Even as the ultimate omnivore, the news about the horsemeat scandal sweeping Europe has made me incredibly sad and angry, especially as it is food at the lower end of the budget scale that appears to have been targeted. My thoughts on this are too long and unoriginal to repeat, but all this made me think even more than usual about how much meat we eat, and how we use that meat. With this in mind, I would much rather buy less meat, but buy smarter and use every single last bit of it well - we have a freezer full of what Andy calls "bones and juice" due to my reluctance to throw out even the smallest chicken bone, but instead chucking it in a large freezer bag until I have enough to provide an unctuous, nurturing stock. The difference that a good stock can make to a soup is indescribable - a velvety depth of flavour that chemical stock just can't provide. Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if things like this were taught, either through community or school - but I suppose that everybody feels that way about their passion.
This was all playing on my mind recently when, driving home from a Saturday market, we spontaneously decided to make a Sunday roast (on a Saturday! Get us, edgy). We bought a smallish piece - a kilo or so - of topside, and it did us proud on the Saturday and for the re-run on the Sunday, with a sandwich or two inbetween. Still having 300g left on the Monday, I wanted to make it into something transformed. While I often go down the curry or chilli route for leftovers, I think with all the news about meat swirling round my brain made me feel the need to return to a much-loved, much older meal. I said to Andy at the time that making this cottage pie made me feel like someone from our grandparent's generation; we all know that it was very much the common pattern back then to have roast on Sunday, pie on Monday, soup on Tuesday. Cottage pie was always made as a way of using up leftover meat - the extra layer of flavour from the ready-roasted meat is exceptional. And how to make a great thing even greater? Put a layer of caramelised onions and cheese on the top, of course.
Finally - to pea or not to pea? I did put peas in mine, but whether that's because I think it's for the best, or because I still have a bag hanging ominously round my freezer despite the fact that we'll be moving soon, I can't honestly say. What I can honestly say is that two of us got four main meals each and a couple of snacks out of that piece of beef, and I'm very grateful that we have the choice and the knowledge to be able to do that, and know exactly what has gone into our mouths.
300g leftover roast beef
1 tablespoon Vegetable oil or duck fat (I used the latter, still having some left in my fridge from Christmas)
Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 heaped tablespoon plain flour
1 litre good beef stock
Salt and pepper
Handful frozen peas
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into even sized chunks.
40g strong cheese (this time I used blue cheese but would usually use strong cheddar), cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon butter
0.25 cup full fat milk or cream
Preheat the oven to 200C.
First, chop your beef up into very small pieces. I am usually super lazy and use the processor, but this time it was elsewhere so I chopped it by hand, which meant I ended up with slightly chunkier pieces.
Chop one of the onions and, in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, fry it in the oil or fat until soft and starting to brown at the edges.
Add the beef, stirring until warm through and starting to brown. Stir in the thyme.
Add the flour, and keep stirring until everything is coated.
Very gradually add the beef stock, keep at it with your wooden spoon until you end up with a thick, smooth gravy. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as you like.
Throw in the peas and mix them in.
Turn down the heat and leave to bubble very gently while you make the mash.
Add the potatoes to a pan with enough cold water to cover them. Put them on a high heat, bring to a boil and add salt. Turn down the heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes, or until tender -when you can stick a knife in it with no resistance.
While these are cooking, slice the onion and fry it in oil or fat until lovely and caramelised. Remove from the heat.
Drain and leave to steam for a minute or so to let most of the moisture leave them. Return them to the warm pan. Now, how much butter and milk or cream you use will depend on your potatoes - what you don't want is an overly butterly, overly liquid mash - it actually needs to be smooth enough to spread over the top of the beef but firm enough not to sink in. So take it easy and add the butter and milk bit by bit, then go generously with the salt and pepper.
Butter a baking dish - I use my 23cm square Le Creuset dish which is a great fit - then scrape the beef mixture in. Dollop the potatoes on top of this, using a silicone spatula to spread them out, then finally top with the caramelised onions and chopped cheese.
Bake for about 20 minutes, until bubbling and the cheese has melted.