Tonight I’m suffering from the culinary equivalent of stage fright. I’m clenching my molars as sweat prickles my underarms. The recipe stares back at me like a dead goldfish about to get the flush; I know that I’ll have to attend to it sooner or later, and it’s not going to go away on its own. However, I’m still a little emo from last night’s catastrophe involving an undercooked log of pork loin, and I’m not anxious to escort another meal outside to the garbage can as my husband calls out, “Dead man walking!”
But what’s really got me all splotchy around the collar is the recipe itself: Christmas Shepherd’s Pie. Two albatrosses hang around my neck, and one of them is a piecrust. Even the pre-made kind dries up, splits and transforms into a broken Frisbee.
Ten minutes later, I’m still staring at the recipe.
“What’s the matter?” my husband asks, pouring a bowl of cereal for dinner.
“This,” I say, pointing to the offending recipe. “Who would want a meat pie?”
“I would,” he says. Of course.
He looks over my shoulder at the recipe. “Honey, it’s not really a pie.”
It’s bad enough being chastised by a 40-year-old man who still watches Saturday morning cartoons in his underwear, but what’s worse is that he’s right. Instead of a piecrust, the recipe calls for mashed potatoes – my other, more arthritic Achilles heel.
I could just give up now, but fifty dollars worth of ingredients would rot in my pantry (okay, so the four bottles of wine account for most of that). But if my Depression-Era father taught me anything, it’s that nothing goes to waste. You can always scrape the top layer of mold from the raspberry jam, and a clump of garlic can remedy any salmon fillet that smells a bit rank. Consequently, whenever I bring out the jar of minced garlic, my husband suddenly feigns a full belly. After fifteen years, he’s well versed in my family’s secrets.
The beef filling comes together easily, though I almost blind myself when I drain the mixed vegetable bath and accidentally drop the dish into the sink, catapulting a single bead of boiling liquid into the corner of my left eye. I can’t even make this stuff up.
My salt isn’t Kosher, my pepper isn’t freshly ground, and I do add a dollop of minced garlic to the mix for good measure, but all systems appear to be “go.”
Now for the mashed potatoes.
I accept that they will be an utter failure, so I invite my 3-year-old daughter to join in. She certainly can’t make things worse, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to pry her away from the “Sponge Bob Square Pants” marathon.
After exactly 20 minutes, I remove the potatoes from the boiling water and begin the whipping process. “Moderately smooth” never happens; “mashed” is just a dream. One stubborn potato stands firm, unyielding to my beating.
What should be a whip looks more like steel-cut oatmeal with golf balls in it. Tater shrapnel peppers the countertop. My daughter covers her face and screams when she’s hit, further shaking my already fragile confidence as a cook and mother.
Exhausted, I give up and decide to fill each ramekin (which sounds like a baby sheep with horns) with my mostly mashed potatoes. I assign my daughter the task of removing the larger, petrified potato remnants. She enjoys using her fingers to massage the potatoes, pausing only to wipe her nose.
I make a mental note to add more garlic.
The cornbread batter goes off without a hitch, probably because I can make anything as long as the directions appear on the back of the box like hieroglyphics. I spoon it on top of my filling and pop my ramekins into the oven.
Strangely enough, my little non-pies turn out pretty good, even a little picturesque with their crusty, golden tops. I’m too exhausted to even try them; this “easy” recipe took me three hours.
The next day, my husband takes two ramekins for lunch of his own free will. The bigger compliment? The containers return empty, save two silver dollar-sized disks: the petrified remains of the most resilient Russet.
Food Editor’s note: Andrea, now that you have “nearly mastered” the Christmas Shepherd’s pie and your family (by family I mean husband) obviously loves it, why not try the same concept and just mix up the protein. Why not a Chicken based Shepherd’s pie… “Fourth of July Shepherd’s Pie” if you will. Or use ground lamb as in a traditional shepherd’s pie and bust it out for an “Easter Shepherd’s Pie” the possibilities and holidays are endless. Congratulations!