat mixture in the pan with the back of your spoon or a spatula or some such. Set it aside. 
  6. For the mashed sweet potatoes, drain the cooking water, and either put them through a ricer (recommended) or mash them with the back of a spoon. Add butter, half and half, a generous pinch of salt, and a little pepper. Taste the sweet potatoes and adjust the seasonings as you like. 
  7. Next, spoon mashed sweet potatoes over top of the meat, spreading them around somewhat evenly. When you've got all the mashed potatoes on there, use the back of a spoon (the back of a spoon is such a useful kitchen tool, don't you think?) to cover the meat completely. Then, if you like, add some handfuls of panko bread crumbs and grate some cheese over the top and slide it all into a hot oven for about 20-30 minutes until the top is slightly browned and the edges bubble. Then eat it. You'll enjoy it. And the sweet potatoes are supposed to be good for you. Maybe add a green salad if you are feeling ambitious.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

Chicken with mustard cream

Tora's real food

Best laid plans and whatnot.

I had every intention to post much more than I have so far this year. But I haven't. Sometime in March (I think, my memory of the past several months has hazed over), I suddenly came down with a massive amount of work. Which is generally good for a freelance editor/writer, but it did become a bit overwhelming when I genuinely lost track of the last time I had had a weekend off or didn't work until 11 at night (or all night in a couple of cases). I missed most of spring, although I tried very hard to pay attention to it while driving to pick up my guys from school and work. But generally I was stressed and overwhelmed. After the biggest projects had been completed, I naturally got sick.

But things have settled down a bit, and I've had some time to reflect on the last few months and recognize that I must change my life (to paraphrase Rilke). Writing, creating, reading, learning--these are the things that mean the most to me (other than family and friends, of course, but they come automatically first; perhaps too much so, I don't consciously recognize their importance as often as I ought to). That includes this blog, this thing that I started (and stopped and tripped over and left lying in a corner and then moved into the spare room and forgot about). So here's a little dish that I have cooked many times over the last few months because it's good (note the plate that has been licked clean below), it's quick, and when you're frustrated, it can be good therapy because of the pounding (see step 2).



  • 1 lb (ish) chicken breast halves
  • salt, lemon pepper blend
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup chicken stock or broth
  • 1-2 tsp Dijon mustard (to taste)
  • 1-2 tsp maple syrup (to taste)
  • 1 cup half and half
  • parsley (fresh if you've got it, but dried will be fine)


  1. Place a large frying pan on the stove and turn it to medium-high heat to let it heat up. 
  2. Blot the chicken breast halves with paper towels. Then place them between two sheets of wax paper. Pound them thin with the implement of your choosing. (My rolling pin is perfect for this job; you can also use a frying pan, or an actual meat tenderizing device that looks a lot like a hammer. This activity always draws lots of attention from the family, who wonder why I am making so much noise, am I angry, what did the chicken ever do to me, etc. In any case, it can be somewhat cathartic.)
  3. Remove the top sheet of wax paper and sprinkle both sides of the chicken breasts liberally with salt and lemon pepper. I've been using Sunny Spain Seasoning from Penzey's Spices, which is pretty fantastic.
  4. While you are hammering away, you've allowed your pan to heat up (right?), now add about 2 Tbsp olive oil to the pan and let it heat up until it shimmers. It should only take a minute or two. 
  5. Place your chicken breast halves in the pan and allow them to cook for about 4 minutes per side.
  6. When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the pan and allow it to rest on a plate that is tented with aluminum foil. (Tented: Means kind of covered with the foil, but bunched up so that the foil doesn't touch the chicken.)
  7. Add stock, mustard, and maple syrup to the pan. Using a whisk, scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, whisk, and allow the liquid in the pan to reduce to about half. Then add the half and half and season with more lemon pepper, salt (if needed), and parsley. Don't forget to taste it! 
  8. Serve the chicken with the mustard cream and ideally with a blend of roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes that have slightly caramelized, but it's good with just about anything that will soak up the sauce (see figure of plate licked clean).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Procrastination pie: A lesson in avoiding the really hard work

Little Bird. My most recently completed painting, from September 2014.
I got angry at my son yesterday.

He was supposed to be practicing piano, but he was crying and upset because the piece was difficult. This was not the first time he has experienced this level of frustration with working through something hard. We've tried to coach him through the difficulty, explaining that when something is hard, you just have to work harder. Hardness is not a reflection on intelligence or value; it simply means that something is difficult and requires more work.

I tried going that route first. I told him to take a deep breath and try to slowly work through the lines note by note. Calmly, persistently. He responded with more frustration and tears. I tried again. And then I'm ashamed to say I totally lost it. I yelled. I told him he needed to pull himself together and get over being so emotional about struggling. It went on from there. It wasn't pretty, and I didn't feel good about it afterward.

Thinking about the incident while doing dishes later, I recognized my hypocrisy. I had spent much of an unexpected snow day avoiding my own hard things. Instead of painting or writing or even working on a project for a client, I cooked and cleaned and ran 4 miles and folded laundry, frittering away precious time on easy things. Not easy in terms of the amount of work required, I was exhausted when the day was over, but easy in terms of emotional, mental, and creative effort. Like my son, I constantly struggle with and get anxious about doing certain kinds of work; the difference is that I am a lot better at hiding it from myself and others by doing prodigious amounts of other stuff.

I try to tell myself that being creative is not supposed to be that hard, that I shouldn't get frustrated, that I should take a breath and slowly and persistently push through the difficulty, and perhaps that I should even relax and enjoy it, but the truth is every time I start putting paint to canvas or trying to write a story is a moment of stress, anxiety, and fear. And even when it goes well (which is actually pretty frequent), the terror returns and remains because the next addition of color, the next creative choice could screw it all to hell. I tell myself I shouldn't care. It should be about the process, not the product, but at heart I don't believe that. I tell myself that if I really loved to paint as much as I think I do, it should be easy to get up and do it. But it's not. Just because you love something doesn't make it easy. So painting starts sit for months and sometimes years before I finish them because mustering the courage to push them through the next step is so hard and requires so much emotional energy. (For example, I started Little Bird, the painting at the beginning of this post, five or six years ago and only finally got around to finishing it last September.)

Starting this year, I plan to do better. (I also plan to be more understanding toward my boy.) I've figured out ways to trick myself into running even when it's cold or hot as hell, I'm sore and tired, and I really don't feel like it. Surely I can trick myself into painting and writing more?

In the meantime, while I was avoiding the hard work, I made this shepherd's pie, which turned out to be a huge hit. Inspired by my friend Jeff, who made a shepherd's pie using cauliflower mash instead of mashed potatoes a few weeks ago, I decided to try replacing some of the mashed potatoes with cauliflower. The cauliflower adds a nice, light sweetness to the mash, but is a bit more watery than potatoes are. I may try replacing the potatoes with cauliflower altogether sometime soon, but if/when I do, I will probably need at least two heads of cauliflower and less half and half. I also used a combination of ground beef and loose pork sausage, but you can use any combination you like. And even though I made this meal in part to avoid work, don't be fooled: It's a somewhat time- and labor-intensive recipe, so don't plan to make it on a weeknight. (Unless you have a snow day.)

Shepherd's pie, ingredients

  • 1 large head cauliflower, broken into florets
  • 6 medium yellow potatoes (use any potatoes you like; I just like yellows better)
  • 1/4 cup half and half
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb loose pork sausage
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes, fire roasted is nice but not necessary
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • smoked paprika, salt, and pepper to taste
  • bread crumbs (optional)


  1. Peel the potatoes and boil them in salted water until tender, about 30 minutes.
  2. Steam the cauliflower until tender, about 15-20 minutes depending on your steamer (test the cauliflower with a fork).
  3. Using a ricer (which will make your life easier, I promise), rice the cauliflower and the potatoes into a bowl. Add the half and half and butter and some salt and pepper and stir together until you have a nice even(ish) mash. Taste the mash to make sure you've added enough salt and pepper. Set the mashed potato-cauliflower mixture aside.
  4. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil. Toss in a sliver of onion to test the heat. When it sizzles, add the rest of the onion and cook it for about two minutes. Then add the sausage and the ground beef. 
  5. Cook the meat and onions until the meat is no longer pink. If the meat has some brown bits, bonus! Drain most of the fat from the pan. 
  6. Add the garlic to the pan and let it cook for about a minute (do NOT let it burn). 
  7. Add the tomatoes, water, tomato paste, ketchup, mustard, and perhaps a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper and smoked paprika to the meat in the pan. Stir everything together. Over medium-high heat, let the mixture cook down to a loose mass (the pan should contain some liquid, but the mixture should not be watery). Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper until you like it.
  8. Next, assemble the pie. Pour the meat mixture into a large, oven-safe baking dish (mine is about 13 in. by 9 in.). Shake the dish gently to make sure the meat is somewhat evenly distributed. Then place big spoonfuls of the potato-cauliflower mash over the meat mixture and using the back of a spoon spread it out somewhat evenly. (It's a "rustic" dish; it doesn't have to look perfect.) If you want, spread some bread crumbs or Panko over top of the mashed potatoes. (At this point, you can set aside the pie for a few days and bake it another day.)
  9. Bake the pie for 50-55 minutes in a 450-degree (F) oven. Eat. Enjoy. Try to do the hard things.